Living the Vine-Ripened Dream
The consistent climate at Wilgenburg Greenhouses is warmed by this farmer’s personal touch. Hans and his crew put up every one of his greenhouses themselves, every plant sends out its roots in a nursery bag full of soil they mix themselves onsite, with worm castings and compost they farm themselves, and the fruit of all this labor is harvested by hand. “We have as many struggles as anybody growing outside,” Hans commented, “The only thing that we do differently is that we can control the weather”
And this is only for the most part, wind storms ripped up the greenhouse roofs last year and summers are, of course, uncomfortably hot indoors, in spite of the vented windows and misters. Pests are still an issue, and good soil nutrition is still of utmost importance.
“As an organic grower you have to do things differently,” Hans said about the systems he’s worked out for growing organic greenhouse fruits and vegetables. “I wanted the type of soil that would work organically, and nobody else really has that available. I like the way I do my worms. You can’t buy the fresh worm castings like what I want, so I like doing that myself,” he continued.
He was born in Holland, the youngest of sixteen children, and came to California with his parents when he was five years-old. Hans’ father was a dairyman, thus, Hans had an early introduction to life on the farm. Even so, his transition to a career in agriculture wasn’t so straightforward. After his hands on experience of growing up on a dairy, Hans came to a conclusion, he “hated cows and wanted to get as far away from them as possible.”
But Hans didn’t jump straight from animal husbandry into growing plants. In between he earned a degree in psychology, spent a year in Israel, a year working for his brothers’ chicken ranch, had a change of heart towards farming, earned a degree in crop science, added a masters in international business, and then spent eight years working for the Latin American division of a chemical company out East, not to mention the addition of a wife and two children along the way.
It was toward the end of that eight-year stint of going to work everyday in a three piece suit, working a job he was less than passionate about, a job that had become just a job, that Hans and his wife Sharon geared up for a major life change. Most people would probably agree that it’s important to be fulfilled in one’s work, but not everyone would actually do something about it, especially when it’s going to cost something. Hans and Sharon did.
“I finally said, ‘You know what, I can’t live the rest of my life like this,’” he said. “So we made a big dramatic change. I drove the moving van, my wife drove the station wagon behind the truck. She was eight months pregnant, we had two kids. Talk about craziness.”
It took the family eleven days to drive from Connecticut to Fresno to purse a career in greenhouse farming. Hans had done his senior project at Cal Poly on greenhouse cucumbers, grown in the style that he still uses today, and he wanted to get into business for himself.
He apprenticed himself to a local greenhouse grower, and spent two years learning everything there was to know about the business. In order to invest in the learning process in this way, he and his growing family had to adjust to living off of just one third of the income he had been earning at his previous job.
In 1989, the hard work and sacrifice started to pay off, and Wilgenburg Greenhouses opened their translucent sliding doors for the first time. About seven years after getting started on his own, Hans nearly went bankrupt. But, with perseverance, and a sense of purpose, he and his crew and family pulled through it. Today, in the aromatic warmth of the greenhouses you’ll find plants in various stages of growth and development; and out back there’s a red worm farm, compost produced in an innovative no-turn style, and rows of vegetables sold in the green Dutch style farm stand on Mountain View Avenue.
In thinking back on that big transition, Hans reflected, “If you don’t like what you’re doing, that’s about the worst thing that can happen.”
And you can see that same value for the importance of personally fulfilling work reflected in his expression of approval as he talks about each of his four children and their talents and interests, which range from home-making, to engineering, to history, to high school endeavors.
Seeing as he’s been growing vine-ripened greenhouse fruits and vegetables for over twenty years, it’s a pretty good sign that Hans has found something he likes doing and is satisfied in.
“I’m doing something fairly useful, producing food, something with significance, something that matters. I’m providing jobs for forty-eight families, and to me, that’s big,” he said. “I feel good about what I’m doing, so long as I can make ends meet. That’s also very important.”
During the years Hans was earning his assortment of college degrees, agricultural development work was always in the back of his mind, and that is still on the radar for the future. Sharon has a degree in nutrition, so joining in a community development project overseas would something they could do together; it would be the next great adventure in a life purposed toward meaningful work with a personal touch.
Hans Wilgenburg’s greenhouse tomatoes are a welcome sight in the AHO subscription boxes each spring, after a long winter of waiting.