Whenever I sing the praises of Pickle Creek Herbs to anyone who will listen, I often get the question, “Oh, do they make pickles?”
Well, if you can call Blackberry Ginger Balsamic Vinegar “pickled,” then, um … maybe? But what you are imbibing when you cook with yummy Pickle Creek infused oil or vinegar is never going to be chunks of berries or roots or herbs. What dances on your tongue will be a sublimely different sort of brine: the essences of locally grown fruits, peppers, garlic, and herbs infused into pleasing mediums that bloom beautifully across your senses and instantly upgrade the status of your boring meal to a culinary poem.
Who would dain to improve a simple cheese and cracker appetizer? I would. With the help of Pickle Creek. Makers of shrubs, switchels, and adventurous cocktails, take note! If you’re searching for aromatic alternatives for your quiche crust or cornbread, Pickle Creek is about to be your jam. And if you love experimenting with homemade salad dressings and mouthwatering marinades, you’ll be in heaven as you start up your own little lab of bodacious and herbaceous Pickle Creek vinegars and oils.
Speaking of labs, that’s where the story of Pickle Creek Herbs began. Sort of.
I sat with Jocelyn Engman one afternoon in her Fairfield stockroom as she carefully labeled the bottles of a fresh batch of rosemary-infused olive oil. Even though I’ve been a die-hard Pickle Creek fan for years, I made her give me “the pitch.”
Jocelyn joked that back in the day (she and her husband Tim started their business over 15 years ago), she practiced this speech “in case Brad Pitt or the President of the United States ever walked up to her” at the farmers market: “We’ve got a little herb farm on the farm where I grew up, and we grow garlic and herbs and tomatoes and berries and use them all to make these olive oils and vinegars, and we make soaps, salves, and balms as well. And everything is made with our own original recipes and we make it with stuff we grow. We used to be chemists, and we inherited a farm, and here we are.”
Jocelyn and Tim Engman are both cut from the smarty-pants cloth and have made an unstoppable team distilling the science of boutique family farming down to edible formulas disguised as art. Easily accessible, good-for-you, shareable food art.
Growing a Business
Tim admits he never imagined he’d be working a farm. “Nope. I was gonna work in a lab doing drug discovery work.” Turns out he’s pretty well-suited for a laboratory under the open sky, a job that offers the blessings of solitude and communion with nature. “Some days are tougher than others,” Tim says, “but I like trying to find the balance—where you can make things work the best that they can in the environment you’re in that year.” I don’t know, but he sounds like a farmer to me.
The Engmans have been farming since 2004. “The first few years we were just trying to sell produce.” In fact, every spring and summer, Pickle Creek still offers a stunning array of plant seedlings alongside their bottled goodies—from black cherry tomatoes and shishito peppers to Thai basil and German thyme. “But produce is a tough market,” Tim says. “Somewhere along the line we picked up the idea of value-added products, products that are shelf stable. You can make it, and you don’t have to sell it that week or throw it away.” The rest is history, as they say.
“2008 was when we joined the Des Moines Downtown Farmers Market, and that’s when we got serious,” Jocelyn tells me. They are regulars now at markets in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Iowa City, Washington, and sometimes their home base in Fairfield. They’ve got displays all over—out of town, and in town at the At Home Store, Breadtopia, SOMM Wines, and their own showroom. And these days, they do a hoppin’ online business as well. “We ship all over—even Puerto Rico and Alaska.”
This comes as no surprise to me. “To try one or two of Pickle Creek’s products,” I tell Jocelyn gooily, “is basically to become a fan for life. Are you prepared to sustain that kind of business!!?”
She chuckles, “I have people come to me at the market, and they say, ‘Please, please, please, don’t ever stop making this.’ And they’re serious. One lady was like, ‘I would die without this.’ And I think, are people worried we’re going to go away? I suppose after the past couple years, it’s a real concern.” Nope. Pickle Creek is still cranking along, and boy we addicts feel awful lucky.
When I ask Jocelyn what keeps her going through the toughest of times, she tells me she’s inspired by Eliot Coleman. “He wrote The New Organic Grower,” she says of the famous organic farmer, traveler, and hiker. “He did all this outdoor adventure stuff before he started farming, but he says farming is the biggest adventure he’s ever been on.”
Starting—and growing—a small family-farm business is not for the faint of heart, Jocelyn reflects. “There are a lot of things that will take a business out—you just didn’t calculate something right, or you didn’t realize the workload, or you have some random catastrophic thing that goes down, but mainly what happens is, it becomes really stressful, and people say, ‘Forget it, I’m not going to live with this stress.’ But Tim and I are not that kind of people.” This stuff takes a special breed of Iowa tough.
From the first seed pressed into germination mix in January until the last clove of garlic mulched with straw in early November, Tim is planning, planting, building, and harvesting, either in his indoor germination room or on the family farm and greenhouse located near Pleasant Plain. Meanwhile Jocelyn juggles infusing, bottling, inventory, order fulfillment, and marketing—all operations that occupy the large square house at 104 S. 3rd Street, which the Engmans converted into a commercial kitchen, shipping station, and product showroom. A handful of employees assist with the business these days, including a small hoard of helpers who proudly sport their Pickle Creek T-shirts, “Will Work for Plants.” You can count me among them.
Though most days the Engmans are separated by about 20 miles of gravel roads and cornfields, creating their delicious recipes is something they typically do in collaboration. “Jocelyn leads the charge on product development, on flavor,” says Tim, “but I help her figure out some of the balance things, the chemical issues, the processes that will work consistently, while keeping an eye on cost: what can we do to tweak this a little bit for the same result but use less inputs?”
Acts of Kindness Inside a Storm
As you might guess, Pickle Creek has faced some pretty awful “weather.” Tim and Jocelyn have made it through actual monsoons at the Des Moines market. “Tent canopies were literally blowing down the street, the gutters were backed up, and we’re standing in a foot of water. We will not forget that one!” They survived near lethal doses of carbon monoxide poisoning, of all things, at the farmers market, too. They made it through a derecho that shredded their greenhouse cover—and a “tornadic cell” that ripped the top off their high tunnel. They persevered when the family farmhouse suddenly burned to the ground, midwinter—and thank goodness no one was living there at the time, but Tim had to chip through the ice to rebuild the entire water system. “But hey, I’ve been going blind since I was 20 years old,” Jocelyn tells me, “there’s not a lot that’s worse than that. Sometimes you just have to let go.” Through the terrifying journey of Jocelyn’s failing eyesight, she’s had to adapt. And adapt and adapt and adapt—pretty good mental-toughness training for getting your business through a pandemic, I’d say. You can kick and scream if you want to. You can have a good cry. And then you take a deep breath and do what needs to be done. Adapt.
“2020 was a very shocking year,” she says. After a slow build since 2008, and record sales in 2019, “everything was efficient, everything was humming, we had it all figured out. Then the entire world shuts down. You’re this event-based, farmers market business, and you’ve got no farmers markets. I mean, my poor mother—so many phone calls. From me. For her. Every time an event got canceled. And canceled. And canceled. And all my life was canceled. Because that’s basically what we did.”
But as doors were shutting around them, Tim and Jocelyn thank their stars for a sunlit crack in the window—and an idea from one of their customers. “Luckily we were set up with multiple ways to get out there, even if there was only one channel that we’d ever actively pushed: the markets. But our orders started picking up online, and there was this one lady who had this unusual order, she wanted these gift bags, and I asked, ‘Well, what are you doing?’ And she said, ‘I’m just sending, you know, gifts to people saying ‘I’m thinking of you.’”
And thus was born the I’m Thinking of You Gifts from Pickle Creek. “People love them—this great thing that came serendipitously out of this customer interaction, this thinking of others when your world is falling apart. This moment of kindness opened a new window for us.”
Another newer offering inspired by customer demand is their Pickle Creek gift sets—sets of four different oils and vinegars, for example. Because Pickle Creek products are so preservable and so universally loved, the gift sets have been exceptionally popular. “Before that, we were just like a grocery company—but all of a sudden the holiday season was, and still is, our biggest season of the year because we became so much more than food. We became something for people to share.”
“My mom gets the last laugh because when my world got put back together again, it was put back together better than ever. Now we’ve got markets, and now we’re in like 80-plus stores.” They’ve got orders shipping out every week, they’ve got a booming wholesale and retail business, and they’ve got a couple thousand subscribers to their beautifully written newsletter.
Jocelyn is a truly gifted writer and is working on at least one novel at any given time, not to mention her Pickle Creek blog that qualifies alternately as a botany crash course and food porn. Jocelyn thinks her online marketing could still be improved on, but says with a wink, “That’s because a blind person runs our social media.”
The Good Stuff
Just to give you a taste—in case you’re still trying to picture Pickle Creek products sans pickles—one of their best sellers is their Roasted Garlic-infused olive oil. They grow their own hardneck garlic on the farm and infuse it into their favorite “chef’s blend” of mild olive varietals—oil that’s meant for cooking or baking—up to 400 degrees. “The hardneck garlic tastes better than softneck in my opinion,” Jocelyn says. “It’s deeper, spicier, and yet somehow sweeter.”
You need a cold winter to grow hardneck garlic, and you need long days in the warm season, so here in Iowa we’re truly in the garlic sweet spot. July brings moments of deep satisfaction on the farm. “I really like when you dig up the garlic and find that it did better than you were expecting,” says Tim. “This year was very good—I was really surprised and impressed. Between November and July, you just never really know for sure!”
Their Greek Basil & Garlic oil is another bestseller. Think roasted veggies, salad-dressing creations, or paired with vinegar to replace the mayo in your chicken or tuna salad. Magic! If I don’t have it in my kitchen, panic sets in. My sister, who gets her Pickle Creek fixes sent out to her in Kansas City, feels the same about the Blood Orange Thyme.
Then there are the oils that pack some serious heat! In 2019, their peppery Prairie Fire oil won a Scovie Award for the 1st Place Chili Oil. “It’s really funny ‘cause we beat out folks from Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California. No, Iowa. Iowa wins!” Jocelyn jokes, “That’s the oil when I run out, I get death threats.”
As of mid-August, there was a back-order list for Prairie Fire. Jocelyn and Tim were just waiting for the peppers to ripen. What goes into Prairie Fire, I wanted to know. “I’m not going to tell you that!” was the response, but Jocelyn disclosed there’s a top-secret habañero varietal they use that’s “really hard to find, so we save our own seeds. We stumbled across it from some other pepper heads, and that one pepper makes all the difference in the world! But when it’s gone, it’s gone, because we have to grow it.”
And vinegar? Their most popular zingers include the Lavender, Jalapeno, and Rosemary Infused Balsamics. This year’s new offering, Blackberry Ginger Balsamic, is giving the rest a run for their money, but the blackberry crop is about done for the season and Jocelyn jokes she’s going to start having difficult conversations with people about “when’s it gonna be back!?”
Visit their Fairfield showroom sometime for a tasting and explore their other sweet-smelling stuff: natural soaps, lip balms, hand and body salves—even Lavender Deodorant, which has been so popular they have trouble keeping it in stock.
Connection & Creation
Jocelyn just wants everyone to “eat happy,” and is planning Pickle Creek T-shirts that say just that. But she worries for the time when her eyesight will not allow her to get out there to the markets. “I like crowds and being surrounded by all this human energy.” Not many people I know can say that about themselves. “People just come and tell you how much they love you, and then they throw money at you. Why would I not go?” she laughs. So she’s soaking it up while she can. These days, you’ll find her at the Davenport and Iowa City markets more often than not, where she always looks forward to connecting with fellow foodies.
“It’s creation and connection,” she says, “That’s all a business is. Creation of our products. Creation of the garden. The creation of this whole community of people celebrating together over our love of food, tasty herbs, gardening, and sustainable farming. And beyond that, it’s a creation of systems to sustain this thing. At some point, the sum of Pickle Creek is so much bigger than we are.”
Running a business is also like raising a kid. “You have the child,” Jocelyn explains, “and you’re holding its hand every step of the way. Then at some point it becomes this unruly teenager and you’re just along for the ride, just trying to keep up. And then it gets into its young adult years and it takes on a shape and form you didn’t know it could or would, but it makes you happy and proud, and it’s something ultimately you just get to love.”
The Pickle Creek farm is surrounded, as many family farms are these days, by confined hog operations. “But one of the things I love about our farm,” says Jocelyn, “is that in our little 100-acre, no-spray zone, there are all these frogs that live there. I tease Tim because I want pictures of plants, and he’s always bringing me pictures of toads and frogs! But they say amphibians are like the canary in the coal mine for the environment. They’re touchy, you know.”
“I like seeing frogs,” adds Tim, smiling. “To me, it’s a good sign we have a healthy farm.”
The newest little wigglers at Pickle Creek are a pair of young Jack Russell terriers, who will hopefully, someday, take their rabbit-chasing jobs a little more seriously. For now they bring a whole lot of laughter and love to the place, which is a different kind of blessing.
Visit the Fairfield showroom for a tasting and to explore their other natural body products, or visit PickleCreek.com.