Bursting with energy at Lewis Produce
I first met Marlen Lewis at the Ag Building in Holdrege, Nebraska, on a blustery, gray March afternoon. We relinquished our Saturday afternoon because an invitation from Caryl Guisinger, Nebraska Food Co-op general manager, intrigued us. Growers, bakers, makers and people like me who buy local fresh produce were asked to meet and learn about a new concept for distributing Nebraska fresh food products. We blew in the west door of the building, sat in the metal folding chairs and introduced ourselves.
“I grow vegetables for farmers’ markets in south central Nebraska on a farm near Orleans,” said the tall and well-spoken man sitting behind me. In our brief conversation following the meeting, I asked to learn more about his business as a vegetable grower and seller. We agreed to an interview in June when his garden was nearing its high point of production.
Now, it’s well past June, gardens are deep green, bursting with energy and new growth, and Marlen Lewis and I are connecting on a bright, warm morning at his garden, Lewis Produce, near Orleans. Jonathan David, a gardening assistant and grower who is employed at Lewis Produce, joins us. Two high tunnels loom large in the background. Tomatoes, cucumbers and squash plants stand tall in the high tunnels, and I see rows of green outside the high tunnels and acres behind them.
Growing a different kind of crop
Lewis says that following his retirement from a full career as an industrial arts teacher and basketball coach, he had time to start an entrepreneurial business.
“I always was interested in gardening, and in 2010 I bought a high tunnel and one year later, I bought another one,” he says. “I believe high tunnels are the ideal way to raise vegetables in Nebraska because they control for variations in weather and especially wind and hail, and if I were 20 years younger, I would farm entirely with high tunnels.”
Lewis spoke with authority and experience about his selection of tomato varieties growing in the high tunnels.
“I select varieties that produce best in high tunnels, and we plant Big Beef and Celebrity tomatoes and Diva cucumbers,” he says. Swiss chard is growing tall in the high tunnels, and every deep green and large leaf looks like a vitamin factory to me.
Organic garden standards
Lewis Produce vegetables are grown naturally, meaning they use only chemicals acceptable to organic garden standards. For example, they combat voracious squash beetles by sprinkling self-rising flour on the plant.
Lewis and David irrigate with a drip system. Organic fertilizers are delivered through the drip tape.
Growing with nature and without harmful chemicals is a challenging way to make a living, and Lewis researches the organic farming literature for answers to perplexing questions. He most often explores solutions with his colleagues who also farm organically – Dr. Tom Tomas in Orleans and Tom Schwarz, who farms near Smithfield. Both have been featured in past issues of Nebraska Rural Living.
Lewis Produce is sold at farmers’ markets in Orleans, Alma, Beaver City and Norton, Kansas, and also on the Nebraska Food Co-op website.
“I like Nebraska Food Co-op because travel expense is eliminated from the equation,” Lewis says.
“We also price our vegetables a bit higher on the Nebraska Food Co-op website and improve the profits.”
Starting them early
In early February, Lewis and David start lettuce and cabbage from seed inside the high tunnels, and the seedlings are planted outside in March. All tomatoes also start from seed in the high tunnels and grow both inside and outside in rows.
“Pollinating presents a problem in the high tunnels because honey bees and other pollinator insects don’t like flying inside the high tunnels,” Lewis says. “We assist in the pollination process by distributing the pollen with a leaf blower.”
Lewis grows 300 head of cabbage, 1,000 sweet potatoes, three acres of sweet corn, one-quarter acre of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, onions and Swiss chard.
“I raise my own plants, and start planting seeds on the first of February,” he says. “We harvest through the summer and are finally finishing the year by harvesting sweet potatoes in the fall after the first frost.
“Growing vegetables is just a lot of work,” Lewis concludes with a look of steel in his eyes and determination in his voice.
David nods his head in agreement and adds, “I get a lot of satisfaction from growing a plant from seed and seeing it mature into a delicious vegetable. I enjoy working outside on the farm, and I like knowing what we eat is grown naturally and without pesticides and herbicides.”
Lewis smiles in response.