SMALL TOWNS: Marion farmer turns cropland into gardens of peonies

A lifelong dream fulfilled
Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 6:52 PM CDT
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MARION, Wis. (WBAY) - After retiring from farming, a Shawano County man decided it was time to pursue his lifelong dream. He converted a 30-acre hayfield into gardens of his favorite flowering plants.

This week in Small Towns, we travel to Marion to visit the farm now known as Oh My Peonies.

LeRoy Mielke still has vivid memories of visiting his aunt as a little boy.

“She had a whole row of peonies and hell, you’d hide and play hide and seek in those things, and you could hide, and nobody would find you in those,” recalls LeRoy.

While still farming on the same land his grandfather started farming back in 1917, LeRoy maintained a small peonies garden by the house.

“And hell, all the people would come up and that’s the first ones we had, they’d come up to the yard and they wouldn’t get out of the car, and they’d just sit around, well I suppose they were afraid, they didn’t want to get into your stuff, so then I moved them down here, down by the road,” explains LeRoy.

That was in 2012, the year LeRoy got serious about his peonies.

“I wanted something for retirement so you could do something because I guess as a farmer you like staying in the dirt,” says LeRoy.

That same year, as LeRoy was starting his first few gardens, something else happened.

“Well, about that time I came along,” says Sue Anderson, LeRoy’s sister.

Sue had an idea.

“I said, LeRoy, we really need to do something with these peonies, we need to sell at market, cut stems, or we need to wholesale some or we need to do something and let’s just try a few things, so we did,” says Sue.

“She’s got business in her blood, and I don’t have any business,” adds LeRoy.

As for a name for their new business, well, LeRoy took care of that.

“He saw the Red Charm peony at my sister’s house because she had some peonies and he said, ‘oh my, peonies,’” explains Sue.

Oh, My Peonies was off and running, and anyone who knew LeRoy knew he was on a mission, planting more and more peonies each year.

“What do you want for Christmas, it’s the easiest thing in the world, you want a gift certificate for peonies,” says LeRoy of his yearly wish list.

Up until 2020, LeRoy and Sue sold their peonies as cut stems and potted plants locally, and bare root plants all over the country.

When the pandemic hit though, they discovered a new opportunity.

“There weren’t any funerals, and there weren’t any weddings, and so we said what are we going to do this year and I said, why don’t we just do a cut your own and have people come out,” recalls Sue.

To say that’s simply been a hit would be a serious understatement.

From late May through early July, a constant stream of visitors flock to see the more than 300 varieties of peonies LeRoy and Sue are now growing.

“It’s beautiful, I like to garden but I didn’t realize there’s this many varieties of peonies, wow,” says Mandy Welch from Symco, WI.

For others, the colorful gardens provide a trip down memory lane.

“My mom had them, my grandma had them and I like the older varieties better because they have a better fragrance, that at least reminds me of when I was a kid,” remembers Chriss Plautz from Withee, WI.

To further spread the world about all these peonies, Sue recruited a little help.

“My daughter is doing my Instagram because I’m not quite so used to Instagram, and my granddaughters are posting on tik Tok because don’t ask me about that,” says Sue with a chuckle.

But ask Sue about peonies and all the varieties, and you’ll receive an enthusiastic, expert answer.

“You know I’ve really gotten to know all their names. My take on all of this is that we want people to enjoy them in their own home, from our farm to your garden,” says Sue.

And it’s all thanks to LeRoy’s passion for peonies.

“I see a mother and daughter come with three little kids and we know how long it is to run and they just ran, they ran, we were up on the porch, and they just ran and just kept running, hiding in the peonies and that’s part of the joy of having people come out,” says Leroy with a smile.

Moving forward, LeRoy and Sue say they plan to keep planting a few more peonies each year, and they’d also like to start holding special events.

They got that idea after an unexpected marriage proposal in the middle of their peonies just a few weeks ago.