When you get to Miss Effie's Country Flowers and Garden Stuff, you’ll see clothes on the line and hear the buzz of a lawn mower.
Kittens — there are at least eight spread out on the farm — will crawl under your car, looking for shade. Before you get a chance to worry about parking there and before you can ask where to go, you’ll hear her voice.
“Here to pick some flowers?” Cathy Lafrenz asks, from the back steps of her farm house. No matter your response, she’ll tell you to come and talk. She’ll say, “Let’s sit and visit.”
Lafrenz believes in visiting — the unhurried, don’t-look-at-your-phone, talk-about-whatever kind of conversation that doesn’t follow a clock. And she believes knowing exactly where her food comes from — she wants to be able to point to each crop.
That’s where Miss Effie’s, which she and her husband, Cliff, started in 2002, comes from.
"My whole mission was to get people to slow down," she said. “I saw how fast-paced everything was, and I wanted to give people a place to rest.”
She started with a 20-foot by 20-foot patch of cut flowers that visitors could pick themselves and fill a bucket for $20. She put $1,000 into planting, and told Cliff: “Let’s keep planting flowers until we run out of that money.”
That never happened.
Now, the flowers stretch out over an acre, and Miss Effie’s has stretched out to become a quintessential Iowa experience, at least according to visitors who tell her so.
"They say, 'There's nothing more Iowa than this,'" Lafrenz said, pointing to the acres of rolling hills, the corn and gravel roads. “People tell me it’s magical, but I don’t know if it’s that — it’s just a return to simplicity and a place you don’t have to worry.”
It’s not always worry-free for Lafrenz, who works on the land throughout the day and leads cooking classes at Scott Community College.
She stocks Miss Effie’s Summer Kitchen, a small shed, where eggs, jams and jellies and hand-crafted tea towels, aprons, candles and soaps are sold.
She keeps her pantry and freezer well-stocked and goes to the grocery store only twice a month because it’s “kind of an event to go anywhere when you live in the country.”
She gives tours, including a sit in the 1948 Behlen corn crib, which looks like a caged gazebo. For $35, you also can reserve the corn crib for small dinner parties.
There’s even more for Lafrenz to do this season, as she expands her you-pick market to vegetables and produce — green beans, tomatoes, melons and more are popping up for sale.
“For farmers, some years are better than others, and some days are better than others,” she said. “Go to the farmers market, and you’ll see no one is driving new, shiny vehicles. I can go down the line and name farms that aren’t here anymore.”
But she learned this a long time ago: “Farming isn’t about the big checks. It’s about lots of little checks coming together.”
Lafrenz doesn’t keep the ups and downs from people who visit — or from followers of Miss Effie’s social media accounts. She’ll share the dirt stains on her rolled-up jeans or the tan lines from her sandals or the rare times when she burns a pie.
“You got to show warts and all,” she said. “You got to tell people about the bad days. Sometimes, we go on Facebook with our Sunday best on, and it’s not all that real.”
Maybe, given how many farms she has seen fail, Lafrenz should be more worried.
But this is the woman who owns 400 cookbooks, who can make pasta from scratch in 30 minutes, who doesn’t waste any fabric, who doesn’t trust people who won’t eat a tomato right off the vine and has a habit of “talking and chatting the day away.”
“The reason I grow cherry tomatoes is so kids can taste something that all you have to do is pick and brush off,” she said. "I want kids to know this stuff."
This is the woman who thinks “a girl who knows how to can vegetables can do anything” and says eating farm-fresh eggs stirs her soul.
Still, after 15 years, there are days she walks outside the house and wonders: “What if I open and nobody comes? What if nobody wants my cooking advice? What if I’m not cool anymore?”
Usually, in a matter of minutes, a car will pull up the lane and wave in her direction. Her worries go away again when she has another face to greet, another person to visit with.
“It’s for the young women who didn’t grow up cooking and for the hugs and for the city families who have never seen anything like this,” she said. “That’s why I do this kind of life, and it’s a good one.”