Town of Saukville teen combines 4-H experience with artistry and business acumen to cultivate career as budding young entrepreneur.
With pumpkins and squash growing in the fields near her Town of Saukville home, Christine O’Neil, 17, can turn her attention from the crops to grooming two Suffolk lambs she hopes will win blue ribbons and fetch a nice price at the 4-H Livestock Sale on Thursday, July 29.
A member of Lakeview 4-H Club in Saukville, Christine has a myriad of fair entries that show off her artistic and leadership skills, including fresh and dried arrangements made from plants she grows.
The fair is a brief diversion for the girl, who spends most of her summer and fall growing crops for her business Pumpkins With Perspective.
She emphasizes the artistic aspects of the vegetables as much as their edible and carving properties.
“I want people to look at them with a new perspective,” Christine said. “Each one is different. Each one is a work of art.”
In addition to selling her produce at farmers’ markets and festivals, Christine decorates Bay Shore Town Square, Milwaukee Public Market, the Madison Club and other businesses with items she grows.
The decorating business evolved as customers at markets and festivals admired her displays and asked her to decorate their businesses for fall.
Christine, who will be a junior at Grafton High School, garnered numerous awards this past spring for her business acumen, including taking second place in the independent entrepreneurship category at the DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) International Career Development Conference in Louisville, Ky.
Her business presentation earned her the highest ranking of any Wisconsin independent entrepreneur at the April conference. She placed second in the regional conference, which was held in March at Lake Geneva, to earn the right to represent the state at the international conference.
“I was happy I made it that far,” Christine said. “I was totally content with being one of the top 16 in the world. I was floored when I was second in the world.”
Also in March, Christine was named Ernst & Young’s “Wisconsin Young Entrepreneur of the Year.” She was recognized in April during the Wisconsin Business Hall of Fame induction program for four business leaders at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.
Christine received a trophy and a $1,000 scholarship at a June 10 reception in Minneapolis for Ernst & Young’s regional “Young Entrepreneur” recipients.
In addition, Christine was featured in a March 25 Dateline NBC television episode about the Grafton community’s Hometown Heros — Home Makeover effort in 2008 to remodel Karen Longoria’s small house to meet the needs of her triplets, two of whom have spinal muscular atrophy and other disabilities.
Christine was a member of the Student Council at John Long Middle School in Grafton, where the triplets went to school at the time. She donated a truckload of pumpkins that were sold at a football game to raise money for the family. Dateline producers interviewed the girl for the show that aired two years later.
All the publicity and honors are a bit overwhelming, Christine said, but she loves talking about her business. No audience has been too intimidating for her to impress people with her poise, knowledge, goals and work ethic.
She credits her 4-H experiences in public speaking and goal-setting for much of her success.
Her father Dan is the University of Wisconsin-Extension agricultural agent for Ozaukee County. Her mother Kandi is the UW-Extension 4-H agent for Washington County.
Grafton High business teacher Tim Fandek said Christine is the most focused, experienced and successful student he’s had in his six years working with DECA students, and he expects even more from her next year.
“As a freshman, you could see how experienced, polished and driven she was. That made her stand out,” Fandek said.
“I was anticipating unbelievable success from her, but I wasn’t sure she would achieve this much success at such a young age.
“She has grasped the importance of having retail and wholesale distributions and has the skills to get customers. Her business has complex facets. She’s using multiple channels of distribution and marketing together and independently. There are many long-running businesses that don’t understand the importance of marketing to both outlets.”
Christine said 65% of her sales are now wholesale and 35% are retail.
She has helped organize the DECA club’s fund-raiser that includes pumpkin-carving and scarecrow-building workshops at Grafton’s Pumpkin Fest in October. The club sells pumpkins donated by Christine to raise money for a charity and club activities.
Christine has been around pumpkins and sheep all her life. She, her parents and brother Stephen helped her grandparents Jerome and Marlene O’Neil run their pumpkin and sheep farm in the Town of Saukville.
A few years ago, the elder O’Neils asked their grandchildren if they wanted to take over the pumpkin business to earn money for college.
The siblings, with the help of their parents, moved the business to the family’s 80-acre property in 2007, where they rotate pumpkin and squash crops with soybeans and corn.
Stephen is a junior business student at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County in West Bend.
Christine grows 40 to 50 varieties of pumpkins and squash, developing her own crossbreeds by combining seeds from two varieties in one field. She saves the seeds and plants a second crop the next year, adding a third variety if she’s not satisfied with the results.
“I have a lot of one-of-a-kind pumpkins, including a green Cinderella (a flat, round pumpkin similar to the character’s pumpkin carriage). The nice thing about having so many varieties is if one doesn’t grow, usually others do,” Christine said. “One year, we had no Cinderellas.”
Spring planting is a family affair, she said.
“Usually my dad or brother drives the tractor and my mom and I put the seeds in the planter,” Christine said. “It’s quite the team-building exercise. Sometimes, my friends help plant.”
Christine walks through the rows of pumpkins and squash almost every day, occasionally stooping to pick off bugs.
“I talk to them,” Christine said. “I ask them if they’re ready to be picked.”
Harvesting will start in early fall.
The pumpkins and squash must be picked before a hard freeze and stored in the garage, Christine said.
“If an early frost is predicted, we’ll make huge piles in the field and cover them with blankets,” she said. “It’s crazy in the fall.”
Gourds that will be used for birdhouses and bird feeders are left in the field to dry for a year.
“We used to bring them in the garage, but found that’s when they would get moldy,” Christine said.
Christine said she would like her business to grow to the point she can hire students to help with the field work while she focuses on decorating and marketing.
She plans to attend the University of Minnesota and major in marketing and communications.
Christine O’Neil held awards she won for her Pumpkins With Perspective business. Photo by Sam Arendt