The Hillview Greenhouse Project
seeks to utilize the growth and sale of organic produce in a sustainable manner as a means by which to provide nourishment for our local community, meaningful activity for all its members, and practical social support for our aging population.
The Hillview Greenhouse has been a fixture in La Crosse for nearly 100 years. Initially built in 1911 to grow produce for local sale, its function has been altered to accommodate advances in technology, changes in markets and the needs of the La Crosse community. But over the years, the greenhouse has been more than just a business or building; from providing jobs during the depression to free plants, gardening advice and neighborly support, it has always been known as a friendly haven for the locals.
In 1987 an enterprising young couple with a passion for horticulture, Joel and Jean Olson, purchased the then decrepit and minimally functional greenhouse. With ingenuity, hard work and community support, they re-energized the place, and enjoyed success throughout the 1990’s, growing bedding plants and beautiful hanging baskets. Jean’s artistic flair and Joel’s calm demeanor and plant wisdom were a treasure to the La Crosse community. They also served the community by employing elders and younger folks with special needs.
The Olsons natural talents and organic practices (Joel states: “We’ve always been organic; after all, my kids have grown up in this place), which produced plants and products of high quality, unfortunately resulted in their progressive loss of market share as large “superstores” brought in massive quantities of bedding plants for sale at prices too low to match. So in 2004, after a careful assessment of the strengths of the greenhouse and their own talents, they brought the greenhouse full circle, transitioning back to growing produce.
Starting with herbs, then transitioning to tomatoes, they sold their product locally under the name “Gracie’s Garden”. They enjoyed some local success, but due to a combination of economic forces, natural disasters and bad luck, in 2007 the Greenhouse was in bankruptcy and facing demolition.
A new mission…
A group of local friends and neighbors got wind of the impending disaster, and joined forces to try to save the greenhouse. They included a geriatrician, a banker, a contractor, an office manager and a hospital chaplain. Playing on the strengths of the greenhouse and current community needs, they pursued non-profit status and chose a simple mission: Grow great organic produce using sustainable methods, and engage marginalized members of the community, most specifically elders and their supporters.
Today the Greenhouse is alive with produce and community. Crops of Lettuce, Spinach, small fruited and slicer tomatoes and basil are growing in a functioning ecosystem, using natural predator – prey relationships and on site composting of locally generated substrate to harmoniously benefit from and support the La Crosse community. Just as important, the environment is alive with volunteers, especially elders looking for meaningful activity and socialization.
While the greenhouse is enjoying community support and early success, it still faces challenges. While it is hoped that crop revenue will eventually make it self sustaining, it faces significant economic challenges, and fundraising is ongoing. But there is a strength and sense of purpose, and confidence that having the earth as a partner and friendships as the focus will ensure our success.
President, Hillview Greenhouse Life Center