Mark and Mary Lou Mathew, of La Harpe, IL have developed some interesting products that extend their marketing far beyond the usual growing season, during their 14 years of growing and selling produce. Popcorn, for example, became a farm staple when their son Mitchell grew it as an FFA Project, sold with his label, Mitchell’s Popcorn. Although Mitchell has graduated, popcorn is still a popular item, sold all winter through the Macomb Online Co-op, where orders are placed online on weekends with pickups one evening a week, and at other winter events, including Vendor Blenders where the Mathews rent space for a stand.
We grow the popcorn varieties ‘Really Red,’ Shenandoah Blue,’ and ‘Yellow Robust 997’ from Johnny (Seeds),” explained Mark, “and also sell our unique blend we call ‘Rainbow.’ ‘Little Indian’ is a miniature popcorn which can be used for decoration or popped.” Their popcorn stores well, and sales are good. “Popcorn is the number one snack food in Illinois, and we raise it without chemicals,” which helps to attract customers.
Mary Lou enjoys working outside, loves flowers, and grows a wide variety of them for her popular flower arrangements, sold at their five farmers markets in season. She extends her flower-arranging season by drying baby’s breath, statice, yarrow, strawflowers and hydrangea. Her method? She simply picks them in season while they’re fresh, and hangs them upside down in bunches to dry.
During the winter, she creates wreaths and dried arrangements using the dried flowers, which are sold at the Macomb online Co-op and other venues.
Dried herbs, including lavender, sold 25 stems to the bunch, also sell at the Co-op all winter (or until their supply runs out.)
Broomcorn, not widely grown, fills several rows in the 23 acres of tillable ground on their 30-acre farm. “We plant it in late spring like field corn. It’s not as stout a plant as regular corn; so careful weeding early in the season is needed. When fully grown, broomcorn towers 15’ tall, and instead of a tassel, it puts up a ‘broom’ with brown, maroon, rust, red and yellow seeds. We cut the top 4’ out and put it in bunches of four or five heads. It makes an interesting display with pumpkins or Indian corn.”
Mary Lou also uses the beautiful, shiny, multicolored seed heads to dress up fall arrangements, and in evergreen arrangements and wreaths for Christmas.
Birdhouses, made from the hard-shelled, white flowered Lagenaria gourds, have become another item with year-round sales. “At first we sold the gourds green, but we found they became much more popular with customers if we dried them over the winter to harden the shells. Then Mark drills precisely-sized entrance holes,” a size that admits wrens, but keeps out larger, less desirable birds.
They make birdhouses from a wide variety of shapes of Lagenaria gourds, including apple, swan/goose shape, the larger bottle shapes, and pear shape. Mark drills holes to insert hangers for the birdhouses. Mary Lou crochets string for hanging.
Mary Lou cleans the hard shells and paints them in a wide variety of colors. She will also paint to order. “The birds don’t seem to care what color they are, and people like to choose colors that dress up their yards.” Available colors include red, blue, light blue, natural, lime green, dark green, purple and orange.
“Because the shells of these gourds are so hard, they last for years,” Mary Lou added. “They’re a very popular item at our market stand, and we sell them through the food co-op over the winter.
Several years ago, through a customer, Mark discovered the concept of “stack pumpkins” in different colors, an attractive decorative item that extends pumpkin sales well beyond Halloween.
“To make ‘stack pumpkins,’ you need to cut the stems very short, so each stem fits into the indentation at the bottom of the next pumpkin in the pile,” explained Mark. Somewhat flattened pumpkin and winter squash varieties, in various colors, work best for the lower parts of the pile.
“‘Long Island Cheese,’ ‘Jarrahdale’ and ‘Cinderella’ pumpkins stack well. We try to have an orange and a green/blue and a tan. Put the biggest on the bottom. It’s like building a snowman. The top one can be round.”
The family also grows a lot of winter squash for fall farmers market sales and to store for winter sales ‘Winter Sunshine’, ‘Gold Nugget,’ and buttercup store well, but butternut squash store straight through the winter and into early spring. “They just get sweeter in storage,” commented Mark. “We like ‘Waltham Butternut 401.’ We also usually have potatoes for sale well into the winter” in a variety of colors.
Mark grew carrots in a high tunnel last year. “I was digging carrots much of the winter. The cold just makes them sweeter.”
He planted their first Christmas trees back in 1993, when he still raised feeder pigs. “My feed salesman talked about growing them, and it sounded like a fun hobby,” he recalls. Today they have about an acre in Christmas trees. “We can supply customers from nearby small towns, and Mary Lou enjoys using branches to make wreaths and grave blankets.”
In late winter, they are busy starting plants and hanging baskets for the next season in one of their two 72 by 30 foot high tunnels.
“A little here, a little there, makes a living,” commented Mark. “We also have Mary Lou’s pension (she retired at age 50), and I drive school bus.”
Mark and Mary Lou didn’t wait until they were retired to live their dream. They took the plunge while they still had plenty of energy to put into building their produce business, and they have succeeded. Mark is now 60, and still going strong. Mary Lou had always dreamed of selling flowers and flower arrangements, and Mark had kept a large garden before they decided to expand it to supply their current five farmers market stands plus the Macomb Co-op and their CSA, which had 20 members this year. Mark mostly stays home and works on the farm, while Mary Lou handles the markets and deliveries.
“It’s kind of our passion,” explained Mark, “and I get to work with my best friend, my wife.”
During the growing season, The Mathews grow multiple varieties and succession plantings of just about every vegetable you could name, plus blueberries, strawberries, apples and blackberries. “Having a large variety of items at your market stand attracts customers to stop and linger,” noted Mark.
“We couldn’t do what we do without our employees, though,” he added. “A lot of uncomplimentary things are said about the younger generation, but there are a lot of nice kids out there. We hire high school and college kids, and they work hard.”