Donny Terpstra

The first time I saw Donny Terpstra unloading his booth at the Farmers’ Market I was in shock, then immediately became suspicious. I thought, there is no way he is growing all of this. The mounds and mounds of fresh, organic, leafy greens and vegetables make Donny’s table look like a set-up from Whole Foods. It’s impressive and delicious. Because of this completely unfounded suspicion, I was relieved by Donny’s cool acceptance to be interviewed. Finally, I was going to get to the bottom of things. The hour drive to Enterprise on Hwy 18 is a slow climb in elevation where the scenery ranges from dramatic red sand to wild green mountain-scapes. After making a few twists and turns through the town I saw a Shoal Creek Berries sign popping out of a wall of trees. I quickly turned right and got about 5 ft into the driveway when I stopped and audibly gasped, “Holy crap”. Shoal Creek Farm is the homestead I’ve dreamed of since a child. Overwhelming amounts of greenery and color protruded from every patch of earth. Beautifully manicured rows of berry bushes wrapped around the house and the flower beds looked like they belonged in a Martha Stewart catalog.

Donny greeted me as I hopped out of my car. “Wow this is beautiful! Is this your place?” I blurted out, ready to dump a thousand questions that were forming in my mind. “Oh no. It’s Darrell’s. Let me get him.” Donny sent his son, who works with him, to go find Darrell Humphrey. Minutes later, he pulled up on a 4-wheeler. I immediately understood why Shoal Creek Berries was the stuff of children’s books. Darrell is the quintessential grandpa figure. A tall, sweet faced, elderly man that welcomed me profusely and launched into stories of the good old days. He told me how the 5-acre farm had been organic since before organic was even a thing. For 10 years he and his wife Karen have worked their land naturally for no other reason than because it was the right thing to do. Darrell apologized for how the farm looked, explaining that this season has been particularly hard because of the heat and the terrifyingly low amount of water. I chortled, which received confused looks. I was struggling to make sense of the statement that the green paradise in front of me was not having a good year. It was here Donny pointed out random, empty garden plots and naming the crops they had lost due to drought. Darrell again reiterated my welcome and left with a statement of full confidence in Donny’s ability to show me around. “He’s the brain child behind the greens anyway,” Darrell stated as he started his 4-wheeler and rode away smiling and waving.

Left to right: Blackberry cuttings, Donny with the seedlings, and ‘the pit’

“Let’s start in the pit.” Donny pointed to the sunken structure to the left of me and I trailed behind him like an excited golden retriever. As I walked down the steps, Donny walked me through the construction of the pit, which made zero sense until I got to the bottom step and looked inside. I started freaking out. The pit is 5 ft deep and the retaining wall around the perimeter, keeping it all from caving in, is made out of old tires. In front of the tires are huge, black barrels of water. The water is heated by solar energy, which keeps the pit warm enough to grow year around. Having the structure half buried makes use of the thermal energy from the Earth, keeping it cool in Summer and warm in Winter. I’d like to say I was a professional and kept it together, but that would be a lie. I was pointing at everything and repeating, “Dude, this is AWESOME.” Donny calmly nodded and agreed, saying it turned out pretty cool. He wasted no time as he guided me through the diverse variety of seedlings and greenery contained in the pit. He pointed to a thick, well used, binder on the table. “This is my planting journal. I’ve had it for the past 5 years. I keep track of everything I ever plant, when they get transplanted, what area they’re in, and how well they do.” My face turned red with embarrassment over the fact that I can’t even keep my mail sorted. I followed him down the rows in awe.

 

I asked Donny why he decided to start an Organic Greens business. “Well I got sick.” Donny shrugged. Looking at me and seeing this answer wasn’t going to stop me from prying, he elaborated. Donny grew up around farming but found his way into concrete work and construction. In his early 30’s he had an accident and when he wasn’t healing right, his normal life got turned upside down. Donny described years of tests, the frustration of not knowing, and mostly the crippling pain. “I was finally diagnosed with a degenerative disease. I moved my family back here to be near my parents while we figured it out. Darrell first hired me as a berry picker but over the years he’s let me take on more and more. Because he knows if I sit still, the disease will put me in a wheel chair.” We stood there quiet for a moment. I was lost in the enormity of the situation, the kindness of strangers, and the literal life that was busting forth out of the ground from such a derailing experience. While I was having an existential crisis, Donny was listing other things to show me, “Let’s go to the greenhouses.” Donny turned on his heals and headed up out of the pit.

clockwise left to right: inside the greenhouses, squash leaves, back lot, and rows of blackberries.

Donny walked me through the next two greenhouses with the same matter-of-fact attitude, while I struggled to keep up. He described building the greenhouses out of electrical conduit and recycled cedar posts. “The first one was a little confusing, but we figured it out. It’s easy once you get it, so you can tell people to come out here and I’ll show them how to do it.” The first greenhouse had rows of chard and huge bunches of kale. Donny explained that they had already cycled through a spinach crop and when they planted a second batch, all the crops would rotate their placement. It was stunning. In the second greenhouse, they were using a method called companion planting. There were long, green rows of tomato plants and each plant was encircled with Romaine, Basil, and Cilantro. Donny mentioned that he sells the Basil to local restaurants and would soon be able to produce 30 lbs a week. To put that in perspective, Basil leaves are as light as a feather. That’s a whole lot of Basil.

 

As we circled the property, every few steps there was another project that solidified Donny’s farming superhero status. We came upon the compost heap. He led me through the huge vermiculture compost tea operation they had. “If I have a plant that is struggling, a few sprays of this on the leaves and boom! It’s fixed.” He described each layer inside the compost bin and how it filters the compost into the most nutrient-dense plant fertilizer known to man. Then he uncovered the top and dug down to show me the worms and their rich, dark castings. Even I knew I was looking at black gold. We rounded the last corner bringing me back to my car. I was about to leave when Donny said, “Want to see the wood fire ovens.” My eyebrows lifted and my head started involuntarily nodding.
I shut my car door, and again hurried to keep up with Donny and his unstoppable go-go pace. A short distance away, we came upon 3 huge, free-standing wood fire ovens. They were built with broken bits of concrete, insulating layers of sand, and layers of handmade adobe. He then started describing all of his favorite recipes and I stood in complete disbelief at the amount of things this guy gets done. I asked if he gets his ideas off of Pinterest. Donny looked at me confused as if I was talking in tongues. I was flushed with the realization that people like Donny didn’t use Pinterest, people like Donny is who Pinterest is based on. After that, looking around the farm, I saw every project I had ever pinned brought to life and I felt a pang of jealousy.

Donny and the wood fire ovens. One has a face because he was bored.

We said goodbye and as I began my journey home I stopped in the driveway, taking in my final breathes on the property and absorbing its beauty one last time. As I drove home I ran through every twist and turn we had taken on the farm; recognizing that every bunch of kale and Swiss Chard was the product of a life’s work, not just an afternoon here and there, but every moment from sun up to sun down. The piles of food on the market table suddenly transformed into bundles of hours and devotion. I understood now why Donny’s displays look outrageous to a normal person, because Donny is not your average farmer. He’s Super Farmer and we are so crazy grateful to have him in our community. Donny Terpstra and Shoal Creek Berries is a corner stone vendor of the Downtown Farers’ Market and can be found there every Saturday 9 am- noon. They also host u-pick berry events in the fall.  You can follow Shoal Creek Berries on Facebook HERE or if you need to place an order you can head over to their website HERE

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