His barn burned down, so he started a greenhouse that sells across state
TOWN OF HOLWAY - Charles Valentine rides up on his four-wheeler with two crates full of perfectly ripe tomatoes. He'll fill many more crates before the day is done and take them to farmers markets the next day.
"Taste," he said. "That's what people are paying for. People will come to me because of that. After a while you build a reputation and people come to you.
"My tomatoes are ripe and ready Week 1 and I have them at markets the day after they are picked. Fresh and full of taste from day one (of the season). That's the key."
Charles Valentine now sells hundreds of pounds of tomatoes per day, especially at the start of the season when ripe tomatoes are a rarity. His business, Valentine Gardens & Greenhouses, now fits into a growing trend of the agriculture sector. The Valentines serve farmers markets in Marathon, Taylor, Wood and Vilas counties with fresh produce. There are more farmers markets today than ever as a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report stated there were 8,669 farmers markets according to the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory. This is a 2.3 percent increase from 2015.
Valentine Gardens & Greenhouse didn't start in a conventional way, but vegetables and flowers are now the family business.
When his dairy farm's barn burned down in 1999, Charles Valentine made a rash business move. He decided he wasn't milking cows anymore.
His wife wanted him to build a greenhouse and start a garden for their family of four. That decision changed life for the Valentines.
"Vegetables seemed to be one of our biggest expenses," Valentine said. "So, I built a greenhouse. ... I don't ever really look at things in a small way.
"When I set my mind to something, I think big."
Valentine has been farming his entire life, starting in South Dakota with his father. Charles Valentine wanted to have a farm of his own and that brought him "to the middle of nowhere" in the Taylor County (barely) town of Holloway, between Stetsonville and Curtiss in 1990. After the fire destroyed their barn in 1999, Valentine worked for six years as a night manager at Miltrim's Farms in Athens before he started to focus solely on the greenhouses and gardens.
He's lived in the same spot for 27 years, but the land has changed drastically in those nearly three decades.
The Valentines now have more than a dozen greenhouses and vegetables growing as far as the eye can see.
The Valentines are present at farmers markets seven days a week and sell their produce to 14 farmers markets. They also have 105 CSA members, Valentine said. (CSA stands for "community-supported agriculture"; for a fee, members get a weekly share of locally grown food.)
It's nearly a 24-hour day some days for Charles and his wife. On Mondays his wife takes one of their family's four diesel trucks with a trailer full of produce to Eagle River and she'll sleep over at a camp site and take more produce to Boulder Junction on Tuesday. Charles will bring Tuesday's vegetables to her on Monday night.
"I guess you could say that," Charles said with a smile when asked if his wife Denyse kind of got roped into this.
The Valentines go to Wausau, Marshfield and Medford among the local farmers markets, but Valentine said they sell the most "by far" in Eagle River and Minocqua. On Saturday all four — Charles, Denyse and their two sons Charles and Steven — will be at a different farmers market.
In the spring, flowers reign supreme at Valentine's Gardens and Greenhouses, N1082 Wren Dr. Curtiss. When things turn to summer vegetables take over. Valentine said tomatoes are the top seller, while mums and flowers are close behind.
Also on the farm is broccoli, cucumber, peppers, zucchini, garlic, kohlrabi, kale, lettuce, summer squash, watermelons and cantaloupe. Charles Valentine says he picks nearly 400 pounds of tomatoes daily.
"There ain't hardly nothing we don't raise," he said.
On Saturday every member of the family is out selling produce, each taking a truck and a trailer ranging from 10 to 25 feet.
Going forward, Valentine says the family wants to get bigger plants and increase volume per plant.
"If you aren't growing, you're standing still," Valentine said. "Wet, dry weather can't be an excuse. I need the produce to provide for my family no matter the conditions."
The greenhouse helps greatly with that. Valentine said they sold over 4,000 mums and 4,000 hanging baskets this year. When he first started his family on this venture, however, Valentine said he realized pretty quickly business would be booming.
"Almost right away. It's evolved. It's been a growing business," Valentine said. In 17 years we've built 12 greenhouses. It keeps evolving and there will probably be a couple more (greenhouses). The demand has continued to grow so we'll keep growing."