A little plot of land in Buckley has got sophisticated diners in Chicago and Detroit tucking in to something special in July … and January too.
With its high-end heated greenhouses, Werp Farms ships out hand harvested micro-greens and custom organic produce from their heated greenhouses year-round.
The high demand keeps Tina and Mike Werp busy, but it’s worth it to the Werps, who believe in making the most of the land they live and work on.
THE LAND CALLS
Tina Werp runs the farm alongside her husband, Mike Werp. His great-grandfather founded Werp Farm after bringing the family to Chicago from Central Europe in the early 1900s.
“As the family grew, they heard reports of the rich farmland up here, and believed it was a better place to raise the boys than the city,” Tina Werp said.
Mike Werp’s grandfather and two of his brothers would stay on the farm, while a third brother left to become a postmaster. His mother was raised on the farm, as well.
When Werp himself grew up, he departed for other ventures, studying physics, joining the Army, and later becoming a Dow Corning Corporation engineer.
By the mid-70s, the 80-acre farm was calling him back.
Tina Werp, meanwhile, was working in high-rise offices and taking correspondence courses from Pennsylvania State University. But farming spoke to her too, so she joined her husband in the business.
PERFECTING THE PROCESS
Though Mike Werp’s plan was to grow field corn, a call from an Alden fine dining restaurant in the mid-80s set the family on a new trajectory, Tina Werp said.
“Mike knew the chef at Spencer Creek Landing, and over time, one chef referred us to another,” she said. “We learned from all of them as we went along.”
By the late ‘90s, the Werps saw value in growing produce during winter. They constructed their first greenhouse, and over time built seven more.
Their hoop-style structures use dual layers of heavy-duty specialized greenhouse plastics that resist degradation by sunlight. They’re heated by wood-fired hot water boilers that use the dead wood from around the couple’s land.
While other farms use greenhouses in the off-season, most aren’t heated. The Werps’s approach yields more product, Tina Werp said.
LIFE ON THE FARM
Farming life – never easy – has its own complexities in the winter, Tina Werp said.
“When it’s very cold, we fill [the furnaces] four times a day,” she said. “It’s quite brisk going out at midnight, and again at 6am, or in rough weather. But on clear, cold nights, it’s actually quite beautiful.”
The first greenhouse they built used a peat substrate and a fertilizer solution in a modified hydroponic system. Later, the Werps moved to using garden-type beds and compost inside the greenhouses.
Organic had long been their goal. “Both Mike and I knew of the health and environmental problems that could be caused by chemicals,” she said. “We both grew up watching the news about the long-term effects of DDT, thalidomide, PBB, and lead.”
Being an organic grower turned out to be less complex than the couple imagined, she said.
“Since we were selling directly to the end user, the produce did not need to withstand shipping injury, and then be picked over by shoppers looking for perfection,” she said.
The Werps grow various types of lettuces, greens, chicories, and Asian greens, plus root crops like carrots, turnips, and radishes. A few of their other specialties include most of the common culinary herbs as well as a few more obscure ones like Sweet Cicely and Burnett.
The differences between growing outdoors and indoors are very specific, Tina Werp said.
“Growing outdoors provides a light show of sunrise, sunset, clouds, vultures, and hawks,” she said. “There is also more room for big crops like squash and tomatoes. But it’s also more difficult for us because we have to plant double to account for the share that the deer take, as we’re surrounded by beautiful woodlands.”
Growing in the greenhouses, they can obviously avoid the deer, as well as insects. And they don’t have to harvest in rain or mud.
But there are still problems to be solved, she said.
“The management of humidity, air circulation, and temperature make fungi and bacteria more of a challenge when growing indoors,” she said.
Either way, restaurants in Northern Michigan, Detroit, Ann Arbor, New Buffalo, and even as far as Chicago now depend on the Werps to deliver produce to them every single week, all year long.
It’s a labor-intensive process – using scissors to clip the produce – that keeps the couple busy.
“We hand-harvest to order, cool and package the produce,” Tina Werp said. “Someone leaves here three times a week to do deliveries; we spend two days alone on the Chicago trip.”
Despite the work, it’s rewarding to the Werps, whose reputation for standout organic produce is becoming a secret staple for several restaurants.
A surprise side benefit for Tina Werp?
All the weeding she gets to do.
“You are at eye level with the plant and see the busy life that is going on in that space between the bottom leaves and the soil,” she said. “[It’s] my favorite job.”
Werp Farms is located at 7625 Davis Rd. in Buckley. Contact Mike and Tina Werp at (231) 263-7239, or email email@example.com.
Werp Tips for the Good Life
Buy less, eat more. Think about how much you put in the disposal.
This also applies to buying organic food. If it costs more, just make sure you’re throwing less away and it’ll even out.
If you’re buying frozen, buy organic frozen.
Don’t worry about slight flaws in organic produce, or if the oranges aren’t really orange. Some non-organic produce is sprayed to enhance the color.
Follow the French provincial method of cooking, which makes use of a little of this and a little of that. Stale bread equals French toast. A couple of potatoes and a couple of leeks: Vichyssoise soup.
Make a point to stop at the organic section of the grocery and buy something.