#AgLife: A Lot From a Little: Son Harvest Seasons

    There may be life off the ranch, but any Fremont County farmer or rancher will tell you – The #aglife is “the good life!” #Aglife is a County 10 series, brought to you by Wyoming Community Bank, that pulls the curtain back on farm and ranch life in Fremont County.

    There is an adage that says you need equipment to work an acreage and you need acres to pay for that equipment. While that’s true in large scale ag operations such as beets, barley, corn, and alfalfa. A Riverton area couple has found a niche market that allows them to grow, harvest, and market viable crops on much smaller acreages.

    An enticing sign along the highway north of Riverton – h/t Randy Tucker

    Son Harvest Seasons, located on Two Valley Road just a few miles north of Riverton is the result of the labor of Brian and Kim Peil.

    The couple is familiar with agriculture in Fremont County, Brian comes from a farming background.

    “My grandfather Carl Peil farmed around here quite a bit,” Brian said. “He bought a little place in Paradise Valley then bought a little more land.”

    Kim’s parents were educators. Her mom Judy was a teacher in Riverton and Shoshoni and her father Neal was a school superintendent in Riverton and Thermopolis.

    A lone pumpkin placed by a customer – h/t Randy Tucker

    “My dad bought 80 acres when I was 12,” Kim said. “I grew up on this farm.”

    Both graduated in 1980, Brian from Shoshoni and Kim from Riverton. They eventually earned bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wyoming, Kim in elementary education, and Brian in ag education.

    They took jobs in Evanston, Kim teaching elementary school, and Brian running a group home. Eventually, Brian obtained a special education degree, but farming called to them.

    In 1985 Brian’s family left agriculture.

    “The entire family quit farming,” Brian said. “Family farms were getting hit pretty hard then.”

    Directions to the Pumpkin Patch along Two Valley Road – h/t Randy Tucker

    “There were a lot of family farms closing in the 80s,” Kim said.

    Cold, windy Evanston, with one of the shortest growing seasons in Wyoming, wasn’t a place to farm.

    “We loved Evanston, but we missed farming,” Kim said. “You couldn’t grow a hiccup in Evanston.”

    In 1995, they moved back to Riverton after a trip to Bear Lake, Idaho.

    “We went to Bear Lake one day to pick berries and Kim said, “Why can’t we do this?” Brian said.

    They approached Neal about growing raspberries on his land.

    “We talked to Dad about buying an acre to get started,” Kim said. “We traveled, looking for jobs, and saw all the farms and started talking about it. We finally decided on raspberries. We talked to a guy in Story who got us going.”

    Raspberries after the first frost – h/t Randy Tucker

    Brian approached his father-in-law with the idea of growing an acre of raspberries.

    “We asked Neal for an acre,” Brian said. “In 1993 we planted 2800 plants by hand.”

    The work was arduous, with much of it on their hands and knees digging in the dirt to get the little sticks of raspberries planted.

    “They were dormant sticks,” Kim said. “We weren’t sure they would grow.”

    The first planting was a family affair with Neal, Kim’s sister Kerri and Brian’s brother Bruce and their families all planting raspberry starts. Raspberries need water to set the plants and they didn’t have a hose or ditch to supply them.

    “We hauled water in 150 gallons in the truck,” Brian said. “Not a 150 gallon tank but all sizes of barrels and buckets. We couldn’t get enough water.”

    The current top seller at Son Harvest Seasons – h/t Randy Tucker

    In what the family considers a miracle, heavy rains came as they struggled to get the first stand of raspberries planted.

    “It rained at least an inch-and-a-quarter,” Brian said. “It sealed every one of those plants into the soil.”

    With the seedling raspberries safely in the ground, they sprang to life.

    They had their first full crop in 1996, and quickly discovered that there was no market for picking your own raspberries.

    “That’s changed substantially in the last few years,” Kim said. “We have a lot of customers picking their own berries now.”

    The Peil’s sell buckets in their showroom for customers to fill with berries from the patch.

    Picking buckets waiting for customers who enjoy picking their own raspberries – h/t Randy Tucker

    At first they hit the farmer’s markets in Cody, Casper, Jackson, Riverton, and Lander. Now they use direct marketing for their berries and manufactured products.

    “It has to be our market,” Brian said. “We don’t like to sell any berries after three days.”

    They now have four acres in production and harvest raspberries from August to late October.

    They’ve found varieties of raspberries with almost no thorns that don’t need pruning. Instead, after the fall harvest ends, they cut the bushes with a sickle.

    “I pile them up at the end of the field and we have a huge bonfire,” Brian said. “It kills any insects or disease that might be in the plants, and we get a new growth in the spring.”

    Kim Peil with the display boxes built by her husband Brian – h/t Randy Tucker

    “We always let the fire department know before we burn,” Kim said. “It makes quite a fire.”

    They raise three varieties of fall raspberries and are working towards a single variety.

    “The fall berries are sweeter than the summer berries,” Kim said.

    Raspberries weren’t the only crop they experimented with.

    They grew cantaloupe and watermelons for a while, and currently grow pumpkins, corn, and alfalfa.

    The gateway to the Son Harvest Seasons pumpkin patch – h/t Randy Tucker

    “We had 10 acres in Athena cantaloupe and watermelons,” Brian said. “It was labor intensive beyond belief.”

    They started early with hot caps over the plants to withstand the frost and to extend the growing season required by melons.

    Pumpkins eventually bumped the cantaloupe and watermelons, but they came with their own challenges.

    “We had an extra acre one year and grew pumpkins,” Brian said. “We sold them to local grocery stores.”

    Pumpkins waiting for harvest – h/t Randy Tucker

    They expanded to four acres and didn’t have a market.

    “Now we have pick your own pumpkins,” Brian said. “We graze the rest.”

    To cattle, pumpkins are a delicacy; they’ll run right by a cornfield and through alfalfa to get to ripe pumpkins.

    For a while, they tried to market their pumpkins to Walmart, but they quickly found the maze of corporate decisions that made little sense to local producers.

    “They had a different manager each year and we had to explain our production every time,” Brian said. “We couldn’t sell pumpkins locally, they came from Washington State, and getting pumpkins shipped to the regional distribution center outside Cheyenne was out of the question. They wanted us to pay shipping on our pumpkins to Cheyenne, then pay shipping from Cheyenne to their stores.”

    Brian Peil in the showroom of their Son Harvest Seasons farm – h/t Randy Tucker

    Their “Pumpkin Patch” is very popular with children and adults across Fremont County in the weeks before Halloween and they sell squash and gourds as well.

    “We picked the pumpkins and piled them up at first,” Brian said. “But nobody wanted that. For three days in a row, people asked if they could pick their own.”

    They currently grow 20 acres of pumpkins, with their largest crop so far 50 acres.

    “We put up a sign in 2002 to pick your own pumpkins,” Brian said. “People started driving up left and right.”

    The entrance to the Corn Maze off Two Valley Road – h/t Randy Tucker

    Another popular attraction at Son Harvest Seasons is their corn maze.

    Kim designs the maze, and Brian cuts it when the corn is about a foot high.

    “The first year the corn was seven feet high, we had a couple of teenagers come out and ask if we would hire them to cut a corn maze,” Brian said. “They hit it with machetes and carved out a nice maze by hand.”

    After Kim designs the maze, they decide what size it will be.

    An owl-shaped corn maze – h/t Don Rood Video Productions

    “We’ve had mazes from eight to 15 acres,” Kim said. “Some look better than others from the air.”

    They have a collection of photos of their earlier mazes taken from drones.

    One year, Kim decided on a rooster design.

    Brian started to cut the pattern with his tractor after the corn was about seven feet high. He couldn’t see where he had been or spot any landmarks.

    “I got Neal on top of the hill, and he pointed directions for me to go,” Brian said. “It was guesswork at its best.”

    A Son Harvest Seasons corn maze – h/t Don Rood Video Productions

    When Brian finished he was exactly on target.

    Their operation has steadily improved in both production and in reduced labor as the years go by. They use drip irrigation on the raspberries and flood irrigate the corn.

    They now offer 65 varieties of squash and pumpkins.

    Planting raspberries is easier than it once was with a mechanical planter that cuts open a row, but it still requires a person to drop each individual plant in place and another to follow the machine and stamp the ground around the seedling.

    “It’s heavy, hot, hard work to stamp all those plants,” Kim said. “The blessing of the post-COVID era was us expanding inward.”

    This year’s pumpkin batch wasn’t up to previous standards because of the unusually wet summer.

    The corn maze awaiting adventurous trekkers – h/t Randy Tucker

    “We started our pumpkins in rain and storms,” Brian said. “The customers still came out to buy our pumpkins. People were so supportive.”

    The couple has a converted garage adjacent to their home fitted with a USDA-certified industrial kitchen. Kim experiments with different recipes to make raspberry jelly, jam, and syrup. Their current jalapeno raspberry offering is extremely popular.

    “We started making syrup and jam in our kitchen, but food laws limited who we could sell to,” Kim said. “New USDA cottage laws have allowed us to sell to more customers.”

    The bottles of raspberry delights are packaged in boxes that Brian builds in his nearby woodshop.

    “I wish more people realized what we can do in Wyoming with specific crops beyond the traditional grain and hay,” Brian said. “There is tremendous potential for vegetables and fruit here in Fremont County.”

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