Val Jorgensen is on a mission to spread a healthy food message
Val Jorgensen holds a sprig of just-picked lavender between her index finger and thumb, rubbing the vibrant purple blooms ever so slightly back and forth. She brings the herb-dainty in her overtly strong hands-to her nose. Her shoulders and sculpted arms, exposed in a sleeveless eyelet dress, rise with a deep inhale, and then relax as she smiles.
For a second, she's lost in the floral scent; a private moment between farmer and crop.
She unabashedly shares this joy with a dozen guests who've followed her from a white barn, beyond an alley of shoulder-high sunflowers and through a green pasture to five hoop houses on the hill of her 65-acre Westerville farm.
"Touch, smell, pick," she encourages the visitors, who are wandering through rows of basil and lavender inside the plastic-lined building. "They love it. It makes them come alive."
It's hard to tell if the owner of Jorgensen Farms is speaking about her herbs or herself. The opportunity to bring guests out to her farm-like the nearly 200 who have come on a Sunday summer evening for a family-style, farm-to-table dinner-is something she relishes.
It's one of the reasons she started her farm 12 years ago. It's not just growing organic herbs and produce for some of the area's most popular restaurants, like Alana's Food and Wine and Third & Hollywood. It's about creating a space where people can connect with the food they eat.
"I want to be more than just a pretty farm," she says. "It's about working with the local community. I like to think that I am making a difference."
Building the wood- and steel-framed hoop houses-greenhouse-like enclosures that require no artificial energy to stay warm-is proof of her dedication. These 20-by-96-foot structures mean that even in Ohio's cold climate, there are only six weeks out of the year when crops won't grow on the farm. Jorgensen invested thousands of dollars in their construction last summer, learning about their viability while managing the farm and attending a full-time Michigan State organic farming program for people committed to growing food year-round.
It's a devotion that's put her farm in high demand. She wants to fill every order from every chef who wants something local. And Jorgensen-a fit blonde who looks far younger than her 58 years-wants to prove it's never too late in life to pursue your passion.
Those who know her best affectionately call her frenetic. She's a creative mind who needs to juggle six projects at once to feel truly productive. Even in conversation, she constantly changes directions, but always comes full circle.
She'll start one sentence talking about the 2 pounds of spearmint she grows each week for Northstar. Then, she breaks that thought to note that the flowering basil growing nearby won't go to waste. (It's still good for pesto.) And, oh, that spearmint is for ginger ale. It's all grown to chef specifications.
"She's like the Willy Wonka of farmers," says Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, one of Jorgensen Farms' first culinary accounts. "She's an innovative person. Whatever we want to do, she's game."
The call came on a Wednesday, as Jorgensen stood outside her white barn with bright yellow doors. It was three days before she was set to open Jorgensen Farm Market in August 2002.
Hearing that she had breast cancer didn't surprise her. She expected it. A month earlier, a routine mammogram had found an abnormal growth so small, it had almost been cast aside as nothing. But in four weeks, it had tripled in size.
The weight of the news didn't register. There were 450 laying hens to tend to. Crops like cabbage, green beans, peppers, tomatoes and squash to harvest. Honey to comb from her five apiaries.
"I'm just really busy right now," Jorgensen told her doctor. "I know I need to address it. I'll come in on Monday."
She laughs about it now-her impulse to say she was too busy for cancer. Her doctor won: She had surgery the following week, and radiation soon after. This August, she'll celebrate 11 years cancer-free.
Beating cancer was easy. What's been difficult, she says, is the heartache that's dotted the joy she's found in following her dream-one she didn't even know she had when she bought the land in 1992 with her then-husband.
The intent wasn't to farm it. The property was meant to be space for their four boys, ages 1 to 11. A pediatric nurse by training, Jorgensen chose to stay at home to raise her sons, running them from one sporting event to the next and passing along lessons she'd learned growing up as the second oldest of six kids on a dairy farm in Michigan.
But she couldn't escape her roots. She gardened on the front portion of the property. She helped her oldest son, Matt Karikomi, raise Romney sheep.
Soon, she realized she'd rather be outside-weeding, digging in the soil-than anything else. Paperwork could sit. Shelves could stay dusty. "It just brought such fulfillment," she says, "such a feeling of health, physically and emotionally."
By 2001, with two boys in college and more free time, she incorporated the farm. She decided from the start to make it organic, meaning she'd use no pesticides, synthetic fertilizer or growth agents in her crop and livestock. Jorgensen Farms (after her maiden name) was certified organic in 2002.
Opening the farm filled not just a need to be healthy, but a yearning for a richer social life-one she didn't have with her husband, whom she divorced in 2009. She wanted to be around people, to host visitors at the farm she saw as an extension of her home.
"She's one of the most socially free, transparent people I know," says Karikomi, her 31-year-old son. From the start, he says, her focus wasn't to make money. She wanted to do something she enjoys.
Jorgensen has created a niche in Columbus as a go-to farm for organic herbs, most notably growing all of the peppermint for Jeni's popular seasonal flavor Backyard Mint.
Britton Bauer still recalls the first time she met Jorgensen at the North Market. The farmer handed Britton Bauer a variety of herbs and told her she could grow anything.
"Val just sort of sells herself," Britton Bauer recalls. "My first impression of her is that she thinks fast, and she's a go, go, go person. I like people like that. She's laid back, but also not at all. She was in my face."
Other farmers would drop off samples. But Jorgensen was in her kitchen every week. The two began collaborating in search of the perfect variety of peppermint for the ice cream, settling on a type called Robert Mitchum. Now, Jorgensen harvests 80-pounds of it a week for Jeni's during the summer.
Over the past two years, local chefs began asking for more than herbs. Jorgensen's decision to go back to school was a result of the increasing demand. She put pressure on herself, she says, to never be in a position to say no.
"She would really, really love everything to be perfect," says Ashton Franks, Jorgensen's assistant. "She never sits for a minute."
From March 2011 to November 2011, Jorgensen left Westerville Monday around 2 a.m. to get to class at Michigan State. The hands-on program involved running a farm and selling its produce. Her goal was to learn how to extend her season, and with her hoop houses, she did. This year, thanks to those electric-free incubators, she started deliveries in early March rather than June.
The impeccably manicured farm on East Walnut Street is hidden under a sheet of snow. It's early February, part of the farm's six-week downtime.
Jorgensen sits at the kitchen table of her yellow farmhouse and looks out at the wintry setting: a garden that will come alive with kale, monarda and hops, a frozen creek with a little wooden bridge dividing a pear orchard.
This is her favorite view, she says. The kitchen is one of her favorite spaces in the house. It's where she crafts simple food from the farm each day-fresh eggs from the henhouse, greens from the hoop house, canned tomatoes from her mother. Real food, she calls it.
Her cooking is one of Karikomi's favorite things about his mom.
"She has the ability to open up the refrigerator or cabinet and make something, marrying the best possible ingredients," he says. "It's a very intuitive skill. It's kind of her personality. She just dives in. She's strongly versatile."
This year, Jorgensen will continue selling at farmers markets in New Albany and Worthington. She has more than fresh produce on the docket, too. There are wool blankets, yarn and pelts; lamb sausage; herb blends; teas; and 10 flavors of infused honey.
She's still working to perfect her granola and a cookie recipe subbing refined sugar with natural honey. "I get surges of creativity that I honestly can't control," she says.
In 2011, Jorgensen began hosting Sunday Suppers once a month to bring people to her property. But she's put them on hold to accommodate her myriad requests for weddings, expecting to book up to 35 this year. Still, she's searching for other ways to involve the community. She's partnered with the Gahanna Convention & Visitors Bureau to run a program called Girl Thyme, a customizable day for up to a dozen women to spend on the farm.
"I am as happy as I can possibly be in the place that I am in life," Jorgensen says. "I wake up doing what I love. I can't wait to get out of bed in the morning."
There's an antsy tinge to her voice that also says this famer, fumbling with a small jar of her herb-infused honey, can't wait for spring, either. She, it seems, is much like that lavender. When she rubs herself into the ground, Jorgensen, along with this edible garden that is her home, comes alive.