WINNEBAGO - The Loomis Gardens produce stand is an institution in Winnebago, but it took a circuitous route to fruition, although Paul Loomis was always headed in that direction.
Loomis grew up on a farm north of Albert Lea and got a bachelor's degree in agricultural education at the University of Minnesota.
"I quit farming when I was 30 and went back to college," he said.
Paul and Carol Loomis check out the large patch of dill they grow near their home in Winnebago. They grow lots of vegetables and sell them at a stand on Main Street in Winnebago.
"I came to Winnebago in 1968 as the vo-agriculture teacher," Loomis said.
The job was fazed out when the local schools consolidated, but Loomis stayed on, opening a carpentry shop and building houses, and doing repair work.
"In the early '80s, we ran out of work," he said, but he kept the shop at 210 N. Main St.
He worked for Meter-Man Manufacturing, selling farm-related items, traveling all over the United States and attending trade shows in England and Seoul, South Korea.
Along the way, he and wife Carol always had big gardens.
"Froze a lot of stuff and used it for our family, give it to relatives and neighbors," Loomis said.
He and Carol have two grown children.
"It's fun to watch the plants develop," Loomis said. "One of the big things I get out of it is the appreciation of the people who buy our stuff."
In the early 1990s, there was an auction of tax-delinquent property in Winnebago and Loomis bought 21 vacant lots.
"We cleaned those up and had a beautiful place to grow stuff," he said. "Started gardening a little bigger because we had the room."
With more gardening came more produce and the dilemma of what to do with it.
In 1995, they converted the old carpentry building into a produce stand and started selling.
"It's a nice location on [Highway] 169," Loomis said. "We took a wagon and set it out with produce, with a coffee can with a plastic lid on it. People put money in the can. Worked so good, we expanded it. Self-service honor-system farmers market."
"We have an amazing customer base; it's wonderful," Carol said.
"This time of year, we're open Thursday, Friday and Saturday," Loomis said. "As we get more tomatoes and sweet corn, then we'll be open every day."
In addition to tomatoes and sweet corn, Loomis Gardens offers asparagus, radishes, lettuce, beets, kohlrabe, broccoli, onions, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, kale, peas, leeks, potatoes, peppers, hot peppers, watermelons, zucchini, yellow summer squash, pumpkins, squash, broomcorn, ornamental corn, gourds and basil.
The couple plan and plant in stages so their gardens produce for more of the season.
"So we have something for the customers all the way into October," Carol said.
They know people like locally grown produce.
"Lots of people like to know where their food comes from and that it's not saturated with insecticides and chemicals," Loomis said.
The swing toward eating more vegetables is a good one, Loomis said.
"Because it certainly keeps you healthy," he said. "I'm over 80, my wife is 77; both very healthy."
He encourages others to grow their own, but warned against going overboard.
"Almost everybody has a little plot of land to grow things on," Loomis said. "It's fun to involve kids; good activity to plant seeds and see what comes up and eat what comes up.
"The first thing is to start small," he cautioned. "I have a tractor with a rototiller on it. People will have me rototill up a great area and it's more than they can handle. Weeds come up and they get discouraged. Start small, with just a few tomato plants and just a few vegetables in a small area and see how it goes."
At his age, Loomis isn't sure how long he'll keep going, especially after having a stroke about a year ago. He has made a good recovery, but he wants others to discover the joys of growing and eating their own vegetables.
"I guess it's like the old naval captain said, 'Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead,'" Loomis said. "For me, it's damn the strokes and full speed ahead. I hope to go as long as I can."