Meet Zach Hinkelman (Owner of Winona Farms)

If you missed planting seeds in March or April and your garden is still barren, it’s not too late. We have plant starts for sale at the Portland Homestead Supply, supplied to us by Winona Farms. Winona Farms is a one-man operation, run by Zach Hinkelman, located in the SW hills of Portland. Read the interview below to become acquainted with Zach and some helpful tips to keep your garden healthy as the summer approaches.

Why did you start Winona Farms?

Growing plants has always been my joy. I like tending to the cycle of life, and I enjoy making my own soil out of compost that I have maintained. I do not use chemicals or outside inputs in my soil, and I grow everything to organic standards. I grow plant starters and sell them because I want people to have success gardening. If they start off on the right foot, people are going to have a pretty good experience gardening.

When did you start growing plants? Sounds like it was a long time ago.

I grew up on a pig farm in Idaho. Back then, my grandfather was still farming around fifteen hundred acres of grain. My great aunt and I would pour over the Gurney’s seed catalog every spring. I created these enormous seed orders, and she would limit them down to about a third of what I had originally chosen. My passion for plants went dormant for a while after I left Idaho. I graduated college and went to work for an insurance company programming. I never had the space to grow plants until my wife and I bought this place back in 2009. When we moved in, I said, “Oh my god, look at all this space! I’m going to get some tomato seeds.” I bought heirloom seeds from Pennsylvania and ended up with about twenty mature plants. I knew I didn’t have a use for twenty tomato plants, so I advertised them on Craiglist for a hundred dollars. The next year, I started selling plant starts at farmers’ markets and then Barbur’s World Foods. It just keeps on getting bigger and bigger!

How has your family’s farm evolved? Is your family still farming?

My parents retired, and my uncle took over the farm. I actually go back and help him bring in the harvest every August; I’ve only missed one of them in all of my forty years. People have family reunions, and that’s mine! It’s always a joyful time, brings me back to the innocent times when I was six and seven begging my grandpa to let me ride in the combine with him.

It’s an interesting dynamic because I grow everything here organic on a small scale and my uncle grows with conventional GMO seeds on a large scale. I have to keep an open mind because this is how my family makes their living. I’m not a GMO supporter myself; I believe that there are plenty of good seeds out there that can produce the amount of food we need. GMOs have sprung up because they are easier. I have to be careful that I don’t say, “These are stupid. These are terrible.” That’s not the way it needs to be. Instead of blaming, I approach it as a conversation about how we can use less pesticides and fungicides that we both can learn from.

Where do you source most of your seeds now?

Most of the seeds come from Johnny’s in Maine. I also get some from Baker Creek and Seeds of Change. I am always looking for organic and small companies. Johnny’s isn’t that small, but I’ve always had awesome success with their seeds.

Do you have a favorite tomato or pepper that you grow?

I can give you a top five of the peppers. I love, love peppers. I have this Ancho which is also called a Poblano Magnifico. If you get it to ripen up red, it is so sweet and smoky. They are like vegetarian beef jerkey. I am also a big fan of the Super Hots (the Scorpions), which is what I make my salsa out of. The fish pepper is a fun one because it is variated. The leaves are green and white, and the peppers come out like striped zebras. It’s a nice looking ornamental plant.

My favorite tomato of all time is a White Trifele. It’s a really nice sauce tomato. Their appearance and their varied uses are a nice combination.

Are any of the tomatoes or peppers better suited to this climate?

Some of the Principe Borghese tomatoes that I potted up about three weeks ago are not really doing anything. The Principe Borghese is an Italian heirloom that is awesome for sauce. The story goes that the Italians would dig up the whole plant and hang it up and sun dry their tomatoes. I love the plant and the fruit, but I think they need a warmer climate.

Do you have any pro-tips for seeding plants and having success?

Don’t be afraid of failure because that is how you learn. Don’t be afraid to try stuff because it just might work! Seeds are very resilient; they can overcome some pretty rough stuff. Peppers will take more time and basil can be finicky, but overall the successes will overwhelm the failures.

The hardest thing to do is to continually nurture your plants. You can start out very excited, thinking, “I’m going to seed these tomatoes!” and then you forgot about them a few days later. They get dry and die off. As long as you can focus on your gardening a few minutes a day, that’s all it takes.

Also, if you buy starts, plant them in the late afternoon or evening so the plants can get acclimated before they get beat down upon by the sun.

Are there any resources that you would suggest for those interested in expanding their gardening skills?

I know some garden centers that have a lot of classes. Those are good tools simply because you can ask questions and talk through issues with experienced gardeners. New Scalpel, Portland Nursery, and the Homestead Supply are all good resources!

If you really want to be ambitious, look into a community garden plot. I belong to the one just down the street at United Methodist Church. They offer a program where you can donate all your produce to Neighborhood House. It doesn’t even cost anything for the plot. You just have to be out there, make sure you weed it and water it. You learn a lot just walking through and watching how other people grow their vegetables.

How do you see your work fitting into the larger homestead movement?

The homesteading thing has always been a weird thing for me because I grew up on a farm, and the movement is trying to recreate that lifestyle in a city. I can appreciate wanting that.

I think my business fits into the homesteading movement because it is giving people a head start on their gardens. Some reports say you can save quite a bit growing your own food. I appreciate the fact that if you’re growing your own food, you know where it’s coming from and you know what you’re putting in it. If you want to put chemicals on it, you can. The fact that you’re growing food in your backyard means it doesn’t have to be trucked up from California or South America. It’s much gentler on the environment, and harvesting produce you have grown yourself can be very satisfying.

What is the next step for your business?

I’m at a spot right now where I can’t get much bigger. You can see all these trees; it’s hard to get a lot of sun in here. I can’t expand any more in my backyard, besides building one more greenhouse. If I want to grow, I need a place out of town with a lot more sun. It’s a strange crux in my life because I lost my job of 18 years about a month ago. It’s actually been a blessing because I had been frustrated in that position and wanted to focus more on my gardening. I don’t know yet if the plants can pay all the bills! But for me, it is therapeutic. I could garden for hours. It would be rough for me to give up.