Sisters turn summer job into successful career
July 14, 2011 · Cary J. Hahn, Special to the Sun
Lisbon sisters Danielle (Dani) and Laura Strabala, ages 20 and 21, are already in their fifth season of growing produce in the spring, summer and fall, and making baked goods year-round to sell at market. And they're making a living at it.
"Our mom and dad taught us how to bake bread, how to garden, how to preserve a lot of our own produce," said Danielle. "Then as we were finishing high school, we started selling what we grew. It was intended to be just a summer job, but it didn't stop there."
Having been home-schooled by their parents, Russ and Joyce Strabala of Lisbon, they elected not to go to college, but instead have become full-time produce farmers and bakers. They do it all on their parents' acreage just north of Lisbon.
"We have about seven acres here, but we only cultivate about two acres," said Laura.
They call their operation "Wild Prairie Acres" and Danielle said, "It suits the place well. All we have around here is prairie grass and it's crazy. There's constant weeding."
They start planting seeds inside in mid-February to get peppers and tomatoes started.
"Then we take things out to the greenhouse in March and then outside in spring," Danielle said.
Lena Gilbert, who manages the Springville Farmers Market, is very complimentary of the young women.
"They are truly a cottage industry doing it all themselves," Gilbert said. "They are good growers and what they grow is wonderful. The early stuff includes radishes, onions, leaf lettuce. Soon rhubarb. Later there will be carrots, potatoes, mixed peas, squash, cucumbers, scallions, beans and turnips."
In fall they harvest one of their biggest crops: heirloom winter squash. They also participate in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and provide home delivery of what they call CSA baskets to people who prepay. They would like to expand the CSA shares in the future.
The sisters have good words to say about Gilbert, too. "She has taught us so much, how to present our wares and how to talk to people," Laura said. "We've made so many friends with our customers, thanks to her." The sisters also credit David and Mickey Miller, the Mount Vernon market managers, for teaching them a lot. Their brother, Chris, has also lent them a hand.
They also sell at the Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids farmers markets.
Their parents are not farmers per se. Their father is a supervisor at Cedar Rapids Millwork, while their mother is a music instructor at Cornell College.
The sisters say they feel a bit unique, starting a farm operation literally from the ground up. They have had at least one failure.
"Sweet corn," Danielle said. "We can't grow enough. We can't compete with the big producers. And bugs love it and we don't like to spray. So instead, we raise popcorn, something between a quarter to half an acre worth. We hand harvest and shuck it."
They sell most of it during the winter at the Mount Vernon and Springville winter markets.
In their fifth season they report their operation is profitable. They hope to take some of that profit and build a shop and a vegetable storage area. Even though the farm is labor intensive, during downtime and in winter they "like to hang out with friends," said Danielle.
"We sing with our mom and we like to visit senior care centers and perform. We also volunteer at Ushers Ferry village in Cedar Rapids," said Laura.
So far, they're learning their craft on the land.
"It's a constant education, what we learn out in the field," Danielle said. "We read and we study."
"Just knowing basic life skills and being able to accomplish that well" is a satisfaction, according to Laura. They say their ultimate goal is to be profitable enough so their dad can quit his day job and join them on the farm.
"Then we'd have an extra hand and we could sell at more markets," Danielle said. "That was his original dream, and it is ours too."