August 18, 2011 at 9:00 a.m.

Harvested, baked, simmered or spun; stories behind the scenes at the farmers market

Harvested, baked, simmered or spun; stories behind the scenes at the farmers market
Harvested, baked, simmered or spun; stories behind the scenes at the farmers market

There's a place for one-stop shopping if you're looking for fresh, organic vegetables, local honey and maple syrup, fresh flowers, artisan bread, yarn, free-range eggs and all-natural bath and beauty products. It's the local farmers markets. In Lindstrom, the market opens in the parking lot of St. Bridget of Sweden Catholic Church on Saturday mornings (8-12) and Wednesday afternoons (3-6). St. Croix Falls Farmers Market is in the public library plaza from 10-2 on Saturdays. On any given market day, you can see rows of canopies covering, the heaped tables and a vibrant bustle of people.

Vendors of two markets shared their experiences with me, talking about why they participate and about what goes on behind the scenes.

For the veggie vendors, it's a summer-long process. Every day, Don and Joanne say they spend up to 12 hours gardening. The couple are founding members of the Lindstrom market, and have been selling for about 10 years. Don tells me they decided to get this going as something to do post-retirement. He was raised on a farm, and the transition to selling produce at the local market was natural. Their three acres are mostly in sweet corn; it's their best seller, and they have regulars who come just for that.

Karen and Foster say that for every four hours they spend at the market, they have to work 20 to 40 hours gardening, cleaning and setting up.

"The veggies don't jump on the counter," Karen says. She tells me with a laugh about the time a customer asked how they polished their vegetables. "They're just scrubbed clean!" she remembers telling him. The produce they've brought today looks excellent, and Karen assures me that it takes quite some time to get it looking that way. Similar to Don and Joanne, Karen and Foster say their bestsellers are sweet corn and tomatoes.

"I can't grow enough tomatoes for this market," Karen says.

The couple also come to the market for the people. "It's a community event," Foster says. "You do it because you enjoy it-making money means that you can afford to keep coming." He says he grew up involved in 4H and fairs. Now retired, he describes the farmers market as 4H for grownups.

Even though they keep precise records and make sure nothing goes to waste, Karen and Foster's idea of a successful day at the market has little to do with profit. "It's about more than food," Foster says. "It's a success for us when people come and they're happy," Karen agrees, "When they enjoy the experience."

Jefferson, Suzie and Joe of the Bike Farm come to the St. Croix market for much the same reasons, although they have been doing markets for just three years. Jefferson explains that while they do have a rough dollar amount in mind for a successful market day, the most rewarding thing is meeting people, having conversations and just experiencing the vibrant environment.

The Bike Farmers work on their three farmed acres all week in order to sell veggies, maple syrup and free-range eggs at three farmers markets. They also run a CSA with a unique twist: their boxes of fresh veggies are delivered by bike.

" We want to be as sustainable as possible," Jefferson says. "Bikes reflect that." The origin of the name 'The Bike Farm' doesn't come merely from the unique delivery system. Jefferson's father used to do bike repairs on the farm he still owns.

They bring what's in season, and lots of it.

"We will display more than we would sell," Jefferson says. His aim is to present a filled-out and inviting stand, but there's a careful methodology behind it. Because they don't keep well, they don't bring many greens to sell; but they bring the sturdier vegetables, which can be transported to other markets.

Flowers figure prominently in making the Lindstrom farmers market as bright and colorful as it can be. Nancy has been selling fresh and dried cut flowers here for 10 years. She plants flowers that will dry well-not all flowers do-and ones that are good for cutting, are long lasting and pretty. The upkeep of her 48 flower beds is quite an undertaking in itself. Though she mows between the beds, Nancy says she weeds them all by hand. "I love to pull weeds," she says. "I love the satisfaction of a nice, clean plot."

Her arrangements of fresh flowers, which include up to five types each, sell best. She also sells an intriguing dried plant covered with flat, pearlescent disks. It's called a 'silver dollar', named for the seed pods that dry flat. But they don't come ready-made; Nancy has to peel the two outer layers of brown leaf in order to expose the white 'dollar' beneath, by hand, one by one. The finished product is breathtaking.

A successful day at the market, she says, is when she sells most of her flowers. Or in other words, "When the tent goes inside the car and not on top of it!"

But Nancy says that the most rewarding part of coming to the farmers market is the fun experience of talking to people and spending time outside.

At the edge of the market a huge trailer sits so full of flowering plants that there's barely a spare inch. Elise Hiljus's philosophy is, "If I don't bring it, I can't sell it." She brings a little of everything, and it's all in bloom. The brightly colored flowers attract customers.

"There's plenty left," she calls. "Come on by!" One of her favorite things about selling at the market is the opportunity to talk to people. "You have to enjoy it," she says, "Everyone wants to chat." Her customers are always eager to talk shop with her, discussing their own gardens. "I try to send people home with something new," Elise says. Often, people ask her for advice. She tries to answer their questions as best she can, but when she doesn't have the answers they need, she sends them to the table where Master Gardeners have set up shop on Saturday mornings, at the Lindstrom market.

Along with the harvesters and growers is a tent for the bakers. Just shy of 17 years old, Liam mixes, shapes, bakes and packages the wide variety of loaf breads, cookies, rolls, scones and baguettes with his older sister. Though Liam has plenty of expertise, the Red Door Bakery is his mom's operation.

"The business came out of a desire to provide something good and wholesome to my family," Cecilia says. "It was an added bonus that people wanted to have something like that available in Lindstrom. So it's great. It's a way to provide this for the people and possibly start a business." Many of the breads displayed use Cecilia's own recipes and methods. Various flavors of scones are a bestseller.

"I actually want several things out of this market," Cecilia adds. "I want to be able to provide the people in my community with something they can't find anywhere else; bread that's wholesome, healthy, nutritious and yet tastes great. I want them to be able to say, 'we are proud to live in Lindstrom, because this is the only place where we can get top-quality bread!'"

Liam bakes all day Friday, then is up bright and early on Saturday to bake the things that are best only hours out of the oven, like French bread and scones. The baking uses all organic flours and grains in the bread, and tries to use local, organic ingredients when they can get them, like Minnesota honey and poppy seeds Nancy grows.

While many vendors harvest, cut and bake, a few of them simmer. Sue Witte sells all-natural, homemade bath and beauty products at the St. Croix Falls farmers market. All-natural lotions, beauty products, salves, lip balms and even bug spray cover the table in neat displays.

When Sue used to own a pet store, she started paying closer attention to the ingredients in pet foods and products. What she found was that many brands included an amazing amount of chemicals, and so started baking her own dog treats.

"I started thinking, if this is what we put in pet food, how much of this is in our own food?" Sue shares. She started to do research on chemicals in human food and cosmetics, developing her own, healthy and safe alternatives.

A lot of preparation goes into the St. Croix Farmers Market. Sue makes all of her 23 different kinds of products in her home during the week, using ingredients she grows herself or purchases wholesale, like essential oils. For certain products, Sue says she can just whip up a batch over the week. Other things, however, need to marinate for up to six weeks before being ready to package and sell. It takes months of planning to know how much to bring.

Sue says that one of the most rewarding aspects of being a farmers market vendor is educating customers on health and nutrition through explaining her product. For her, a successful day at the market is part sales, part networking, and part education.

Sue's lotions aren't the only things simmered for market. In Lindstrom, Alan and Karen Mack are selling jelly made from wine for their first year. Originally, it was intended to be strictly a marketing strategy for Windy Ridge Vineyard, a business they own and plan to expand someday to include a license to make their own wine. In the meantime the wine jelly took off. Alan and Karen now sell at six markets a week. Talking to Alan at Lindstrom on Saturday morning, Karen was at home making more jelly. Karen cooks and cans all the jellies in her home, a process protected under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's "Pickle Law". On average it takes about an hour to make one batch of jelly, which yields about 38 ounces. It's a long process.

"She's a wine jelly chemist," Alan quips. Karen makes dozens of varieties of jelly from her own recipes, like their bestselling Raspberry Habanero. Wine is the base liquid in all but three pepper jellies. The alcohol evaporates during the cooking process, leaving the flavor of the wine. Alan offers a taste of a jewel-red Merlot jelly, which is excellent.

Alan explains that if someone buys jelly, they most likely won't be back next week for another jar; it takes longer than that to finish it off. Alan and Karen's primary reason for coming to the farmers market is branding. But Alan says that the most rewarding part of coming to the market is meeting people, be it other vendors or customers, some he sees every week with whom he takes the time to talk, even if they aren't interested in buying jelly.

Beth Engstrom, who owns and sells for E2's Emu Ranch, says she sets up her display the same way no matter where she sells so that customers will recognize the product right away. She and her husband chose to raise emu's because of their amazing marketability. Emu oil, which she sells both in a pure form and in a number of other products, has medicinal properties. In fact, the pure oil is Beth's best seller. "It works," she says. "Once people use it, it sells itself." To create the finished product, Beth sends the emu fat to a company in Oklahoma called EPMI, which processes it into what she sells here. She is also state licensed to sell the meat, and brings leather, eggs and feathers for customers with a more artistic streak.

It doesn't stop at emus, though. "We wanted to diversify," Beth says. They now have 150 chickens, which they raise for meat and eggs, and five alpacas for fiber. Beth spins the wool into yarn by hand, and doesn't use any dyes; thick skeins in rich brown, butterscotch yellow and charcoal grey hang from her display. She uses the yarn to knit winter hats and felts the fiber for making warm slippers.

Sales is a huge part of what makes a market day successful for her, she explains, but the most rewarding part is "hanging with these great people".

"We're a family here," she says of the close-knit community of vendors and customers. "We watch out for each other."


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