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Farmer’s crop flourishes in greenhouse

Barbara Pohlman grows vegetables in the greenhouse before planting them in the high tunnel. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / Daily Globe)1 / 2
Barb and Josie Pohlman working on cucumbers in the high tunnel. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / Daily Globe)2 / 2

HERON LAKE — At Barbara Pohlman’s farm, located just east of Heron Lake, one structure sticks out. Adjacent to a pen of enthusiastic golden brown chickens stands a large, semi-translucent, white cylindrical building that serves as the farm’s primary moneymaker.

It’s Pohlman’s 12th season growing produce in the high tunnel greenhouse. The high tunnel accommodates 105 tomato plants and a batch of cucumber plants in the rear. It offers a bevy of advantages — for one, it keeps everything warm. On a sunny spring day, the greenhouse becomes a sauna, surpassing 100 very humid degrees.

“Even in the wintertime with snow on the ground, if the sun is out, you can sit out here in and it’s 60 or 70 — the doors might be frozen, that's the only problem,” Pohlman said.

The cylindrical walls and ceiling protect the vegetables from various flying insects, spores and the elements, resulting in “picture perfect” tomatoes. Because of the warm, comfortable environment, Pohlman can start growing her tomatoes early.

“That’s what it’s for — to extend the season to get a jumpstart in the spring,” Pohlman said. “I can get stuff ready in here two, three weeks earlier than the other vendors.”

Pohlman sells her produce at Worthington, Windom and Heron Lake farmers markets one day a week and at the Spirit Lake, Iowa, market two days a week.

She was one of the first vendors in the area to implement the high tunnel growing system. Being able to sell her produce so early in the spring left some in disbelief.

“Customers figured we were shipping these in — we had people checking up on us to make sure we were on the up and up,” Pohlman said.

Recent federal grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service have led to high tunnels being erected everywhere, but it was Pohlman who started the movement.

She has even spread the high tunnel gospel to another continent. In 2008, Pohlman went to South Africa on a series of mission trips to help improve farming for many of the inhabitants. Naturally, the high tunnel became a viable idea to create a safe, productive farming environment.

Pohlman made visits in total, eventually getting the infrastructure set up. She also showed some African farmers her own farm so they could learn hands-on.

“They were really eager to learn and do things in a better way,” Pohlman said.

She has been farming her whole life. She taught school for 35 years, but always made sure to work the combine in her free time.

The Pohlman family moved to their Heron Lake farm in 1995. There, Pohlman lives with her son Ryan, daughter-in-law Sarah and their children, Josie and Lillie.

Three-year old Josie is “grandma’s helper,” assisting Pohlman with farm activities on a daily basis. Josie can’t wait until growing season officially starts, so she can pick vegetables for a nice snack whenever she wants. She’ll have quite the selection to choose from, including carrots, cucumbers, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, flowers, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, muskmelon, radishes, onions and corn.

“I’m gonna try all the vegetables, because I want to,” Josie boasted.

The family-owned and operated business has been sailing smoothly, though it hit a hitch last summer, when tragedy struck.

Paul Pohlman, Barb’s husband, unexpectedly died last August at age 77. Melanoma reached his brain, causing a rapid decline of health.

“We didn’t have any warning,” Pohlman said. “One day he passed out in the yard, and that was the end of it.”

Pohlman found herself receiving support from an unexpected source: her customers.

“At Spirit Lake, I only know a handful of people’s names, because they hand me a check, but when my husband passed away, I could not believe the sympathy cards I got — I looked at them and thought, ‘who are you?’” Pohlman said. “But I definitely appreciate it.”

Because of Pohlmans’ high quality produce, missions to Africa and to honor her late husband’s legacy, the Pohlman family was named the 2017 Jackson County Farm Family.

“When I first read the letter, I got a little emotional, and I thought, ‘well, we’ve worked hard for it, and we built this up,’” Pohlman said. “It is a special honor.”

Soon, her vegetables will be coming to market, along with farm fresh eggs and homemade quilts.

“It’s like the one-stop place,” Pohlman said. “If they know you’ve got those farm fresh eggs, they’ll grab some and say, ‘OK, I'll take some beets, I’ll take some broccoli and whatever else,’ once you’ve got them there.”

Just make sure to show up early to Pohlman’s stand at the Saturday Spirit Lake farmer’s market from the second week of July until the first week in August, the peak season where customers are in a frenzy to get fresh produce.

“It’s a free-for-all,” she said with a laugh.

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