Driving through Crawford County, Wisconsin you almost need to be lost in order to find Star Valley with a population of 21 and the home to John Zehrer’s farm. Zehrer describes it as “Little House on the Prairie” and a place others describe as the prettiest farm in Wisconsin. Star Valley Flowers farm is nestled into the Driftless Region an area that escaped the glaciers.
Star Valley Flowers consists of two farms. In 1983, Zehrer bought an 80 acre farm and in 1999 he purchased the adjoining 160 acre farm with the old farm house still intact. Zehrer is intrigued by its historic past and said, “This farm, when I bought it, it was the first time there was ever a cash financial transaction in its deed or title. It was homesteaded in the 1800s sometime by a guy by the name of Knutson, and he was drafted into the Civil War.” At that time if you were drafted into the Civil War you could hire someone to take your place and so this guy put an ad in the paper that if someone would take his place that he would give him the farm. A guy by the name of John Anderson answered that ad and survived the war. Anderson handed down the house to his kids until Zehrer bought it.
Zehrer started out keeping the dairy farm tradition alive, but flowers soon became his passion. In 1986, he started planting flowers on just two acres, without any formal horticulture training. Today he is self-taught with nearly 300 acres of flowers, twigs and berries. Zehrer said, “Star Valley Flowers is probably the largest bittersweet grower in the world.” He also grows pussy willow, dogwood, and lilacs. It’s a dark branch with screaming red Christmas berries. John worked the land and grew one of the largest cut flower farms in the Midwest. “We always say we grow fruiting, flowering and decorative branches for the cut flower industry,” said Zehrer.
Whole Foods is one of his larger grocery stores and Fresh Market is another.
But those big summer blooms aren’t even the half of it. With its emerald hillsides and a nostalgic red barn the arrival of winter transforms the lush landscape in a Norman Rockwell image. Winter is a busy time on the flower farm cutting pussy willow and red curly willow. His rows of bushes can stretch a thousand feet with 300 plants in a row. Zehrer said, “Depending on the weather we either try to work inside during the morning and we send the crew out in the afternoon or if we know there’s really cold weather coming we try to get enough stuff loaded up and cut on wagons so we can stay inside and work.”
Inside his storage freezer is where the twigs will go until they are ready to be shipped or forced to bloom. Shipments go all over the United States. Zehrer said, “If someone in New York is getting it then we stop at the airport and then it will get on Southwest or something like and will end up in New York.” The workers on this farm will harvest all winter long.
As the seasons change, there is a new so called miracle plant that Zehrer hopes will grow his business. Zehrer said, “My new passion is Aronia.” He recently planted a 30 acre Aronia field. “It is a new high anti-oxidant super fruit with ten times the health benefits of a blueberry or a cranberry,” said Zehrer. Aronia is extremely productive and has blueberry growers envious. Zehrer tells the story of one blueberry farmer who said, “Well, I have plants that are 4-5 years old and I wish they just had half this amount of fruit.” In Poland, Aronia is kind of like what the Holstein cow is to the dairy industry.
More than likely the berries will be turned into a juice concentrate and then put into some sort of juice, drink, cocktail, high antioxidant fruit drink. The pulp could be used in an energy bar. Zehrer said, “Kellogg wants to put a few dried Aronia in their cereal and there’s not enough dried fruit available.” Zehrer said, “More and more people in the Midwest are putting in plants as this interest in high antioxidants grows.” In 2012, Zehrer planted Aronia and three years later he was harvesting close to 100,000 pounds of fruit. All that fruit keeps the workers and the worker bees busy. There are 12-15 people that work year round.
Before Zehrer’s passion blossomed into a nationwide business he had a rather organic beginning growing up in central Minnesota on a dairy farm. Zehrer said, “From a young age I always had an interest in gardening. My mom had a large vegetable garden. I spent a lot of time at different arboretums to see what was growing there, and what had some value to the floral industry as a color, texture, fruiting branch, decorative branch, flowering branch.”
When Zehrer decided to go into farming he settled on a farm with an idyllic setting year round. Every season brings something else to cut, or bloom or fruit. And given the beauty of this countryside why would anyone want to leave the rolling hills of southwest Wisconsin. People often tell Zehrer his farm looks like a picture out of Italy.
Zehrer said, “I just kinda fell in love with the hills and valleys.”
John Zehrer explains how the Civil War had an impact on the ownership of Star Valley Flower Farm.