The early bird may get the worm, but in Nisswa on Thursday mornings, that early bird is sure to be shopping for tomatoes.
Or, to be more specific, John Jansen’s heirloom tomatoes.
Patrons of the Nisswa Farmers’ Market are often lined up at Jansen’s Brambling Rows Farm stand when the Nisswa Farmers’ Market opens at 8 a.m. to buy Jansen’s produce before it’s sold out.
Aspen Burns of Pequot Lakes, owner of Patty Cakes, is a first-year vendor at the Nisswa Farmers’ Market, selling a wide variety of homemade whole grain baked goods, from cupcakes to whole grain breads. Her on-the-run breakfast cookies and whole grain pizza crusts are top sellers. She said it always amazes her to see the early morning customers make a beeline toward Jansen’s produce.
“I’m like, ‘John, what are you giving out over there, pony rides?,’” Burns joked.
Burns said the farmers’ market in Nisswa not only has a festive atmosphere but her products sell there — and sell fast.
“We pretty much sell out every week. It’s one of my favorites,” Burns said of being at the Nisswa market. “Especially the people — the customers and vendors. It’s like the Disneyland of the North Country — the friendliest place on Earth. I want to hug most of them when I leave.”
Several area farmers said spring at the markets was slow, likely because of the cooler, rainy weather for growing produce but also perhaps because of the economy, but business picked up toward the latter part of the summer when more produce is harvested.
Four years ago J.R. Duncan, a partner with Borden Farm Market in Merrifield, started the Crosslake Farmers’ Market. He also started the Greater Brainerd Farmers’ and Craft Market on Saturdays at Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd this summer. He’s busy selling products at farmers’ markets five days a week, including from 1-7 p.m. Fridays in Merrifield to catch the summer tourist traffic.
Like other farmers, Duncan said the early season was slow but picked up after the Fourth of July.
“This is a late season for us. We should have everything out right now,” Duncan said in early August at the Nisswa Farmer’s Market. “This is the very best market of all.”
Vendors and visitors to central Minnesota farmers’ markets were surveyed with results published in a 2007 report by the Central Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. Sharon Rezac Andersen was the principal researcher with support from Terry Nennich and Linda Ulland. Customers were asked to complete a one-minute dot survey, where they placed dots on a large board on the answers they most agreed with.
At the Brainerd/Baxter farmers’ market, back in 2007, the majority, or 37 percent, said they learned of the market by driving by; 27 percent said they’d read about it in the newspaper; and 18 percent heard about it from friends and relatives. They were attracted to the market because the produce was locally grown (48 percent) and fresh (41 percent). As a result of visiting this market, they also visited other businesses, including grocery stores (34 percent) and retail stores (27 percent). They typically spent at the farmers’ market $10-$20 a visit (40 percent) or $6-$10 (26 percent. One percent reported they spent more than $40 per visit.
“Farmers’ markets have really taken off,” Linda Ulland, executive director of the Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, said. “I come as much as possible. I buy all my fresh produce in the farmers’ markets during the growing season and I freeze vegetables for winter.”
According to the report, customers have certain expectations when buying at farmers’ markets. Customers are more likely to purchase items if the seller is friendly. Pleasant personal interactions, including sharing recipes and tips, often keep the customer coming back to the market. Cleanliness is also important. Products that are arranged in an orderly way are likely to be more appealing.
Madi Enberg, 14, takes pride in arranging the vegetables and other produce at her family’s farm stand. She’s been selling produce for about five years.
“I like setting up the table,” Madi said as she sold vegetables with her mom, Stacey Enberg, in late July at the Franklin Arts Center.
Stacey Enberg’s great-grandmother, Ruth Gilbertson, is a longtime Brainerd area farmers’ market vendor. The Enbergs spent the summer selling produce at the Brainerd and Baxter farmers’ markets for the Gilbertson’s 200-acre farm south of Brainerd, which is now being farmed by Enberg’s brother, Andrew Gilbertson. This is his first year in business and he still consults with his grandmother. His top seller this summer was the Super Star onions, but they had been selling out of other produce, including cabbage and peas.
Jansen said the Nisswa market is one of the best in the lakes area. He and his wife Ruth own Brambling Rows Berry Farm in St. Mathias Township. He sells his vegetables and fruits at the Lakes Area Growers’ Markets Tuesdays at the Franklin Arts Center parking lot and Fridays at the Gander Mountain parking lot, as well as the Nisswa market. Jansen said he takes nearly double the amount of some products to the Nisswa market when compared to the Brainerd and Baxter markets. His heirloom tomatoes do very well. He said he’s taken 74 pounds of tomatoes to the farmers’ market and sold out by mid-morning.
Jansen spent 29 years working at the Potlatch paper mill before it closed, two years before he reached retirement age. His plan was to farm full time after he retired but he was forced to start a couple of years earlier than he planned.
“We were at this 16 years before we showed a profit,” said Jansen. “We put a lot of our profits back into it.”
Now they can’t raise enough for the demand. They currently have four greenhouses and a high tunnel. He said they’re hoping to add another greenhouse and a hoop house.
Jansen said in the last few years, the customer demographics at the farmers’ markets have been changing.
“I think we’re getting the younger set,” Jansen explained. “They’re bringing their little ones out.”
Jansen said many younger customers are becoming more interested in locally grown foods and often ask how his crops are grown, whether pesticides are used. He uses a lot of organic farming practices at his farm, but he does use Miracle-Gro plant food in his drip lines in the fields. He said he hasn’t used insecticides in 10-15 years.
Jansen often doles out gardening advice for his customers, too.
“I just enjoy visiting with the people,” Jansen said. “I enjoy answering their questions.”
Becky White of Baxter visited the market at Franklin Arts Center in late July with her husband, Mikkey, and their daughters, Sophia, 3, and Andi, then 5 months.
“We just like homegrown,” said White. “It tastes better and you feel better because it’s local.”
White said she makes homemade baby food for Andi by pureeing the vegetables and fruits she purchases at the local farmers’ markets.
“It’s fresh and local,” Mary Boran of Brainerd said as she visited the farmers’ market at the Franklin Arts Center in July. “This is real food.”
Julia Lee of Baxter just moved to the lakes area this summer. She loves to frequent farmers’ markets and immediately found them here after she moved.
“I love these little places, I come every week,” Lee said. “I like to know where my food comes from. I feel a lot better knowing where my money is going and getting to know the farmers. I can get all my produce for the week for under $20. And I think the quality is so much better. It’s delicious.”
Eloise Thorson, an owner of Thorson’s Farm Fresh Produce south of Staples, is also a regular at the Brainerd-Baxter and Nisswa farmers’ markets. They also sell at farmers’ markets in St. Cloud, Park Rapids and Long Prairie. She said her family started farming 22 years ago with chickens and squash and now farm 50 acres of vegetables.
“We’re a small market but we have a nice variety of things,” said Thorson. “We have lots of loyal customers. It’s nice getting to know everybody and watch their kids grow up.”
Thorson’s stand is able to take credit cards and EBT cards, which makes it easier for people to stop in and purchase healthy foods.
Thorson said her farm is not organic but they do very little spraying. If a customer asks, she will tell them which produce had been lightly sprayed and which was not.
“We pride ourselves on quality,” Thorson said.
Molly Rider and Reid Museus of Brainerd started selling their meat products, corn-fed beef and pork with no antibiotics and free-range chicken at the Franklin Arts Center farmers’ market in July. They started farming three years ago.
“We started out to just feed our family,” Rider said, but now they farm under their business, M and R Homegrown. “To provide food for families, that’s a good feeling.”
Ron Lindholm, owner of Scandia Valley Dairy of Brainerd, is a regular at area farmers’ markets, including Brainerd, Baxter and Nisswa. He sells three different types of goat cheese. Stop by his stand and he’ll offer you a sample.
“I love talking to all the people I see,” said Lindholm. “I just love the farm life.”
Craig Johnson, farmers’ market manager for Great River Gardens in Aitkin, said he takes about a bushel of everything in season to each market. He said the markets were a little slower this spring but picked up by July. He sells in Crosslake, Grand Rapids, Pine River, Brainerd and Baxter. Great River Gardens has 75 acres of products it sells.
Marcia Rapatz, Browerville, has a small organic farm and recently started raising grassfed beef. She took more than 20 gallons of maple syrup to market and by late July had only three small bottles left at the farmers’ market at Gander Mountain in early August.
“There are people who come every week. This is where they do their grocery shopping,” Rapatz said. “I get a number of people who say ‘I’m glad you’re organic.’”
Carla Scripture of Motley sells honey at the Brainerd, Baxter and Nisswa markets. She and her husband have about 15 hives; it’s their third season for honey. She also is known for her gladiolas.
“We’re just a family group here,” Scripture said. “It’s family-oriented. It makes a big difference.”
JODIE TWEED may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5858.