A John Deere Publication
Two smiling farmers leaning on a horse fence with a horse grazing in a field in the background

Jeff Oberhaus and Lori Brownawell start the day with their warmblood sporthorses before moving to the greenhouse.

Agriculture, Livestock/Poultry   April 01, 2024


The Trifecta

Prolific plants, warmblood sporthorses, and Highland cattle make for a winning triumvirate.

by Gil Gullickson

Jeff Oberhaus has always liked horses.

There was just something about them. There was the clip clop of hooves traversing the road. Or the way they would nuzzle close to him for petting or for a treat. He liked them so much he dreamed of one day being a horse trainer. So, he spent a summer working for one to see if he liked it.

He didn't.

"There were a lot of glorified truck drivers, traveling from one show to another every weekend," he says. "I really didn't want to do that."

Soon another path opened. Oberhaus graduated in 1988 from the University of Missouri (MU) with a horticulture degree with plans to go into business for himself.

He first looked for an old house in central Missouri. The only place was 30 miles away from Columbia, near Franklin. So, he bought a farm house built in 1904, along with 26 acres.

"You could literally see the outside of the house from the inside," he says. "There were some holes in the house to where you would get some snow inside on the north side. So, we redid the house, pretty much rebuilding everything."

He also revised his business plan.

"I didn't want to go into the retail business," he says. "I envisioned a mail ordering business, thinking that would be easier."

It wasn't.

"Packing for a mail order business was a lot of work," he says.

In the meantime, a local business ceased operations in 1992.

"We had the opportunity to purchase their equipment and several greenhouses," Oberhaus says. "We spent the summer and fall of 1992 building it and opened in April 1993."

Oberhaus quickly enjoyed the interplay with customers at Vintage Hill Farm. It eventually grew into a full-service greenhouse filled with trees, flowers, garden plants, pottery, and other goods that he and partner Lori Brownawell now run. Over the years, they've expanded the farm ground to 100 acres. Customers come from all corners of Missouri to purchase some of the 1,700 plant species that Oberhaus and Brownawell sell.

Oberhaus enthusiastically describes plants during a greenhouse tour, akin to the button-eyed enthusiasm of a major league rookie at Yankee Stadium on opening day. He points to Venus flytrap plants that eagerly trap unsuspecting flies. He then gestures to pitcher plants from which liquid dribbles out.

"That liquid will dissolve insects," Oberhaus says.

He then moves onto mother-in-law's tongue plants.

"Maybe they are named that way because they are coarse, tough, or sharp? You pick your poison!" laughs Oberhaus.

Then there's the cactus, which initially seems out of place in central Missouri.

"Customers tell us we have more cactuses than nurseries in Arizona," he says. "People are crazy about them."

Spring brings gardening season, and Vintage Hill Farm is ready with 30 varieties of tomatoes and peppers, plus eggplant, cucumbers, and zucchini.

COVID-19 that surfaced in early 2020 did change the way Vintage Hill Farm did business.

"That spring, we reduced the number of people we let into the greenhouses," he says. "No one knew quite what was going on or if we were supposed to be open.

"There was nothing open back then, no restaurants or other places," adds Oberhaus. "People were not going on vacation. You could not buy a used car, and new cars required a long wait. All these things going on gave people expendable income. People were stuck at home, shopping online."

Part of their purchases included flowers and plants.

"We knew something was coming up, because someone had bought a variegated monstera plant from us and put it on Facebook. We started getting phone calls from San Francisco and Florida wanting to know if we could ship them. We had these plants that would normally sell for $24.99 selling for $300 to $400."

These days, business has again returned to a normal mix. Fueled by years of familiarity, he's noticed a change in clientele.

"Nurseries are typically right on the edge of towns or in the country, where you have a built-in audience," he says. "That's opposed to box stores, where people are buying other things. Here, we have dedicated customers. When people come to us, they know what they want to buy."

Above. Warmblood sporthorses move in a pasture. A lorikeet greets greenhouse visitors. Jeff Oberhaus researched old bloodlines in building his Highland cattle herd. A basement found under the ramshackle shed that greeted Jeff Oberhaus when he first moved onto the Vintage Hill farmstead now forms a koi pond during spring, summer, and fall months. The farmstead is over 120 years old. Some of the 1,700 species of plants sold by Vintage Hill Farm include lisiansthus, tropical hibiscus, and hairy balls, which are excellent pollinators.


Warmblood sporthorses. Oberhaus never forgot about horses, though. He replaced his initial interest in quarter horses and shifted to German warmblood sporthorses, particularly those that are used for the sport of dressage.

"It's like ballet on horseback," says Oberhaus. "Highly trained horses, very light in hand, go through various movements. It's not that popular in the U.S., but in Europe, it's like football Sunday when you go to a dressage event.

"This is my oldest and best brood mare," he adds as one of his herd approaches him. Flanking the mare is a fifth-generation colt. It's all part of trips over to Germany that he made to research breeding stock, pedigrees and registries.

"What I like about dressage is you are building horses for a purpose," says Oberhaus. "Soundness is important. So is longevity. Movement for jumping also makes a good dressage horse. They are light on their feet."

Equine customers vary among backgrounds.

"Some are empty nesters who want to hire a trainer to show a dressage horse," he says. "But others are sent to homes where they are never shown and have a great life."

Highland cattle. Sometimes, people enter businesses in the oddest way.

Oberhaus always thought Highland cattle looked cool, with their long shaggy coats that enable them to endure the frigid winter chill of their native Scotland.

"I had a customer who had one, and I said if they AI'ed (artificially inseminated) a cow to a Highland bull, I would buy the calf.

"'Well," said the customer, "why don't I just give you the cow?"

And that is how he entered the Highland cattle business. Oberhaus focused on preserving old bloodlines in building his herd. Highland cattle have attracted much attention in recent years, as they are primarily promoted as filling a "miniature" niche.

"It's kind of like the potbellied pig craze of a few years ago, where people bought cute little pigs and a year later had 400-pound animals," says Oberhaus.

However, the miniature aspect of Highland cattle has nothing to do with miniature, but rather a dwarf gene.

"There are a lot of people paying lots of money for this and they should not," he says.

Instead, Oberhaus enjoys the beauty of the ancient breed itself and their appeal to customers who want to know where and how their beef originates.

"They're a late-maturing breed, taking up to three years to reach slaughter weight on grass, compared to 15 months for commercial corn-finished steers," says Oberhaus. "Finishing with corn would change the meat texture and chemistry."

Grassfed beef requires a different cooking method than cornfed beef. Although it is still marbled, it is leaner than conventionally finished beef. Once properly prepared, the beef that's high in heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids is delicious, he says.

Oberhaus normally calves in the fall. "Making it through the winter is not really a problem, with their hairy coats," Oberhaus says.

Summer heat is a different story, though. "Highland cattle lose most of their shaggy coats, but still need shade," Oberhaus says. "They love ponds, but this can lead to foot rot problems from standing in the water."

Trailblazer. Warmblood sporthorses and Highland cattle top off Vintage Hill Farm's horticultural business for which Oberhaus has been a trailblazer, says David Trinklein, MU Extension horticulturist who taught Oberhaus at MU.

"Jeff is an eloquent spokesperson for the horticulture industry and gifted educator," he says. "He has given presentations at a number of short courses that I sponsored in the past and always makes a positive impression on the audience. Like most plant people, Jeff relishes his work and never tires of helping others." ‡

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