Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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This will be good for us when we're older
College cash method a way of life for locals

by Steve Targo

August 16, 2012

BLOOMFIELD — It's not often you hear an 18-year-old woman say she grew up without television.

"We only got 12 channels," Rachel Spek said, sitting at a table opposite her boyfriend, 20-year-old Luke Lilla, under a screened-in pavilion behind a pole barn at Hafs Road Orchard. "And it wasn't like cable or anything."

So they had TV, but listening to Spek and Lilla talk about why they decided to grow vegetables to make money for college this year, they clearly didn't spend much time in front of it.

Yes, grow vegetables — something else you don't hear young adults talk about too often.

Sure, they have more traditional jobs on the side — Spek at The Baker House, Lake Geneva; Lilla a chef at Fitzgerald's Octagon House, Genoa City — but growing vegetables has become this couple's way of life. They have been growing everything from cucumbers to eggplants, potatoes to tomatoes, and selling them at farmers markets in Lake Geneva, Union Grove, Kenosha and Fontana. Spek and Lilla also are selling what they've grown to two Lake Geneva restaurants — the Baker House and Simple.

Thanks to some vital support from orchard owner Richard Polanski, the couple saved on startup costs. They spent about $500 to get what they needed to grow zuccinis, cucumbers, raddishes and other vegetables. So far, they have made about $4,500.

And Lilla said there are still three more months of markets in which they can sell vegetables, and "potentially, that figure could double."

"I'll be going to school this year with more money in my pocket than I did last year," he said.

But in this way of life, it's not just about money.

"Something we've always said since we started doing this is this will be good for us when we're older," Spek said.

Concrete apples

There's a bit of serendipity behind the story of how Lilla, Spek and Polanski launched this endeavor.

Spek and Lilla grew up near each other on more than 5 acres of land near Pell Lake Drive. Since she was 14, Spek worked for Polanski.

Her memory of her first day at the orchard is a surreal one.

"(Polanski) had this concrete all wet in a pail, and we were making concrete apples with paper clips in them," Spek said. "They were used to hang on the branches of young trees. It's to train the branches, so they don't grow up, they grow outwards."

They may not have had cable growing up, but Spek and Lilla had the outdoors.

While Spek worked at the orchard, Lilla was an Eagle Scout and had a grass cutting business — the latter likely an influence from his mom, a landscape artist.

But he also worked with Debbie Polanski, Richard's wife, at Brighton Garden Center, Burlington.

So everybody knew everybody, and when it came time for Richard to consider help around the orchard this year, it initially looked grim.

"The deal was, there's not a lot to do in the orchard because of a terrible crop year," he said. "So I said if you want to make some money, you're not going to do it on my payroll."

What they came up with is something Richard said he wouldn't have offered to anyone else — they could use his land to grow vegetables, tap into his irrigation line and use his equipment. Rent-free.

"A venture like this would be impossible (because) for somebody to buy this stuff it would be a huge investment," Richard said. "But it's a really great way to learn things about not only growing (vegetables) but learning how to figure out strategies, how to get things done."

He also loaned the couple books, which they said gave them plenty of things to try. Some of them even worked.

From basement to greenhouse

To get started, Spek and Lilla purchased grow lights, seeds, soil and fertilizer.

They began planting March 1, Spek said, in a basement.

She said they couldn't start in the orchard greenhouse yet because there wasn't a heating system. They needed to control temperature and light.

"You can have an entire field in a 20-by-10 room," Lilla said.

What they started in the basement they moved into the greenhouse in mid-March. Lilla said they planted cold weather crops such as spinach, peas, raddishes and lettuce. Spek said on May 20, they began planted warm weather crops — zucchini, cucumber, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, beans and potatoes.

"We were still in the midst of growing things when we took what we had to the markets," she said.

Lilla said growing in the basement early helped, "because if you have fresh vegetables before everybody has fresh vegetables, you're going to sell a lot of them."

But their new job presented its own challenges.

Spek said geese from a nearby marsh ate their first crop of lettuce.

"It could have potentially made $800," Lilla said about the crop.

The couple came up with a plan to stop the geese from eating their vegetables. They drove stakes into the ground at 6- and 12-inch intervals and ran curtain string across them.

"I didn't think it was going to work," Richard said with a smile. "It definitely worked."

How would Richard, who has owned the orchard since 1982, rate this couple as would-be farmers? He said they did better than he thought, but agriculture, like business, takes time to absorb. And there are things which become more important in a farmer's life, such as the weather.

"Farming is a really complicated thing, as they're figuring out," Richard said. "And of course, nature doesn't care."

Power of ourselves

As Lilla and Spek prepare for a year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — Spek studying architecture, Lilla civil engineering — it appears they have already realized what makes them happy.

So why college?

Spek said being an architect has been her dream since she was little. She said one of her heroes, Frank Lloyd Wright, started a farm and touted a design philosophy which used nature as its example.

Lilla, who studied environmental engineering previously at UW-Parkside, was an Eagle Scout and had a lawn mowing business. The question of why college made him think a moment.

"I did want to know the skills of engineering," he said, adding he wonders if he still wants to, but in college, one has the chance to learn from masters of a profession, and engineering is "something to fall back on."

Their belief in themselves, however, didn't seem to ever be called into question during their agricultural endeavor.

"We were pretty adamant about making this work," Spek said. "It had to."

Lilla called it "an active protest" against ways of life he tried but didn't like, such as working in a factory. He said he can't see himself wearing a suit, working in an office. Lilla also said he sees others his age who don't seem to want to work for their money.

But he didn't want to be someone who just says those kind of things, either.

"I feel like we grew up in a lazier generation," Lilla said. "We felt this was a way for us to practice what we preach."

Which is what, exactly?

"I think we just fall into the category of believing in the power of ourselves," Lilla said.