As I get older, I find many friends and colleagues becoming more concerned with their diets, praising the virtues of fresh vegetables and organic foods. Though some proselytize a bit much for me, I listen politely to most of them, even when they try to turn me vegan. I’m not ready for that. I like to eat, pretty much everything. No vegan has been able to convince me that organic bean paste is better than a blood-red steak. But fresh, organic stuff tastes darned good to me, too. That’s why I am one of The Pickery’s most loyal customers. You just can’t get any fresher than something you pick yourself. And Laurie Elliott’s new business provides me a place I can do just that, with two acres full of dozens of different certified organic vegetables growing just outside Terre Haute.
Laurie graduated in 1978 from Terre Haute’s State High School, the last class before the school closed. She left for Indiana University, after which she moved to Pennsylvania and worked in accounting and data management. She became more and more interested in gardening, to the point where she was spending a lot of time in her 30×30 foot garden. She enjoyed it so much, she decided she wanted to buy a farm and try something on a larger scale.
“I started looking around for a suitable piece of property, checking various places where I had lived before or had relatives or friends. And this 15-acre place popped up in Terre Haute that was just what I was looking for.” So she bought it, moved back to Terre Haute in August of 2014, and got to work.
First came the research, not just on starting a vegetable farm, but starting a “certified organic” business. “I thought I was doing everything organically in my garden, but I was doing so many things wrong. I learned so much from the organic application process.”
Laurie wasn’t fully aware of the hoops she would have to jump through for her produce to be labeled “organic.” She had to apply and pay for a permit, submit a plan specifying the types of seeds, soil, fertilizer, and pest control she would use, among many other things. Her operation was eventually approved by Ecocert, an organic certification company that conducts inspections in over 80 countries and has an office in Greenwood. They did an onsite visit and she was good to go. Then came the real work.
She began preparing her soil last fall. “I had a big field of grass, and I underestimated how difficult it would be to control it all organically,” Laurie said.
“I have since found out I can use corn gluten, but it has to come from organic corn, so it’s hard to find and very expensive.” Still, she plans on trying it before the next crop as a pre-emergent herbicide.
Next, she had to plan her crop and purchase organic seeds for everything. “Some things could be planted straight into the soil, but many things I started inside my house in little pots.” She set up shelving and grow lights and planted seedlings, including over 1000 tomato plants “and probably about that many pepper plants.” In March, all those budding little 2-6-inch plants were toted out to the field and planted by hand. “Turns out I underestimated the amount and cost of labor a bit, too,” Laurie offered with a smile. “It’s such a huge learning process, and there really wasn’t anyone around here doing this to mentor me.” She currently employs five people and her two children.
Laurie learns something new every day. “I never could grow cabbages back in Pennsylvania, but mine turned out well this year and got great reviews.” Her radicchio plants surprised her, too. “I bought eight dollars worth of seeds and devoted about 20 feet to them. And they came up as some kind of random horrible-tasting lettuce that looked nothing like radicchio.” The seed company refunded her eight dollars after she sent them pictures and argued with them, but she was still out the time and effort and labor and space and had no product to sell. Another lesson learned.
Laurie hopes to be open into October with acorn and butternut squash, kale, and collard greens still coming up. What else is there? Dozens of different tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, cabbage, squash, zucchini, eggplant, green beans, purple and yellow beans, cucumbers, basil, turnips, kale, snow peas, collard greens, beets, rutabaga, kohlrabi, cantaloupe, and I saw some asparagus and Brussels sprouts and broccoli coming up, too, although they aren’t ready yet. Of course, it’s not all available every week. You can check her web site or get on her mailing list to find out what is available each week.
Despite some setbacks, Laurie looks very content passing out scissors and buckets and bags at the makeshift table set up next to the field, explaining to the kids and grownups alike what is ready to be picked, where it is, and how to pick it. And if you don’t want to go out and do it yourself, you’ll generally find things she has already picked waiting in containers next to the table.
When I asked her what was most gratifying about the entire operation, her answer was immediate: “The joy that people have when they come out here, especially the kids.” I can vouch for that. During the summer months, when school is out, I watch my grandchildren a couple of days a week. One of my favorite things to do with them is wander the rows of the Pickery, talking about how things grow, examining bugs, catching pesky cabbage moths in butterfly nets and getting dirty and sweaty. Sometimes we go home with some weird plant we have never seen, which they have pulled up by the roots or cut from a stalk with the little child-safe scissors Laurie provides them. We’ll take that kohlrabi or whatever and wash it and find a recipe and cook it up together. And we’ll eat it and we might like it or not, but it doesn’t matter.
The Pickery is going to be open every day starting August 1. You can find it at 3279 Margaret Avenue in Terre Haute. You can also find it at http://www.thepickery.net and on Facebook. And they’ll put you on their mailing list so you know each week what is available.
The Pickery produces great produce (that’s both a homograph and a heteronym, in case you wondered). But maybe even more importantly, it provides a warm experience. It makes people smile and feel good. Laurie Elliott is trying something different and cool. I hope she makes it.