NWRSDP Happenings - Learning and Growing
Creating Deep Relationships Lies in the Roots
By Chuck Schulstad
Barb and I were quite newly retired from our careers as elementary school educators. We retired to our Schulstad family century farm in 2003 and were actively involved with gardening and managing a U-pick raspberry patch. Berry pickers often noticed our garden next to the patch and ask if we had any produce for sale. At that time we had not considered raising produce in salable quantities, but the idea began to take shape.
In 2006, the University of Minnesota's Master Gardener class was offered during the summer in Thief River Falls, so we decided it was time to learn even more about how to raise farm and garden fresh crops. It was during these series of wonderful classes that we were introduced to the concept of using a greenhouse type structures to extend the growing season of vegetable crops. We got excited about the possibility of having ripe tomatoes, among other things, in early July when folks were here picking raspberries, so the next summer we erected our first high tunnel, completing it in the fall of 2006.
The next season we applied our new skills of raising produce crops in the high tunnel and everything we had been taught about them came true! However, we had underestimated the volume of tomatoes and produce that could be raised in the tunnels and by mid-July we had more produce than we knew what to do with.
Our close neighbors were instrumental in organizing and setting up the Mentor Farmer Market and when we saw the ad in the paper calling for customers and vendors, we thought this might work for us. Well, work it did! We have been vendors since 2007 and have now become involved with the administration of the Mentor Market. We currently have about 17 vendors, a wonderfully accessible corner of the Mentor Park for our market locale and a seemingly appreciative and enthusiastic consumer base.
Belonging to the Farmers' Market has had a major impact on our lives! Not only has it brought growth to our own skills of being growers, but has brought the University of Minnesota right into our farm yard. We have been honored to be selected to supervise two new University-sponsored high tunnels in which small fruit and large fruit trees have been planted in experimental settings. This continues to be a grower's delight. However, perhaps the most exciting thing that has happened involves the customers at the market. It has been really joyful to see people enjoying their shopping at the market as they find fresh fruit and produce, homemade breads/pastries/bagels/baking, handmade jewelry/crafts/artwork, fresh local honey, quilts, creative clothing, fresh eggs and much more.
I heard it said, soon after we had started our market venture, that a good farmers market will not only have excellent items, but will expend time and energy on developing relationships with their customers. Barb and I have certainly found that to be true. We have found ourselves learning names, establishing friendships, and developing interests in who shops the market, and thus finding out what they want in a good farmers' market. It is enjoyable to meet and greet these friends now wherever we might see them.
The relationship opportunities extend also to our fellow vendors. By working together to make the market better, we have found ourselves feeling like we are members of a larger family, concerned about and caring for each other. Interests deepen in each other and this tends to transmit to an overall sense of wellbeing in the market in general. The Farmers Market has added another level of interest to our lives by allowing us to pursue our hobby of gardening and turn it into a benefit for the community as well as an additional source of income for us in retirement. But most of all, it has placed us in an ever widening circle of contacts with, an enjoyment, of our fellow human beings.
Over the years, Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership has helped regional farmers markets establish themselves and learn from each other, most notably through a winter gathering for market managers. In 2013-2014, NW RSDP helped create an integrated marketing campaign for Northwest Minnesota farmers markets, and mini-grants for individual farmers markets, including the Mentor Farmers Market.