Reaping What They Sow

By Anne Morrissy

At 2 p.m. on a warm and sunny day in July, Pearce’s Farm Stand was filled with a steady stream of shoppers eyeing perfectly ripe tomatoes, sleek and sizeable zucchini, overflowing baskets of inky-dark cherries and bunches of bright, blooming gladiolas.

The stand, located west of Williams Bay at the intersection of Highway 67, County Road F and North Walworth Road, has been a local institution for at least three generations, providing shoppers in the area with fresh produce, much of it homegrown, but also offering something harder to describe: a full sensory shopping experience, available each year from July through the end of October. To stand in the middle of Pearce’s is to absorb not just a symphony of colors and shapes, but also the bumpy feel of a head of cauliflower between your fingers or the taste of a sugar donut sample melting on your tongue. To shop at Pearce’s is to shop fully present.

Anxiously, a man approaches Mary Ann Pearce, matriarch of the family, former member of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors, and still the self- proclaimed “boss” of Pearce’s (though her husband, affectionately known to regulars as “Farmer Bob,” may quibble). “When will you have sweet corn?” the anxious man asks.

“Friday,” she says, matter-of-factly. “We don’t pick it until it’s ready, and it will be ready on Friday.” A flicker of disappointment in the man’s eye gives way to a look of anticipation.

If anyone knows when the corn will be ready, it’s Bob and Mary Ann Pearce. Bob has been farming on North Walworth Road since his family bought a nearby farm in the 1940s, and he and Mary Ann have been operating a farm stand at this location since 1965. In the early years, Bob says it was really just a wagon full of corn parked on the corner. “We planted the shade trees there so we wouldn’t have to be out in the hot sun all day,” he explains. (Digging down to plant the trees, they discovered the foundation of an old one-room schoolhouse that used to sit on the property.)

A ROMANCE BLOSSOMS

Really, the story of Pearce’s Farm Stand goes back to an afternoon at the Delavan Roller Rink in the early 1950s. That’s when Bob, then a Walworth High School student, first spotted Mary Ann, then an underclassman at Elkhorn High School, and couldn’t take his eyes off her. Unfortunately, Mary Ann and her friends left before Bob could track her down to talk to her. Then a few weeks later, Bob and his friends were out driving around (“cruising” was a popular teen activity of the day) and came across a carload of girls doing the same thing. One of Bob’s friends knew one of the girls in the car, so they decided to stop and chat. Bob came over to talk to the girl’s friend and discovered to his surprise that it was Mary Ann, the pretty girl from the roller rink. He asked her out on a date then and there.

A few weeks later, Mary Ann left for the summer to nanny in Hayward, in northern Wisconsin. So Bob and a friend got in his early-1950’s Pontiac and made the five-hour drive on rural back roads so he could take her to a movie. (He and the friend slept in the car that night and drove back through thick fog, Bob remembers.)

They dated for “a couple of years” while Bob continued farming and Mary Ann attended a year of college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But they found they couldn’t stay apart for very long, and so the couple was married on June 18, 1955. They bought a farm across from Bob’s parents’ farm and got some dairy cows. Over the next decade, they went on to have five children together — four girls and a boy.

FROM FREE CORN TO THRIVING BUSINESS

At that time, their farm was located slightly north of their current location. Though it was primarily a dairy farm, they did grow some crops to sell to a local canning plant, and they kept a large vegetable garden, mostly for their own use. “We grew corn in our vegetable garden, and I really didn’t know what I was doing at first, so we ended up with way too much corn,” Mary Ann remembers with a laugh. “We’d put out the extra up at the road with a sign that said, ‘free corn.’ And nobody would even take it!” As their kids got a little older, Bob and Mary Ann encouraged them to set up a picnic table at the same spot — the children sold the corn for pennies per ear.

Then in 1965, the Pearces were looking to expand their operation and were on the lookout for a bigger farm to buy. They put in an offer on a large dairy farm in Delavan with a 100-cow milking barn, but the deal fell through. Then one evening while they were attending a church dinner, they heard that their neighbor’s farm at the corner of Highway 67 and County Road F was for sale. They left the church dinner to see it for themselves, and realized it was the perfect location for them. “If we had gotten the farm in Delavan, our lives would have been completely different,” Bob says.

“We wouldn’t have had this corner, and this corner has been very good to us,” Mary Ann adds.

The picnic table was upgraded to a wagon of corn, the shade trees were planted and history was made. With the increased visibility of the busy corner, local residents and visitors to the area discovered the farm stand and the Pearces’ delicious, fresh-picked corn. “That was always the secret to our success,” Mary Ann explains. “We picked the corn and sold it on the same day. Especially back then, you couldn’t leave picked corn sitting around — it’s no good. The best is if you can get the pot boiling on the stove first and then go out and pick the ears and put them immediately into the pot.” In those days, Mary Ann says she and the kids did a lot of the picking themselves. Bob would come out and join them after tending to the milk cows.

Over the years, the Pearces began adding more produce to the stand — tomatoes and peppers, pumpkins in the fall. By 1978, the stand and the canning contracts were so successful that Bob gave up the dairy operation to focus on crops. He and Mary Ann expanded the stand from one wagon of corn to two to three, and added more and more produce to their offerings, building additional sections of a portable roof structure with each expansion and hiring more employees to help them staff the stand.

SIGNIFICANT EXPANSION BRINGS MORE SUCCESS

By the early 2010s, Pearce’s Farm Stand was a thriving, locally famous landmark, and that’s when Bob and Mary Ann Pearce’s grandson, Bobby, sat them down at a picnic table and mapped out an idea he had for a significant expansion. It included multiple permanent structures, a commercial kitchen, a picnic and play area (site of the famous “jumping bales”), and a corn maze in the autumn.

Since completing the expansion in 2013, the Pearces say they’ve been busier than ever. “Bobby really had the vision,” Mary Ann says. Today their son, Billy, plants sweet corn steadily from April through mid-July on over 2,000 acres of land in order to keep the sweet corn in stock through the end of October.

Bob and Mary Ann, now in their 80s, show absolutely no signs of slowing down. Despite having both knees replaced in 2019, Bob still works at the stand every day, greeting customers like old friends (which many of them are) and making sure there is always plenty of produce on display. Mary Ann is on-site nearly every day as well, if she is not on a buying trip to try out new suppliers for the items they don’t grow themselves—blueberries from Michigan perhaps, or jams and honey from Door County. In her pocket, she carries a list of handwritten notes that she writes to herself each day based on feedback from their customers — “heirloom tomatoes, not too ugly,” “red radishes,” “need more basil.”

In fact, both Bob and Mary Ann say their favorite thing about running the farm stand for the past 55 years is the people. The stand is a family affair, involving their five children, six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. But they say they also cherish the deep friendships they have formed over the years with many of their customers and employees. “We’ve developed a lot of friends over the years doing this, and now they’ll come in with their kids and their grandkids,” Bob says. “They’ve been coming here for three generations now.”

As for the secret to Bob and Mary Ann’s limitless energy, that remains something of a mystery. “We just keep chugging along,” Mary Ann laughs. “People always ask us when we’re going to retire, and I don’t think we are.”

Tags from the story