Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
In the early 2000s, Tim and Jocelyn Engman were both working as chemists in the Chicago area.
A series of events paved the path for them to relocate and change careers, becoming organic farmers.
“The company I worked for got bought out, so I got let go because they closed the place down,” Tim said. “We decided we wanted to find something new to do, so we thought we’d come out here.
“I guess we kind of had enough of being in the Chicago area.”
Around the same time, Jocelyn’s father, who owned a small 100-acre farm on the Washington/Jefferson county line, decided to retire.
“My dad retired and asked us if we wanted to do something with it,” Jocelyn said. “We were chemists in Chicago at the time. We came home and started growing stuff.”
That was in 2004, and they started with community-supported agriculture.
“We were growing produce and selling boxes at the beginning of the season and delivering them during the season,” Tim said. “It was working pretty well. We were doing a lot of wholesales to restaurants in Iowa City.”
Skyrocketing gas prices in 2006 and 2007, though, made it impractical to sustain that business model.
“Gas prices went through the roof, up to $4 per gallon,” Tim said. “We couldn’t afford to drive up to Iowa City as much and make all these deliveries.”
Jocelyn added that the remote location of their farm did not help matters.
“It’s sort of a location thing,” she said. “Where we are at is sort of in the middle of nowhere.
“If you’re a produce grower, there are really no big markets around. All the biggest ones are a couple hours away.”
They had to find a way to make the most of all the produce they were growing.
“We decided to make something from what we grow,” Jocelyn said. “We both really like herbs. I like to eat food, so I was always interested in the culinary side.”
Tim said that they wanted to create something that was value added and had shelf life, so they could sell product year-round.
They made the decision to start producing herb-infused oils and vinegars, and Pickle Creek Herbs was born.
“Herbs have essential oils in them,” Jocelyn said. “It’s what makes them taste really strong and smell really strong.
“All an infused oil is an oil that has been infused with the essential oils from the herbs that have been put in there.”
As the business has grown, the couple decided it was best to have a division of labor. Tim handles the farm, now known as Green Heritage Farms, while Jocelyn handles the kitchen duties at their location in Fairfield.
“You can’t have two cooks in the kitchen,” Jocelyn said. “I’ll go out and work on the farm, but he’s in charge and tells me what to do when I’m out there.
“It’s vice versa in the kitchen. That’s how we stay married.”
Jocelyn’s chemistry background serves her well coming up with various recipes and combinations.
“It’s super helpful to have that chemistry background,” Jocelyn said. “I studied a lot of biochem and enzymes when I was in grad school. It’s been great to have that background.”
Ideas come from all different places.
Jocelyn said that Tim grows a lot of blackberries, so she is currently working on a blackberry ginger balsamic vinegar as a way to figure out how to use all the blackberries.
“The roasted garlic olive oil exists because people demanded a garlic olive oil,” she said. “I thought it was kind of basic, but it’s our bestseller.”
A lot of experimentation, trial and error goes into developing a product.
“Sometimes, I work on stuff and it doesn’t work out,” Jocelyn said. “Sometimes, I work on stuff for three years before I finally figure out how to do it.
“The raspberry lemon grass, the first time I made it, I said, ‘Yup, this is what I want it to be.’”
In 2019, Pickle Creek earned a national award for their Prairie Fire infused olive oil, which contains habanero, scorpion and ghost peppers.
“Tim likes his heat,” Jocelyn said. “We’ve got a hot oil that I made for his 40th birthday. He wanted a habanero oil.”
Growing the right produce in the right amount is a balancing act the couple has to work out every year.
“I know what I planted the year before, and I have an idea of how our inventory fluctuates,” Tim said. “We always try to produce enough to make sure we have some left over just in case.
“It’s kind of a matter of looking at what we grew the previous year, and how it lasted us through the year.”
The COVID-19 pandemic created an unexpected shift in business.
“When most of the markets shut down and got changed and events got canceled, we started to do some more online advertising,” Tim said. “Our online sales have doubled and tripled. It was always a small part, so tripling didn’t make up what we weren’t getting from markets, but it was a huge help.”
As stores began to reopen, Pickle Creek found new markets.
“As stores started opening, there were a lot of stores looking for new stuff to put in,” Tim said.
Several stores in eastern Iowa carry their products, as well as some stores in Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma and even Alaska.
Tim said that the business’ growth is kind of a double-edged sword.
“On one hand, it’s great, because that was always out goal,” he said. “At the same time, it makes me kind of nervous. We’re growing all of our own stuff. If we don’t have enough, we’re not going to be able to provide products until we’re back in the growing season again.
“I’ve always been concerned about growing too quickly.”