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THREE CHEERS — Hip Hip Hooray!
This column salutes REAP businesses that are finding ways to increase their success.

Karen Runkle and Lil’ Ladybug Greenhouse and Gardens

On a crisp April afternoon three years ago, Pat Runkle was hungry for a juicy, fresh tomato for his hamburger. He and his wife Karen searched high and low and couldn’t find one anywhere. It was at that moment, the Runkles say, that Lil’ Ladybug Greenhouse and Gardens was born in Hay Springs, Nebraska.

Karen Runkle’s true passion and talent is gardening, and Karen knew a customer base eager for fresh, local produce and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) existed. She had the drive, land, commitment, and determination to succeed; all she needed was a little training and some money to invest in her idea.

Karen contacted REAP and attended 15 hours of ‘Business Plan Basics’ training before she opened Lil’ Ladybug. At last year’s MarketPlace small business conference, Karen attended a Bookkeeping session and learned to keep good business records. She also networked with others and acquired new customers.
“I attended a business planning workshop put on by Jerry Terwilliger (REAP business specialist) before I started. He has been very helpful and supportive,” said Karen. “The MarketPlace seminar in Kearney was a great place to learn and rub elbows with others.”

While the classes and seminars broadened Karen’s business skills, she still struggled to gain momentum with Lil’ Ladybug. Through the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, REAP was able to offer Karen a Women and Company Microenterprise Boost Program® cash equity award of $2,000. With this, Karen purchased valuable equipment that gave her the edge she needed.

The road to successful entrepreneurship is seldom easy. In her first year, an early frost devastated Karen’s 400 tomato plants. The Runkles rolled up their sleeves, replanted, and had produce available that summer.
The following year, golf-ball-sized hailstones and 90 MPH winds destroyed the outside garden. With the assistance of neighbors, Karen filled half the greenhouse with bedding plants for customers, and, remarkably, Lil’ Ladybug realized a profit for the year.

In fact, sales for 2006 doubled, and Karen expects sales for 2007 to double again. Her CSA clients increased from seven to 30, and five more have requested to be added for 2008. Weekly sales at the Farmer’s Market are twice what they were, and the Greenhouse business has tripled.

The key to Karen’s success is her devotion to her customers. Her website, www.littleladybuggardens.com has online ordering, and she writes a weekly Lil’ Ladybug Column for the local paper. “Business,” says Karen, “is all about relationships.” Relationships, a boost, and really good tomatoes.

Karen Runkle of Lil' Ladybug Greenhouse and Gardens is pictured in her greenhouse in Hay Springs, Nebraska. 
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Center for Rural Affairs -- Rural Enterprise Assistance Project
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