As many farmers are forced to expand their operations to stay in business, Ann and Eric Franzenburg found ways to keep their farm small.
The couple, along with their three adult children, operate Pheasant Run Farm near Van Horne, Iowa, which supplies fresh cut flowers, certified-organic produce and medicinal herbs to local markets in eastern and central Iowa, including farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants, floral shops and wholesalers.
Diversification in their products and their buyers has been the key to the success of the farm.
Lilies, snapdragons, zinnias and dahlias are among the many varieties of flowers grown at Pheasant Run, along with niche products, such as miniature "lunchbox" peppers, ginger and Sungold tomatoes. All are raised inside a series of heated greenhouses, where seedlings are planted as early as February.
Pheasant Run also grows traditional row crops of corn and soybeans, as well as culinary and
medicinal herbs, including milk thistle seed, which is sold on the wholesale market. The farm is a rarity, rotating between corn, soybeans and medicinal herbs, so some of the farmland that is in traditional row crops also is certified organic.
Ann says the goal is to achieve the certified organic distinction for the entire farm, even when it comes to the conventional crops, a process that can be time-consuming — extensive documentation is required — and expensive, though the cost can be offset by the additional revenue garnered by organic items.
While the business aspect is one reason to go organic, being good stewards of the land is the Franzenburgs' underlying philosophy.
"We enjoy working in a system where we don't have to worry about being exposed to pesticides," Ann says. "We feel that we don't really 'own' the land; we're just stewards who take care of it, and this is the best way to be stewards of the land for the next generation."
That generation could be at least one of the couple's children. Their son, Calvin, had been
working as an electrician, but decided to farm with his parents. Their daughter, Ellen, helps at
the farmers markets and their youngest child, Grant, just graduated from high school and will be
attending Iowa State University to study food science.
Having their children involved in the family business was another underlying objective behind
the farm operation. "They all grew up having to work on the farm," Ann says. "They learned a
good work ethic and how to work together as a group to accomplish a goal."
She and her husband are full-time farmers, but that wasn't always the case. Ann, who grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, worked as an English and French teacher for years before deciding to put all of her efforts into farming almost 10 years ago, after attending a growers expo that included a daylong series on specialty cut flowers.
"It planted the seed to think it was something I could do and earn a living at," she says.
Ann hired a mentor who had a flower farm in northern Iowa and belonged to the Association of
Specialty Cut Flower Growers. "Because of her, I was a couple years ahead of the game."
Pheasant Run's first flower-growing season was in 2008, the same year an epic flood wiped out
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the popular Downtown Farmers Market in Cedar Rapids — one of the markets where Pheasant
Run sells its cut flowers by the stem.
The farm initially began in 1991 when the couple returned to Eric's family farm, a traditional operation with corn, soybeans and hogs.
They quickly learned that securing additional land was difficult because rent was high and the competition for acres was fierce. "Rather than go into debt to get larger, we decided to investigate alternative crops that might yield more dollars per acre," they note on their website, pheasantrunfarmiowa.com.
Eric, who has a background in agricultural research, was approached about writing a grant
proposal and research for a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education study on cultural
practices for culinary herbs in Iowa.
Before growing flowers, the couple primarily raised tomatoes in a greenhouse. Ann attributes the subsequent growth of their specialty crops to her husband. All of their produce is grown in the greenhouses, too.
"It all started because he doesn't like to see an empty greenhouse," she says, with a laugh.
The two believe the greenhouses provide better quality growing conditions compared to the outdoors, Ann says. The majority of the year, the greenhouses are populated with colorful flowers, including dahlias, plus ginger plants, English greenhouse cucumbers, sunflowers and towering tomato plants that bear fruit beginning in June.
Ann credits New Pioneer Food Co-op with providing fair prices for their lunchbox peppers, for
which Pheasant Run is the co-op's primary grower. The farm supplies Sungold tomatoes and ginger to the co-op, too. The farm's milk thistle seed goes to the Eclectic Institute in Portland, Ore., where it is processed and returned to New Pi stores in Iowa in supplement form under the Eclectic Institute label.
"They're excellent," Ann says of New Pi, which has stores in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids and
Coralville. "They really walk the talk and support local growers."
The majority of Pheasant Run's flowers are sold at farmers markets, including the Downtown
Farmers Market in Cedar Rapids and the Iowa City Farmers Market. Florists also buy direct from the farm, and Ann supplies and designs flowers for weddings and special events.
Teresa Hermsen, owner of Timber Gate Gardens in Belle Plaine, stopped by the farm recently to pick up an order of fragrant lilies and an assortment of other flowers.
"Ann's my lifesaver. She's very accommodating," Hermsen says, adding that she prefers
being able to buy local. "Her flowers are so much prettier and fuller and fragrant because they
haven't traveled so far."