For the past twenty years, farmer Larry Haas has been tilling the soil in rural Dane County and harvesting one of the oldest crops around: gourds.
Haas, known as ‘The Gourd Guy,’ began gourd farming after a trip to Georgia. “Down there, Northern Georgia, a couple hundred miles north of Atlanta, they have hay wagons filled with gourds,” he said. “I thought it was strange. You’re from Wisconsin, you see a hay wagon, it has hay in it. In Georgia, you see a hay wagon filled with gourds. I thought that was kinda neat.”
At first, cultivating gourds on land near his family’s old farm was difficult. “I was doing everything wrong,” Haas said. “I started out with gourds. As soon as the cold air was coming, what would you do? You don’t want it to freeze, so I’d put it in my barn, store them up where they dry nicely. You don’t do that.” Instead, Haas learned to leave his gourds in the field during the winter. Those that survived would be picked, cleaned and sorted.
Haas sells many of his gourds at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. It was there he met his now-wife, Terri Schmit. “The first time I passed his stand, I had no idea what those were, what the gourds were. I knew it wasn’t a potato,” Schmit said. “I was just too shy to go up and ask him. So the following weekend, when I came up, there was a family with two kids that had just come up … Then they moved off, and he and I started talking, and then every weekend when I’d come to the market, I’d stop and say hi.”
After the two married, Haas suggested that Schmit, already an accomplished musician, experiment with the gourds. “I asked her to draw something,” he said. “So I drew my first thing, was a kokopelli, which really is not much more than a stick person,” Schmit said. “I’m the kind of person, all I need is a little encouragement, and I’ll go in with both feet. Somebody said ‘wow, that’s cool!’” Since then, Schmit has carved, painted and wood-burned thousands of gourds, often incorporating “flaws” in the gourds’ surface. “Every single gourd really has its own personality and really does tell you what it wants to be,” she said. “There’s something in that gourd … it could be just a little divot, it could be just a little sugar bump … so you have to incorporate it.”
The two even started the Wisconsin Gourd Society in 2015 to help other gourd growers and artists hone their skills and share their experiences.