The business of farmers markets

2013-08-18T12:34:00Z The business of farmers marketsBy Christine Bryant Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
August 18, 2013 12:34 pm  • 

Although Linda Ebert had been a gardener most her life, she had no intention of ever becoming a commercial grower.

About 15 years ago, she and her husband Ron purchased a 10-acre farm in northern Jasper County.

"One thing led to another, and now we have three 30-foot-by-125-foot greenhouses from which we sell flowers, vegetable plants and herbs, and we planted one acre of asparagus," she said.

Walk through any farmers market and many of the vendors have similar stories. While for some it started as a hobby and turned into a full-time job, for others, farmers markets are a lifeline to their already established business.

"(Customers) are a patchwork of my community that I didn't have access to before becoming a vendor at the farmers market," said Damien Appel, owner of Native Roots Farm, an organic farm just outside Chesterton. "Now I know many of them by name, strike up conversations easily, and give free gardening advice."

Although Appel earned a masters degree in elementary education, he decided to work on organic farms rather than teach in a traditional classroom. He wanted to learn more about another passion of his - growing food.

After traveling and a full-time internship in 2012, this year marks the first growing season for Native Roots Farm.

"I chose to start my farm in Northwest Indiana where I grew up, because I saw a need for more small-scale farmers in my community," he said.

Managing his farm and attending the Valparaiso Farmers Market on Tuesdays and Saturdays presents a scheduling challenge, Appel said.

"In addition to the two days at the farmers market, I spend two days harvesting all of the vegetables to take to the market," he said. "That leaves three days a week to get everything else done on the farm. It usually isn't enough time."

For Ebert, her garden has turned into an entrepreneurial success. Her husband, Ron, recently retired and has become a full partner in the operation, and LE Garden now provides a few Valparaiso restaurants with vegetables. They also sell produce and flowers at the Crown Point and Valparaiso farmers markets, and LE Garden supplies a 74-member Community Supported Agriculture program together with Lane's End Farm in Lowell.

In 2000, she became superintendent of the Agriculture Department of the Lake County Fair.

"This time of year, it's a real challenge balancing the demands of the business and the fair, and the older I get, the more difficult it is to do everything that I want to do, both physically and mentally," she said. "But it's difficult to give up any of the things I love to do."

One of the most complicated parts of being a vendor at farmers markets is pricing, Ebert said.

"Lots of different factors are involved in pricing, and I think it is one of the hardest parts of marketing," she said.

Extra care required for some vegetables like okra and tomatoes, the labor involved in harvesting crops like beans and squash, and the time required to clean things like root crops and potatoes all play a part in determining a fair price, she said.

Pete Livas, who owns Panos Farms in Michigan City and sells fine herbs, honey and pastries, says other variables include how much of the product is produced and the extra associated costs such as labeling and bottles.

Livas attends several farmers markets in the area, including Griffith, Schererville and Miller Beach.

"I have found a lot of people are more and more into locally grown produce and products in our area, rather than going to the stores," he said. "People are watching what they're buying."

Livas also imports some of his products from Greece, including extra virgin olive oil that is bottled in Michigan City.

Before starting Panos Farms, Livas worked in the construction field. After experiencing health setbacks from the wear and tear on his body, Livas joined his wife, Nancy, in harvesting bee hives.

"We started out about six years ago with a couple hives," he said. "Now we're up to 120 hives. It's turning out to be a full-time job."

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