Welcoming Fall: A Conversation with Jenn O’Neal from PepperHarrow

A year ago I had the privilege of selling my baked goods at PepperHarrow Farm in Winterset, IA for the Madison County Fall Crawl event. I brought my daughter, who was 6 at the time and a natural salesman, working for unlimited oatmeal cream pies and tips. As we made the drive from Des Moines to Winterset, I turned the radio off and we watched the sun rising over the hills dotted with cows. After helping me set up in the event barn, my daughter asked if she could go exploring by herself, something that doesn’t get to happen very often for kids raised in town with threats of traffic and strangers. I gave her the parameters — stay between the road and the trees, don’t pick any flowers you’re not supposed to, if you go too far look for the white barn and make it back to me — and I let her go. I would peek out of the barn every so often, able to see her easily on the open acreage. Once she was fighting an imaginary villain (or honestly she was probably the villain fighting an imaginary hero). Once she was running through the dahlia rows with her arms stretched out wide belting “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty, the song I’ve been singing to her since she was a baby. Once she was laying in the grass, arms cradling her head, looking at the clouds.

What Jenn and Adam O’Neal, the owners of PepperHarrow, gave me and my daughter that day wasn’t a place to have a pop-up or a time to make business connections or even a day to cut flowers (though, of course, they gave us all those things too). They gave me and my daughter a day of connecting with nature and each other. A day of quiet and imagination. They gave us a day of beauty and peace. A day the two of us still talk about as being one of the happiest we’ve ever had.

A couple weeks ago I got to sit down with Jenn in their event barn and talk to her about the coming fall and winter months and what it means for them. I decided to keep the conversation as it was because Jenn’s words are too beautiful as they are to make them into anything else. Makes sense because she is a writer. Here’s our conversation.

Rebekah: When is your end of the season for flowers?

Jenn: It’s just the first frost of the season, which usually happens anytime from the beginning of October to mid-October. It’s hard to predict here in Iowa.

Rebekah: So what’s the first thing you do when the first frost happens?

Jenn: We start digging up dahlia tubers. We grow about 2 1/2 acres of dahlias here. It’s a huge undertaking. Here in central Iowa we’re considered Zone 5B, and it gets too cold for tubers to remain in the ground. So at the end of each season we have to go dig them up to store for winter. It takes us about a week to dig them up, and then we spend our winter cleaning them, dividing them and storing them in our heated shop to get ready to ship out after winter. They need be stored at a certain humidity level and kept between 40-60 degrees.


Rebekah: Where are you shipping them?

Jenn: All over the country! We open up sales for dahlia tubers at the beginning of January that will then ship to the people who bought them around the second week of April. We sell all kinds of our seeds online too — a lot of people come to us for our Chester Copperpot Celosia seeds which is a variety special to PepperHarrow.

Rebekah: Other than digging up the dahlias do you do anything else out on the farm to prepare the land for the next growing season?

Jenn: We do a little bit of garden cleanup, but for the most part we leave things in place to provide a winter habitat for the birds. It gives them a nice hiding place and shelter, and the seeds give them something to forage on throughout the winter. We do most of the readying of the ground for planting in the spring and leave it be for winter.


Rebekah: What other things happen for the farm during the winter break?

Jenn: We start getting ready for our holiday wreath and centerpiece-making classes. We start decorating the barn with all our beautiful greenery, getting ready to host. We’re getting our wood stove replaced so we can have a little fire and make it warm and cozy in here. People think they can’t create a wreath, but they leave here with this amazing holiday wreath that they made themselves. So many people make it part of their holiday tradition to come do that with us every year, and we just feel so honored to be able to host them here at our space and help them do that.

Rebekah: What does the fall and winter season mean for you personally as a farmer?

Jenn: I absolutely love it. It is critical to my wellbeing and my personal health and wellness. I take some time back for myself to spend time with my family, to read a book, to rest. I get to enjoy life a little bit more and focus on my mental health. During the heart of our growing season we wake up at 6am, and we don’t even come inside until 10pm. Our winter break is so essential, and we have to take our cues from nature. Every season needs its day. The ground gets to regenerate. The flowers and trees get to rest and restore. We need to take our cues from them and realize it’s ok to take time, to appreciate the quiet. Nature needs a break and so do we.

Our break is really only mid-November through December. By January 1st we’re back at planning events and doing our writing projects, documenting everything we’ve done on the farm that year, editing photos, putting our seeds online, editing videos for the YouTube channel, doing all of the backend projects that we can’t get done when we’re actually in growing season. So we really have to schedule our gaps in the calendar during that winter break to make sure we’re actually taking that time for ourselves and not just continuing to work. There’s always work we could be doing, but it’s critical to have that time for ourselves.

Rebekah: Yeah, I imagine that would be hard to force yourself to turn off your work brain when you know there’s always work to be done. You start doing behind-the-scenes work in January. When do you get back in the ground on the farm itself?

Jenn: Usually mid-February/early March is when we start planting ranunculas. Then soon after that we have our tulips start popping up, and we get to start making bouquets again.

Rebekah: That feels like such a short break. Are you ready to get back out on the farm by then or do you wish you had more time?

Jenn: No, we’re so ready. By mid-January we’re yearning for the green and the flowers. All of us are. I feel like that’s when our social media followers need us the most is those coldest, darkest days of the year when we haven’t seen anything green in so long. We like to start posting pictures then of all the flowers and goodness that’s about to come. It gives us all some hope when we need it most.


Rebekah: You’re doing so many things with PepperHarrow and diversifying in so many ways — the events, the classes, the seed-selling, the bouquets and deliveries, the farming itself. What’s the most important thing to you about your work? Your favorite part of what you do?

Jenn: Our focus and our mission here on the farm is to create a place of beauty, wellness and joy for people. I don’t think people always know what they’re missing in their daily lives of working all the time and being over-stimulated and having media forced down our throats all the time. People come out here to the farm for a class or to pick a bouquet and just take that time to pull back and be quiet. We used to have music pumping through the speakers during the “you-cut” events, and we’ve stopped doing that. We want people to hear the wind blowing through the trees instead. We want people to watch the flowers sway. We want people to have a place to connect with nature and just be still.

I told Jenn then about what that experience of being out on the farm with my daughter that day a year before had meant for us. About the peace and stillness it brought us in the middle of a very hard month. About the physical and emotional experience of watching my daughter feel so free and safe and wild.

I tell people all the time, and I’m telling you now too: I want you to go out to PepperHarrow and experience it for yourself. They have so many classes and events and ways for you to spend time on the farm (you can even glamp there). I want you to support Jenn and Adam in any way you can because they’re doing more than running a farm and a business. They are pouring themselves into making the world a more beautiful, connected, peaceful place. It’s a special kind of magic they’re making.

You belong somewhere you feel free.

All images are from PepperHarrow


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