Bloch’s blossoms during tough time

HELPING KEEP BLOCH’S Farm going strong during the pandemic are, from left, Jennifer LaMontagne, K.C. Stewart, Jen Waters, Lee Baird, Sue Ellen Bloch and Sue McConnell. Joe Schulz photo

by Joe Schulz

When Sue Ellen Bloch and her husband, John, began running Bloch’s Farm in the 1980s, they never imagined a roadside vegetable stand would blossom into one of Green Lake’s iconic retail attractions.

Since then, Bloch’s has faced multiple challenges. Most recently, the garden center was forced to move its entire product catalog online due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to Sue Ellen, the move to an online store paid off as Bloch’s has been able to satisfy customers’ needs amid uncertain times. 

Just as plants need time to grow, however, Bloch’s Farm did not blossom into a successful business overnight. 

Prior to living on the farm, in the early ‘80s John and Sue Ellen graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and were working in Minneapolis.

They married and started a family and both wanted to move back to Wisconsin to be closer to family, as John was from Green Lake and Sue Ellen from Berlin. 

Once they were back in Wisconsin, John suggested they go “look at the farm,” which at the time confused Sue Ellen because John wasn’t raised on the farm and hadn’t said anything about a family farm. 

“All while we were together, he had never mentioned it; I never knew about this farm,” Sue Ellen recalled. “… We came and looked at this legacy farm, which his great grandparents had founded back in the 1800s, and the house and outbuildings were in complete disrepair, but we bought it and we slowly began to renovate the house, the barn and the out buildings.”

At the time, because John and Sue Ellen had three young children at home to take care of, Sue Ellen couldn’t work a normal day job, so she and John planted a large garden on the property. 

This was the beginning of selling organic free-range chickens, as well as bouquets of herbs and flowers from a trailer on the side of Highway 23. 

“We had so much produce coming out of that garden that I was giving it away on the highway on a trailer,” Sue Ellen said. “I started to realize how many people were stopping, so the next year I planted a larger garden, which we followed with greenhouses to starter plants.” 

The business evolved over time, and by the 1990s, Sue Ellen and John developed Bloch’s maintenance and landscaping division.

The business eventually pivoted, abandoning the free-range chickens and produce to adopt a retail gardene, home decor market along with landscaping and maintenance services. 

“Once the retail garden center and home decor market opened up here, I no longer had time to do the farm marketing and I just followed the business trail,” Sue Ellen said. 

Today, Bloch’s Farm offers a variety of blooms, annuals, perennials, natives, trees, shrubs, window boxes, hanging baskets, herbs, artistic planters and containers. 

The farm also creates and installs hardscapes — such as patios, outdoor fireplaces, walkways and driveways — throughout the area.

In addition to creating a business, John and Sue Ellen raised a family, ensuring each of her three children worked on the farm.

“We ingrained the kids in the business right off the bat, from helping unload semis at 6 a.m. to working as cashiers and salespeople and greenhouse help,” Sue Ellen said. “They just sort of shadowed us, and when the time came for them to grow on their own, we gave them each wings to go off and be themselves.”

The oldest, Kala, now lives in Orcas Island, Wash. Megan lives in Chicago, and Paul is a fishing guide in Bozeman, Mont.

While their children are all grown up now, Sue Ellen and John continue to run Bloch’s Farm with the goal of helping customers find innovative ways to fit gardening and landscaping into their lifestyle.

In March, the coronavirus provided the couple with a unique challenge in servicing their customers.

“When everything was shutting down, we had eight greenhouses bursting just full of stuff to sell and no outlet,” Sue Ellen said. “It was high-anxiety time.”

As the pandemic altered everyday life, Bloch’s Farm, which had been deemed essential, worked to move its entire product catalog online. 

To meet the modified needs of their guests, two experts who were instrumental in helping the farm navigate the pandemic are Retail Customer Service Manager Katie Prellwitz and Office Manager Jen Waters.

Sue Ellen noted the duo helped the farm follow proper social distancing measures as it changed its business model from allowing customers to freely wander through the facility, to online shopping model with curbside pickup. 

“It was a very overwhelming task, and I could not have done it without those two solid minds,” Sue Ellen said. “We put our entire inventory of tens of thousands of pieces of plant material on the internet with pictures, prices and descriptions in one month.”

As restrictions eased, Bloch’s eventually reopened for customers to explore with signs placed throughout, limiting capacity in buildings and reminding folks to remain 6-feet apart. 

Still, Sue Ellen noted the move to an online business model helped the farm stay afloat during tough times.

“We received a lot of positive feedback on how we were handling the social distancing, the mask wearing and the curbside pickup,” she said. “It really worked out well for such last minute changes.”

Even in navigating the pandemic, Sue Ellen believes her employees have been the key to maintaining Bloch’s Farm as one of the country’s premier garden centers.

Time and again, when crises have come, whether the 2008 financial crisis or COVID-19, she says Bloch’s employees have always rallied to meet the challenge.

“There’s your real family and there’s your business family,” she said. “We have such a great sisterhood and brotherhood with each and every one of our employees because we really do care about each and every one of them.”

Sue Ellen and John are looking forward to the future, believing that  2021 promises to bring about “fantastic enhancements to the farm.”