Raising entrepreneurs organically

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On Dec. 9, in the midst of an icy rain, I made 14 small punctures in the earth's crust. Into each of these small holes — desperate for some hope while enduring what felt like a bottomless depression — I placed individual cloves of garlic. Might this have been the latest outdoor planting of a crop in the entire history of Duluth?

Though they entered the ground last, the resulting plants were the first to shoot out of the soil in early spring. All 14 of them! Now over 2 feet tall, the early greenery was a real shot of encouragement in the month of March.

Learning of a kid-run business is what impelled me to put the crop in at the end of last year. After reading about Max Organics in the Whole Food Coop's newsletter, I immediately went there to purchase the local garlic for seeding. Crestfallen to learn they were out of stock, I shelled out a buck for another garlic bulb, immediately raced home to put the cloves in the ground and set out to meet the kid behind this unique business instead.

I enjoyed an outstanding visit with the entire family in their beautiful home on Park Point, where I was entranced by a story of entrepreneurship unlike any other.

Max Organics is owned and operated by a 16-year-old, Max Fierek. Max has been an entrepreneur for half his life already. As an eight-year-old, he asked his dad for an allowance like his friends were getting. His father, Robert, denied the request, opting to teach him to earn his own money through running a business instead.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Robert Fierek is unusually suited to provide these lessons to his two boys. As a young carpenter he invented the Bucket Boss tool storage system and ultimately parlayed this success into the formation of Duluth Trading Company alongside his brother. He sold his stake in Duluth Trading 20 years ago, saying, "I wanted to be a dad rather than a CEO."

The germination of the family's bent toward entrepreneurship can be traced back to the closure of the U.S. Steel mill. Robert grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood, which was originally formed as a company town by the industrial giant. With 77 years of cumulative service between his dad and grandfather at the plant, it was assumed that young Bob would continue the tradition. The mill was larger than life.

Strong men wept in public when the mill's closure was announced. Bob says, "I remember seeing a man with tears in his eyes looking straight up into the air for answers."

As much of Morgan Park packed up to leave, Bob realized that a big company couldn't be counted on for one's livelihood. It was then and there that he resolved to make a living by his own wits. He has done an admirable job of leading his sons in this area.

The proceeds from Max Organics has enabled Max Fierek to aggressively pursue his passion of competitive mountain bike racing. An accomplished rider, he travels a racing circuit and has even earned sponsorships. Racing-quality, carbon fiber mountain bikes aren't cheap, and garlic continues to pave his way. There have been no handouts and the hard work each year has obviously taught him the value of delayed gratification.

Last fall he planted 3,000 cloves of garlic into his well-drained and carefully managed soil. This year's plants are thriving and point to a good harvest in the coming months. You'll find his fresh, local garlic at the Whole Foods Co-op, Mt. Royal Fine Foods and the Duluth Grill later this summer. His homemade garlic salt, a premium product available in a salt grinder that is remarkably potent and tasty, is available now.

What I learned and observed from this family just might have been critical in my recent decision to pursue market gardening as a career, at the age of 40.

Visit Eddy's website for a longer story about Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms, his brother’s quirky business.