Daniel and Reba Zimmerman, of Stillwater Farm in Orchard, IA have an interesting predicament. Although their rich, deep black Iowa soil is capable of producing bumper crops of produce, they are located in a lightly populated area. The nearest big city farmers markets are more than two hours distant, one way, and held only on Saturday.
They do attend the nearby Mason City Farmers Market Tuesdays and Fridays, which has 1,000 to 2,000 customers pass through on an average day. To sell volume and keep their produce fresh, Daniel Zimmerman needed to market to a larger population on a regular basis.
He solved that problem by setting up free-standing produce carts on parking lots near busy intersections, in two of the distant larger cities. “We put out two carts, each and every day, Monday through Friday from 12:30 to 6 p.m., each staffed by two workers.” The hours and locations are designed to attract commuters to the carts on their way home from work. Those stands, plus Saturday stalls at three big city farmers markets that can attract 20,000 customers, make it possible for him to sell all he can produce.
“It can be hard to find a location,” said Zimmerman, of the free standing produce carts. “Often we have to contact the absentee landlords. Sometimes we have to go through a lot of people to get the okay.”
Zimmerman works with six on the picking crew on a regular basis, and four at the market stands, although sometimes crew members rotate. Although he pays a lot in wages for transportation time to some of the markets, Zimmerman’s crews work carefully and hard, and make it possible for him to sell a quality product.
“We try to have good, fresh produce, a nice display and friendly employees,” he said. In addition, Zimmerman makes flavor a top consideration when he picks which varieties to grow, even if the best-flavored varieties may be more difficult to grow. It is flavor that keeps customers coming back to his stands week after week.
Since the markets open in May, and the Zimmerman’s can’t start until July because of the pressures of greenhouse work and sales, it’s nice to have something not widely available in early July to start off the season and attract customers. “We don’t even try to have early crops like peas and early broccoli.” A big draw with Zimmerman’s customers is their vine-ripened tomatoes, which can be bought one at a time or by the case. Because they are experienced greenhouse growers, with an acre of greenhouse space for growing bedding plants and hanging baskets, the Zimmerman’s start out at the market with something few people have on July 4, fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes, grown in tunnels.
As a direct marketer, Zimmerman is aware of the importance of flavor as well as appearance in keeping customers returning to his stand. “We pick varieties that are both attractive and have very good flavor,” he continued.” For our early tomatoes, we plant Primo Red and Scarlet Red. Both have an excellent flavor and color, although they crack a little easier than some varieties, and don’t have quite as good a disease-resistance package.
“I pay close attention to new commercial tomato varieties coming out. For our next crop, we plant ‘Red Deuce’ and ‘Mountain Merit’. Both are blight resistant for outside production, but they also have excellent flavor and appearance.
Iowa’s growing season is tricky for vegetable growers to navigate. “In northern Iowa, the last frost is generally about May 15, but that doesn’t mean warm weather has arrived. We wait to plant our main-crop tomato plants until May 20-25, not because of the potential of killing frost, but because it can be awfully chilly for a couple of night in a row, and the plants are better off in the hoop house a little longer.
“This spring, though, we had a surprise, a very light frost. We planted our cantaloupes on May 18, and they took just four hours of frost. The largest leaves on the young plants were killed, but not the heart or the smaller leaves. The plants survived, but they just sat there for a couple of weeks. We made our second succession planting three weeks later, and both plantings were ready to pick almost at the same time.
“We always plant to be able to harvest in September. Sometimes we are able to harvest through the month, and sometimes frosts can hit as early as Sept. 9.” For his cantaloupes, Zimmerman chooses a variety that can be more difficult to grow than the popular shipping variety ‘Athena’, because he thinks ‘Aphrodite’ has a better flavor. ‘Aphrodite’, though, gets a very juicy seed cavity if there’s a lot of rain. “Two inches of rain in August can be a killer for our ‘Aphrodite’ melon crop,” he commented. “This past August, we dumped a lot of Aphrodite’s because we had had too much rain, and the quality was not good.”
Watermelons are another major crop for the farm. “We grow ‘Yellow Doll’ and the seedless red ‘Millennium’. We sell about one yellow melon for every two red ones. ‘Yellow Doll’ is more of a personal size melon for smaller households and the unique color seems to attract people.
One of the draws to Zimmerman’s stands later in the summer is his steady supply of watermelon samples, both yellow and red. “Those samples get a lot of people smiling. We go through two to six melons at a market for samples.”
Sweet corn, with 12 succession plantings up to the 4th of July, moves very well. The sweet corn picking crew is usually finished by noon. “My main job,” Zimmerman continued, “is to try to make work as efficient as possible. We use conveyors for sweet corn, and I try to set up the fields so that there is as little carrying as possible. You can save a lot of work that way.
“For our early corn, we plant SE varieties, ‘Temptation’’, and ‘Latte,’ which is new. Both will germinate in our cold soils. [He does not plant under clear plastic.] For the rest of our plantings, we grow supersweets, first ‘Sweet Surprise’ as an intermediate variety, then ‘Sweet Success’ and ‘Satisfaction,’ all bicolor. That’s what sells here.”
The Zimmermans do some double cropping. Green beans in two rows to a sheet of plastic give way later to broccoli, using the same plastic. Both use trickle irrigation.
‘Payroll’ ‘zucchini, in three plantings, jalapenos and four colors of bell peppers, slicing cukes (four plantings), and pickling cukes also sell well. The pickling cukes were something of a surprise. “We sell them by the half bushel, and the longer we’ve had them (always in a steady supply) the more customers seem to seek us out for them.”