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Barb Pohlman stands in the high tunnel structure that enables her to bring tomatoes to market early in the season.

The Tomato Queen: Retired teacher will devote more time to her other enterprises

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HERON LAKE -- Barb Pohlman is familiar with every nook and cranny of Southwest Star Concept School and has been known to scour every square inch of it in search of something. But somehow, the staff and students of the school kept her retirement present -- a very large present -- hidden and out of the reach of her keen eye.

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"Not one kid spilled the beans," said Pohlman, shaking her head in amazement. "They'd been working on it for a month, just hoping I wouldn't go on a mission to find something."

All the conspiring and secrecy paid off when Pohlman was presented with -- and completely surprised by --a hand-painted barn quilt on the day of her retirement party. It now hangs toward the peak of the barn at the Pohlman farm in rural Heron Lake, a constant reminder to Barb of her career as a special education teacher and the many students that she guided along the way.

Born to teach

Barb was hardly out of her teens herself when she began teaching. At age 17, she graduated from Windom High School and then breezed through college in just three years.

"So I got my first teaching job at 20 years old -- second-graders in St. James from '66 to '67," she said. "Then I came to Heron Lake and taught third grade in '67. Then they flip-flopped me, so I had some kids twice in both third and fifth grades. I taught elementary until '79, when I resigned and stayed home to have a family."

Barb and husband Paul, a farmer, had three children: Amy (Nate), who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and is a counselor for the state of Ohio; Ryan, who lives in Lakefield and works in the family farm operation; and Julie (Jeff), who is currently teaching in Sweden. They have one grandchild, Matthias, 2 -- son of Amy and Nate. All of the Pohlman children have education degrees of some sort.

"When I was home, I did tutoring for a private agency," explained Barb about her years as a not-so-stay-at-home mom. "One of my students was a young Down syndrome girl with cancer; I'd take the kids, and we'd go up and have class in the hospital."

Eventually Barb began to substitute teach in all the area schools, until she was hired to work with five seventh-grade boys with special needs. That assignment eventually evolved into a permanent 7-12 special education position. In college, she had minored in special education, and with a "life license" from the state, Barb was able to teach special education without returning to college.

"I was always half or three-quarters time," Barb noted. "That way, I could teach, and I could farm. The TRA (Teachers Retirement Association) gives me credit for 35 years."

Math became her particular specialty, and Barb came up with silly sayings that helped her students remember the formulas and posted them all over the classroom. She was also known for her demonstrations of a unique talent.

"As an elementary teacher, we had these ugly green health books -- I hated those things, so outdated, so stupid -- but they had a drawing of the muscles of the esophagus and how the muscles worked no matter the position -- so I trained myself to drink water while standing on my head. I even had to do it at my retirement party."

Although she thoroughly enjoyed teaching, the decision to retire was something Barb had been mulling for a few years.

"I hit the rule of 90 three or four years ago, but every time I said I was going to quit, a student would say, 'You've got to make sure I graduate,'" she related.

This time, however, Barb's decision was firm.

The gift

The barn quilt was the perfect retirement gift for Barb, an avid quilter and seamstress. She'd been showing pictures of barn quilts to husband Paul for several years, but hadn't gotten around to making or acquiring one herself. A barn quilt is a handpainted replica of a fabric quilt, its pattern usually chosen to represent the farm family. The Pohlman barn quilt is painted in three appropriate colors -- green, gold and black.

"Green and yellow are John Deere colors," explained Barb, who has curtains imprinted with the John Deere logo hanging in her kitchen. "But they also represent the corn and soybeans that we raise, with the black being the soil."

The gift is all the more special because it was painted by her colleagues and students and because of an annual school history project. Each year, when the social studies class was studying the Civil War, Barb would help the students create replicas of Civil War quilts, which were used to relay messages to slaves who were seeking their freedom.

"When the black women would clean the white masters' homes, they would air out the quilts and pass along message to others on the Underground Railroad," she explained. "Crafty Corner and Prairie Quilting donated the materials, and I would make up a kit for each kid, with the material all cut and directions on how to sew it. I would size all the blocks and put it together over Christmas vacation, then when they came back from vacation, the students would come in and tie their blocks, which also added a message to the quilt, so each block gave a different message."

Active retirement

Barb may have retired from teaching, but she has plenty of other endeavors to fill her time. She works right alongside her husband and son on the farm, never hesitating to climb behind the wheel of a combine, tractor or whatever piece of machinery is required for the job at hand.

And if she's not in the field, she might be found in her large garden or at one of the farmers markets around the area. Barb became a market vendor about 10 years ago.

"It started when (daughter) Julie was a ninth-grader, and she was in FFA and needed a project," Barb recalled. "I was out in the field spraying beans, when I came up with this idea. I'd load her and the produce and tables into the truck and go into Windom, where I'd drop her off, and then I'd come back to the farm and work before I had to go pick her up again. That got to be her college fund, and it just kept expanding. We used to do just Windom, then we added Spirit Lake, then Heron Lake, and now Worthington last year."

Eventually the project became a family affair, with Julie showcasing her talent for arranging flowers from her mother's garden.

"She would arrange them into the most beautiful bouquets. She could make the prettiest stuff," Barb described. "At the market, she'd have people six to eight deep waiting to buy those flowers. Three of us would have to go; Paul and I would sell the vegetables, and she'd handle the flowers."

With Julie in Sweden, the farmers market enterprise is now in Barb's hands, and she travels to five markets and employs several helpers through the growing season.

"Tuesday is a long day, with the Worthington market and Spirit Lake. I have a huge antique cooler in one shed, and we pile all the stuff in there," Barb said. "Brooke and Sami Freking (sixth- and fourth-graders who are cousins a couple times removed) come out and do the washing of all the vegetables. Loretta Bartosh helps me with the markets."

Barb's acre-plus garden yields most of the produce, but she also maintains a strawberry patch and more recently constructed a high tunnel hoop house where she grows all her tomatoes. The structure allows her to bring tomatoes to the markets weeks earlier than most of her competitors, and the plants it houses are currently bursting with blossoms and large green fruits.

"People are already asking, 'When are the tomatoes going to be ready"' said Barb, who has also shared her gardening and marketing expertise on three church synod mission trips to South Africa.

"In a small space, you can raise a lot of food for a lot of people," she added about the South African efforts.

Because of her high-quality merchandise and early tomatoes, Barb has been dubbed "the Tomato Queen," but she also answers to the moniker "Towel Lady" at the markets. In her spare time, she machine-embroiders kitchen towels that have also become a hot commodity.

With all her outside interests, Barb doesn't anticipate having any trouble filling the time void left by her retirement.

"I could be dangerous this next year -- all this extra time," she said with a laugh. "But I just want to be able to read a book straight through, eat a meal with out correcting papers at the same time," and travel to visit her children and grandchild, she later added.

"And I can actually feel good about what I've done," she reflected about her teaching career. "I walked out of there and felt like I've done the best I could do. I've had so many students come up to me and give me a hug and say, 'Thanks for believing in me.' You give them a feeling of worth. In my room, there was no such word as 'can't.'"

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Beth Rickers
Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  
(507) 376-7327
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