Rachel Leege's interest in gardening and growing vegetables has been evident since the eighth grade when she rented two commercial garden plots.
Now, her continuing activities in the area of food production have garnered her the 2014 Wisconsin Star in Agribusiness award, which is given to students who have taken an exceptional role in owning and operating their own business.
Starting out with producing what her family needed, she often sold bumper crops to her neighbors by word of mouth. She said she loved helping her mom and aunt in their gardens and found that vegetable production was a realistic project goal for her, since she lived in town.
It would have been a little more difficult, she said, to work with livestock, for example; and besides, she loved gardening.
When her family moved to a new house, there wasn't room for a garden in their yard; but the new house was only a block away from the newly created Prairie du Sac community garden.
As an eighth-grader, she rented two community garden plots and has grown her enterprise since then.
"It seemed like a convenient project that involved doing something I loved," she said.
Leege grows a variety of fruits and vegetables in the community garden plots she rents (she rents four of the 32 plots).
In addition to her own vegetable plots, the young entrepreneur is in charge of her school greenhouse. She took over its management after a few years when there was no one else interested in the job.
She decides which plants will be grown for sale before school gets out in the spring — usually tomatoes, peppers and herbs, as well as flowers sold by her FFA chapter.
Many of the plants from the greenhouse are planted on a schedule that allows them to be sold to customers at the right time for planting in home gardens. That timing has to be just right, she explained, so the plants aren't too leggy before they can get put in the ground.
During the summer, Leege makes several trips each day to her garden plots to water and harvest the vegetables. She packages and labels them to market in a self-serve produce stand operated by the FFA chapter.
Leege said one of her goals was to begin a self-sustaining garden. She quickly moved from producing more than enough food for her family to selling surplus food at the FFA produce stand.
As part of her project, she also began to experiment with growing new varieties and kinds of things she hadn't growth before — kale, watermelon and popcorn among them. She says she has learned the proper growing and harvesting techniques for a variety of new veggies and fruits.
Adding these unique items to her produce patch has meant increased sales since those varieties weren't previously available at local grocery stores.
Leege learned about organic production methods in the course of her project and has grown in her knowledge of disease prevention and control practices.
When her adviser, Troy Talford, approached her about starting a produce stand on the FFA test plot, it motivated Leege to continue to expand her project. She has mentored younger members who may take over the plot when she moves on to college.
This summer, she plans to work with other members to help them develop similar projects. She believes the publicity and support the produce stand and plant sales have gotten from the communities will help others build on her success.
Her experience has led Leege to want to major in soil and crop science and seek a future career in crop genetics. She plans to pursue a degree at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and would ultimately like to earn an ag education degree and teach at a college.
She is the daughter of Robert and Lisa Leege.
Leege said that one of the life lessons she learned from this project was to just keep at it. "The first year of my project, there wasn't usually much to show for my efforts, but with continued dedication, my project developed into a success."