Self-producing a healthy plate: Gardeners share a love of growing their own food

Eli Kramer, of rural Eastman, is proud of his spicy yet simple tomato juice recipe, which yielded him over 400 jars this season. He drinks a pint of his homemade juice every morning and is a strong believer in growing his own food, knowing exactly how it’s made. (Photos by Correne Martin)
Gavin Steiber (fourth from left), his mom, Shodi Moris (second from left), and younger brother, Draven (third from left), freshly picked a few carrots and explained the benefits of their homegrown produce and sustainable lifestyle for the Christian Homeschoolers of Crawford County Aug. 23.
13-year-old Gavin Steiber

By Correne Martin

Two different people. Two different stories. One common thread: Producing, consuming and selling home grown, homemade and organic food is an exceptionally wholesome way of life.

Eli Kramer lives in rural Eastman. He’s a man in his 70s with a hesitant smile and personality that hint at a life filled with hard work, self-sufficiency and conservation. He and his late wife, “Dolly,” used their very own hands to build a quirky little cabin of local timber and roadside rocks, high on the ridge overlooking the Mississippi River. Dolly passed away from cancer in 2010, and Eli misses her every day. But her legacy lives on, especially during gardening season.

Thirteen-year-old Gavin Steiber resides with his parents and younger brother in rural Millville. At first glance, he seems like a normal teenager. He loves rooting for the Milwaukee Brewers, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying the outdoors. But once you get to know Gavin, particularly his expertise in growing fresh produce, his knowledge will astound you. At such a young age, he is the owner of Gavin’s Garden & Bird Supplies, which provides for the Prairie Street Farmers Market, True Value and other local entities.

Both Eli and Gavin are busy these days, as their magazine-worthy gardens yield the abundant “fruits” of their season’s labor. Their flavorful vegetables were planted and cared for by themselves, with no chemicals, preservatives or additives. They’re both 100 percent certain of their homegrown, healthy foods.

“If you research what’s going on with our food industry, you start questioning it a bit,” Eli stated. “When I raise tomatoes, I know exactly what’s going into them.”

As tomato lovers are harvesting their crops all over the region, Eli can safely say he has completed his work for the season. One week ago, he canned over 400 jars of tomato juice—plus some additional containers of whole tomatoes, for chilis, soups and such.

He grows his tomatoes on his home property, as well as on his daughter’s farm near Mazomanie.

Eli said he and Dolly first started making tomato juice in the early 1970s. The first couple of batches weren’t the best tasting. But once they developed the perfect blend of spices—especially the right kick—Eli started drinking it by the pint every morning.

He said it’s hard to know how many hours he puts in per canning season, but Eli does it in homage to his beloved wife.

“It’s really an emotional thing for me. I’m just following through with what we started together,” he said. “And I don’t consider it work, it’s part of living off the land. Man has poisoned Mother Earth, so we have to do the little things for ourselves.”

As farmers markets all around have been filled with sweet corn and tomatoes, Gavin’s 2013 crop has consisted of peppers (green, orange and purple), potatoes and onions—the three vegetables he enjoys cultivating the most. His pumpkin patch is also producing his fall sales, and the chickens he raises are keeping him busy collecting eggs.

Gavin is certainly more than your typical teenager. He understands the benefits of composting; he eats okra, kale and brussels sprouts; and he spends many summer days weeding his garden. He’s been gardening since he was 2 and growing and selling food for the local farmers market for three years now.

Gavin’s mom, Shodi Moris, grew up in a natural, self-sustaining family, and she has clearly passed her knowledge and experiences on down to Gavin. Their family proudly blends a modern life with the more simple practices of living off the land.

On Aug. 23, Gavin and his mom welcomed the Christian Homeschoolers of Crawford County to their gardens, where they explained their practices, performed demonstrations and even offered the young ones a chance to pick onions.
Gavin seemed somewhat shy in speaking, but his knowledge was obvious.

“It’s just really neat to see a kid like Gavin, who knows so much, teaching other kids about how wonderful gardening is,” said parent Erika Stubbs.

Gavin and his mom introduced the group to their home plot, which feeds the family. It supplies mostly carrots, zucchini, kale, radishes, jalapeños, okra, basil and other herbs. Then he showed off his own garden, which included seven rows of onions (already mostly harvested), and dug some potatoes. They finished the day by offering the homeschoolers a taste of homemade kale chips and fresh apple-carrot juice.

“There’s so much you can do with fresh food that’s really good for you,” Shodi said.

For more information and pictures, find Gavin’s Garden & Bird Supplies on Facebook or visit

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