Farm-fresh year-roundPublished 6:47pm Friday, November 18, 2011
BUCHANAN — An established Buchanan business is now opening a new phase of its development as a community linchpin. Set near the southernmost border of the town by the Buchanan Feed Mill, Lee’s Greenhouse and Landscaping Design is expanding to include a year-round farm market and gift shop.
An open house is planned for 10 a.m. Sunday. At that time, owner Lee Rehmel plans to introduce Buchanan and area to not only his newest venture, but to the crafts and cookery of many others. This is a showcase for cottage industry at its best.
“All the people I worked with over the seasons, it’s like if you have something special to offer I want you to be part of this too. The lady who was my grandma’s next-door neighbor makes candles; another makes goat milk soap; another lady is going to be bringing in quilts. We will carry Amish cheeses and baked goods,” Rehmel said.
The store reminds one of the country stores of a time past, where farmers would gather around the ol’ pickle barrel or woodstove swapping tales and sharing crop news and views, after bringing their produce in trade. Walls of old barn board from Rehmel’s grandfather’s farm with old tools hung on the wall is the perfect backdrop for not only the fresh produce but crafts fashioned with loving care and freshly baked goods.
The location was an old coal yard several decades ago. Amtrak rails went from there to Clark’s Equipment, the factory that was a major area employer from 1904 to the mid-1970s, and residents would come here to buy the coal to heat their homes.
Appropriately, throughout the shop are relics and antiques of time gone by which are also for sale. By the time of the open house, Rehmel expects they will be joined by even more, such as butter churns, lanterns, old toasters and early appliances. Old barn board shelving will hold basics like homemade bread, soup mixes, honey and maple syrup.
Asked how he went from a landscape greenhouse business to including the shop and farm market. Rehmel is typically thoughtful.
“Over the course of last three or four years I have been brainstorming over what I want to do, but it is always a matter of what could I afford and what would the community be able to support, “ he said.
He first bought the property from David Zelmer, former owner of the Buchanan Feed Mill. The pair planned together to raise the first greenhouse and offer plants and landscaping services.
However, when Zelmer sold the feed mill and their lives were headed in different directions, Rehmel decided to take some courses in floriculture and propagation at Andrew’s University.
The progression to a year-round shop came from a personal work ethic and Rehmel’s dedication to serving others.
““It got to be September, October and these two girls were working for me and I believe if you have people working for you, you need to loyal to them,” he said. “I hate it when you go to places and you know, they are like suddenly, ‘well we have no more work for you, so you’re outta here.’ I have as many as seven people working here, two in the store, and we’ve got another four working out in the landscaping, then there’s work at the feed mill … I just don’t like having all the eggs in one basket as it were.”
Rehmel’s love of working land and produce fresh from the farm is not new: it’s in his blood. He began working at Glen Vite’s farm, on Redbud Road just south of his current location when he was only 7 and continued there until he was 16. According to Rehmel, Vite is still arguably the best around when it comes to produce.
Much of the fall produce – potatoes, squash, apples and onions — are still provided by local farmers. Eggs are from his grandparent’s farm. Other produce will be brought in by a connection Rehmel made with a vendor at the Benton Harbor market, who regularly goes into the Chicago market and will be picking up produce for Rehmel, allowing the new market to carry other fresh produce like grapes, grapefruit, oranges and celery. Fresh produce will arrive each week. At the end of the week, Rehmel uses whatever is left over to cook for a church in Benton Harbor so none is wasted.
Other collaborations like one with Buchanan’s Union Coffee House will bring their own unique offerings to complement the produce and antiques. Coffee will be served along with the sticky buns at the open house and could lead to the shop, whose winter hours are noon to 5 pm, to open earlier in the morning allowing residents to have a special mid-morning break.
Decor and crafts reflect the upcoming holiday season. Being a part of the area’s Christmas celebrations is nothing new.
“Every year we have been here in winter we have sold Christmas trees. Started with 25 trees and grew to bringing in 175 trees and every year they completely sell out,” Rehmel said.
What makes a tree from here so special is that each year he drives to a buddy’s farm, an hour or so away, where he hand picks the trees to be flawless just after they have been sheared. While he does bring in a few trees that are of lesser perfection, those are available for $10 or $15. Most have no “bad” side.
In the past Rehmel raised his own poinsettias in one of the greenhouses, but as they take a lot of time to manage, this year he will bring in plants for the holiday to sell alongside other house plants.
This is a business on the grow. Rehmel put this building up never really knowing what it would be. He knew it was a tough time to move forward in this economy, never wanting to go into debt some years the growth was rather slow, but this a man who moves on faith. He cares about the community and hopes both his goods and his pricing will deliver that message.
“We try to price the produce less than the grocery chains so that people will be able to have fresh produce within their budget. Our milk will be the cheapest in the area, perhaps even in the county,” he said.
Future plans include a refrigerated section for salamis, sausage and other meats to serve with an even larger selection of pre-packaged Amish cheeses and a kitchen; however, as in the past further expansion will depend on cash flow.
“I’m not going to jump in head first before we know how deep the pool is,” Rehmel said.
For now, the shop offers a glimpse into an old fashioned business with great produce, baked goods and unique handmade gift items offered year-round and a Sunday outing for the weekend before Thanksgiving.