Leaning Shed Farm has evolved into something that owners Dave and Denise Dyrek never envisioned when they bought their 30-acre piece of property in rural Berrien Springs, Michigan.
While living and working in Chicago, the couple bought their farm in 2004 as a weekend getaway from the city. They wanted a place to simply drive a couple of hours from their home in Humboldt Park and then hang out at the beach along the shores of Lake Michigan just a few miles away. Planting their first vegetable garden at the farm changed their way of thinking and their way of life.
Before buying their rural property, Dave owned and operated a successful heating and air conditioning business in Chicago while Denise worked in the hotel industry there. After working in the city all week, they looked forward to spending their weekends in the quiet solitude of their pastoral setting. Although not planning to “farm,” the Dyreks planted a 30 by 30 foot garden to grow vegetables for their own use. They discovered they enjoyed working the soil, and the garden grew bigger each year. Over time, the garden grew to the point that Dave and Denise were spending their entire weekends working in the garden and never even making it to the beach.
The gardens continued to expand to the point that Dave decided in 2009 to sell his business in the city and devote his time to gardening. Denise kept her hotel job and continues to commute back and forth, but spends as much time as possible helping Dave on the farm and at the farmers markets.
Visiting the farm was a real treat for my cohorts and me. Driving up to their property and pulling into the driveway, we could immediately see the namesake of the farm. What first greets the eye is truly an old storage shed so off kilter that it is held up on one side by a huge maple tree, but it is still used as storage for tools and equipment. Meeting Dave and Denise made the drive to southwest Michigan worth the effort. Both were congenial, friendly, and obviously happy as they gave us a complete tour of their gardens and explained their crops and farming methods to us.
The idea of farming in Michigan brings to most people’s minds short growing seasons and a colder climate. However, the proximity of nearby Lake Michigan tempers the climate of the area and allows for a somewhat lengthy time frame for growing a large variety of fruits and vegetables. As far as fruits go, there are pears, apples, and a few acres of grapes on the property. The Dyreks, however, do not put any time and effort to caring for the grapes because they contract those out to the Welch’s company. They prefer to focus on growing heirloom vegetables for their expanding clientele of loyal chefs and farmers market customers. They have even removed a number of acres of grapes to make room for expansion of their vegetable gardens.
Tomatoes are the number one crop at Leaning Shed Farm, but Dave says he doesn’t want to grow the usual round, red tomato and long green cucumber, but looks for fun things to grow. He searches for something out of the ordinary in shape, size, and color, which is what led him to explore heirloom varieties and to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. To get the variety of tomatoes that he wants, he has to start everything from seeds. It was a both visual and a tasty treat to visit his tomato and cucumber patches and experience the little round cucumbers and oddly shaped tomatoes, of which he grows more than 70 varieties. He does point out, though, that many people talk about the benefits of heirlooms and appear to want them, but when it comes time to buy, they head right for the hybrids with their perfect shape and beauty.
The Dyreks have existed thus far with no real hired help and have been able to rely on volunteer assistance. The location of Leaning Shed Farm makes it a nice vacation spot for family and friends to visit, which also allows the Dyreks to get some volunteer work for their gardens. He said that everyone comes and wants to volunteer—for a short time. Some volunteers are soon shocked into reality about how much physical work actually goes into growing a crop, while others tend like the farm and come back for repeat working vacations. Dave does foresee having to hire help in the future if the farm continues to grow, as it is getting to be too labor intensive for just him, Denise and volunteers to keep up with it all.
Dave may be known as the “tomato man,” but he also has a great selection of garlic. Growing six hard-neck varieties on one/half acre, he supplies restaurants with 500-600 pounds of premium garlic during the season. He describes the painstaking work of planting garlic as it is all hands-and-knees work that lasts from mid-October till the ground freezes. After the garlic is planted, it is heavily mulched with more than 350 bales of straw. There is also a good market for garlic scapes, the edible and delicious flower stems that garlic plants produce before the bulbs mature. When harvested while they are young and tender, the scapes are a good market item, particularly for Dave, who manages to provide them later in the season when other market growers have depleted their supplies.
As with his desire to grow unusual tomatoes, Dave used to tell himself that he would never grow a green bell pepper. Looking through seed catalogs, however, he found that there are a thousand different varieties of green peppers and was sure he could find some to grow that were not readily available in the grocery store throughout the year. He goes to great lengths to find peppers with colors, shapes, and tastes out of the ordinary. He now grows more than 20 unusual varieties that he sells to chefs and at farmers markets. The trick is letting some of those green peppers hang on the plant until they ripen into their sweeter colors.
Knowing that diversity is a key to success in a market world, both Dave and Denise tend to experiment with new products. They are now growing an assortment of leeks and herbs, which Denise has experimented with drying, grinding, bottling and marketing as value-added products.
Leaning Shed Farm is not a picture of manicured gardens because the Dyreks choose to farm sustainably, and they do not spray with poisonous chemicals as herbicides or pesticides. There is grass between the rows to keep the soil from eroding and even an abandoned apple tree that was left standing for the sole purpose of decreasing soil erosion. They practice crop rotation and crop diversity for both building the soil and controlling insect pests. They rely on compost rather than chemical fertilizers for plant nutrition. Prominently located up front and center as one enters Leaning Shed Farm is a sign by Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program proclaiming: “This Farm is environmentally verified.”
Dave Dyrek, as with most farmers, is an innovator who has learned to work with his mind and hands in other ways than just with soil and plants. While he proudly shows off his old tractor that he bought on Craig’s List, he really boasts about his homemade 2-row sprayer that he fashioned out of some old copper that a buddy of his had lying around. The friend helped him convert the sprayer so that it could be pulled behind the tractor, changing Dave’s life, and saving him a lot of time and money as he no longer had to walk around spraying his crops by hand.
In order for a farming enterprise to be successful, there must be a market for the goods produced. The Dyreks are just as successful marketing their vegetables as they are growing them. They can be found every Wednesday and Saturday at Green City Market, an outdoor farmers market located across from Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. The market has a stated mission to improve the availability of a diverse range of high quality foods; to connect local producers and farmers to chefs, restaurateurs, food organizations and the public; and to support small family farms and promote a healthier society through education and appreciation for local, fresh, sustainably raised produce and products. It requires its participants to have some type of organic, sustainable, or environment friendly certification and is frequented by shoppers looking for wholesome, locally grown food.
While Leaning Shed Farm is friendly to the environment and uses many organic growing practices, it is not certified organic. Dave says there is too much paperwork to complete and too much time required that provides no benefit for him or the farm.
Twice weekly the Dyreks and a neighbor volunteer or two head to the market loaded with whatever is in season at the time. Dave says that he plans and plants for a three-week harvest for the market. He explains that when the first of a produce type is available, it sells out quickly. During the second week, interest is waning a little, although sales are still good. By the third week, buyers are tired of that particular type or variety and are ready to look at what there is new available. Dave is known as the crazy, funky grower, and people greet him with, “Whatcha got, Dave?” In addition to his varieties of peas and beans, he is always happy to show them his nicely trimmed garlic, tantalizing fingerling potatoes, super sweet candy onions, enticingly tasty peppers, or his special papaya pear summer squash that stays firm after being cooked.
Dave prefers Green City Market over some others because of its clientele of both sellers and buyers. He has learned from experience that shoppers at farmers markets in the suburbs really prefer to buy hybrid vegetables that are perfectly formed and blemish free, while city people tend to be “more hip to heirlooms.” They are more willing to take a chance with a tomato or pepper or cucumber that looks out of the ordinary and then are often delighted to find that they really like the difference.
Dave and Denise have discovered that they have come to love growing and marketing their produce more than they ever thought they would. They enjoy the relationships they have developed with celebrated chefs and other elite buyers who prize goods from Leaning Shed Farm. They dutifully carry their produce to market throughout the outdoor season until it moves inside in November. Then the new seed catalogs begin to pour in, and they spend winter downtime planning what they will plant as soon as the soil becomes workable again in the spring.
Kathy McFarland is a former English teacher and life-long gardener with a love for reading, writing, traveling, and anything outdoors. She farms her 160 acres in the Missouri Ozarks.