My Biz: Van Horne herb farm grows into international business

Specialty crops can be tricky

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Ann Franzenburg has been known to get phone calls from people wanting to buy pheasants. But they don’t actually sell birds at Pheasant Run Farm.

The Van Horne farm, so named because it was frequented by pheasants when the business got started, is where Ann and her husband, Eric, run their greenhouse operation selling fresh produce, herbs and flowers to local stores and customers worldwide.

“This whole thing started because my husband hates seeing an empty greenhouse,” said Franzenburg.

That was nearly 20 years ago when the couple first started growing herbs, both for culinary and medicinal purposes.

“We would grow our herb plugs in the greenhouse and then plant them in the field so when the greenhouse was empty, which was valuable real estate, we started trying to grow other things,” she recalled

Now managing some 800 acres — between their farm in Van Horne and farmland in Belle Plaine — the couple rotates produce and flowers in their greenhouses to maximize growing capacity.

“This is a really diversified farm operation,” said Franzenburg, noting that currently in the greenhouses one can find lunchbox peppers, English cucumbers, Sungold cherry tomatoes and slicing tomatoes, along with dahlias, snap dragons and lisianthus. They also are growing turmeric and ginger.

“We grow things that we like and that fit into the flow of the farm. Eric and I have a lot of experience growing specialty crops, and we’ve been able to grow the business the way we have because we are diversified,” Franzenburg said.

Specialty crops can be tricky.

“You want to know that you can grow in a quantity before you sell to the market, but you also want to know there’s a market for it,” she explained.

Their produce, which is certified organic, is sold to the New Pioneer Co-Ops, Whole Foods Market in West Des Moines and Frontier Natural Products. Seeds from the herbs grown at Pheasant Run Farm — such as the 80 acres of thistle they’re currently growing — go into the worldwide market.

Nearing the end of her ninth growing season, it seems Franzenburg — who previously taught English and French and has no formal horticultural training — also has mastered the art of growing cut flowers.

“I’m known as the flower lady at the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City farmers markets,” she said. “I grow flowers that you can only get really great quality on if you grow and buy locally.”

She said about 65 percent of her cut flower business is through local farmers markets, but that she also sells to local florists and does about 10 to 15 weddings and events throughout the year.

Managing a farm takes a fair amount of discipline and scheduling, Franzenburg noted. On Mondays, they prepare for the week, sending out product availability to florists and other retailers.

“They place orders with us and we cut to fill them,” said Franzenburg. “We harvest and cut things almost every day.”

She noted that Wednesday is delivery day to Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, Thursday is delivery day to Des Moines and then she spends the rest of the week preparing for farmers markets and weddings.

“Saturday is market day, and Sunday we try not to do a whole lot but water,” she said. Franzenburg added that she uses the door to her flower cooler as command central with sticky notes of all the orders. “It’s low tech but it works for us.”

The Franzenburg’s son Calvin works on the farm with them as well as one other employee. During the busy summer months they have part time high school and college students helping out. As the weather cools, production at Pheasant Run Farm will slow down as well.

“Every year we are learning, that is what I like about this,” she said. “It can be frustrating because nothing is ever the same, but every year I pick something that I want to try to get better at.”

AT A GLANCE

Owners and operators: Eric and Ann Franzenburg

Company: Pheasant Run Farm

Address: 6925 19th Ave., Van Horne

Phone: (319) 228-8758

Website: pheasantrunfarmiowa.com

l Know a business in operation for more than a year that would make a good “My Biz” feature? Contact michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com

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