By Betsy Peirce, Produce Manager
Canoe Creek Produce Farm located north of the town of Decorah, started off as an acreage owned by Barb and Kevin Kraus. At the time they were a busy family with three kids and two full-time jobs. Kevin worked as a professor at Luther College and Barb as a Veterinarian. Their busy life did not allow them much time to spend on the farm. Between all the trips to town for school activities and chores at their other family farm (a Heritage Farm that has been in the Beard Family for 150 years!) where they were raising cattle, they were maxed out.
Barb Kraus began toying with the idea of becoming a farmer by installing a large flock of chickens that produced many more eggs than their family could eat. She cooked up an idea to sell them at the Farmers market on Saturdays, and they quickly became a hot selling item. Customers would ask their friends before heading to Market “does Barb have any eggs left?” and most often the answer was “they’re gone.” You had to be an early bird to get Canoe Creek Eggs. She also sold them to the Oneota Community Food Co-op for many years before she ever sold vegetables. I remember customers waiting for egg deliveries so they could snatch up two or three dozen before they were gone – they were that good. The reason was the care and freedom she gave those birds. They were set on a rotation in their “chicken tractor” to graze on the lush grass filled with nutritious bugs all over the farm. Unfortunately high grain prices made it unfeasible financially for her to continue that part of her business, but it’s sure fun to reminisce about those amazing Canoe Creek eggs.
In 1999 Barb made the decision to leave her career of 11 years as a Veterinarian to begin full time vegetable and poultry farming. It was time – the kids needed a chauffeur for their many activities in town, it freed her up to make money as a gardener and to use all that fertile land they were living on. While growing up Barb and her siblings had always helped her mom in the garden, but Barb did not view it as a chore – she truly loved gardening.
She says of her transition from Veterinarian to gardener that it was “a little scary.” She said people had a hard time understanding her decision to leave one career that had status for another that many people had less regard for. Luckily, the perception of people toward vegetable farmers has really shifted, on a national level as well as in our rural area where local growers are sometimes elevated to local celebrity status. Local growers are especially revered at the Oneota Community Co-op where they even have their own pin-up posters hanging in the store!
As the business progressed, it became clear that she could produce more with a little help from the sun and some plastic. Barb’s next idea was to extend her growing season by purchasing a hoop house. The hoop house has no heat or electricity but simply insulates crops from the elements by using the sun to heat the structure and the tunnel to trap and contain the heat. It has extended her growing season by two months – one on either end of the growing year. Along with every good thing there comes challenges. With the tunnel she has had to acquire a whole new set of gardening skills. The learning curve has provided her with the opportunity to learn about: pruning and trellising tomatoes from the rafters, figuring out how to trap soil heat near the plants when the outside temperatures are in the single digits, ventilating and irrigation challenges when summer temperatures are hot and lastly, disease and pest problems unique to hoop house gardening. She says learning the new techniques is both fun and frustrating – definitely an ongoing process.
Certified Organic since 2010, Canoe Creek Produce now sells the Co-op a large variety of specialty products throughout the year. Many customers eagerly await the early spring spinach that has overwintered in her fields. Barb has mastered the technique of planting in the autumn for an early spring crop of extra sweet spinach. The colder temps make for a higher sugar content.
Other specialty crops customers at the Co-op especially love are her tender salad greens delicately sprinkled with edible orange, purple and yellow flowers. Arugula, a pungent herb, is a staple for many throughout the growing season. She also grows rare vegetables not commonly found on the shelves in grocery stores like Mache, a crunchy spring green, and sorrel, a lovely lemony salad green and herb. My favorite is the Mexican Sour Cucumbers which look like tiny watermelons and impart a tangy lemon burst along with the cucumber flavor.
We are so fortunate to have growers who grow what they love. And we love having growers who can innovate and create their own markets simply by having beautiful unique local products. Thank you Canoe Creek Produce!