The first shoots are already poking out of the ground.
Rows of tiny green sprouts are little more than seedlings right now. But by the summer, those plants will bear the harvest of tomatoes, peppers, radishes and onions.
As winter has broken and spring set in across central Indiana, eager gardeners have been digging, turning soil and planting the year’s vegetables. For an enterprising few among them, those crops grown in their own backyards will help provide a secondary source of income during the summer months.
An increasing number of gardeners are taking their love for horticulture and using their bounty to sell at area farmers markets. With gardens already growing, it’s a natural way to sell their produce.
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But while they have the know-how, being a successful seller at the market is more than just being a master gardener.
“There’s good money in it. It’s good secondary income, and for a lot of people, it’s a good primary income,” said Jim Barbour, an Indianapolis gardening expert and retired employee at Purdue Extension Services. “But it’s not going to be something you’re going to jump into right away. It’s just a slow process, so you have to take it a little bit at a time.”
Farmers markets in the U.S. have become big business. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has tracked the number of markets in the country since 1994.
The total number of markets listed have grown from 1,755 that year to 8,268 in 2014. In 2012, more than $1.3 billion was spent at farmers markets across the country, the agency said.
In Indiana, direct-to-consumer sales from farmers markets as well as roadside stands reached nearly $27 million. That’s an increase from $22 million in 2007.
Lesa King, a southside Indianapolis resident, grows her own heirloom tomatoes, peppers and herbs such as cilantro. She was a long-time gardener and decided a few years ago that it would be fun to take some of her plants to the Greenwood Farmers Market to see how they sold.
She grows her goods in the backyard of her suburban neighborhood. Using raised garden beds, she takes advantage of any open space in her yard, as well as intensive gardening methods to harvest as much as possible.
“I bring in whatever I can manage to grow, and people are really anxious to get it. If I could grow more, I could sell it,” King said.
The Greenwood market was much smaller, one of the few markets in operation at the time, King said. There would be times when they would get maybe six other people buying at the market.
That’s a stark contrast to the hundreds that show up now.
“A lot of vendors just do it out of their own backyard. I have five kids, and they love to come to market, and it’s a chance for them to make a little extra money too,” King said. “I’m going to be a customer, so I might as well be there growing something.”
Nancy Schmutzler started growing produce in her Greenwood backyard six years ago and founded her company, Stonehouse Gardens, in 2013.
After being diagnosed with cancer, she started to really consider the connection between chemicals in food and health. She had always grown flowers and native plants, so moving on to vegetables and fruits was fairly simple.
“It made me have a mission, not just to grow food for fun, but to make healthy foods more readily available,” she said.
With beds in northern Brown County, where her family is building a new home, Schmutzler grows early season crops such as radishes, greens and baby lettuce, then transitions to later-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers.
The system, called secession gardening, takes advantage of a wider growing season throughout the year to produce more.
By planting radishes and lettuce now, she can have a harvest in four weeks and some fresh food to sell at the farmers markets, Schmutzler said. Beans and squash are other easy crops that will grow in the summer months.
“It’s really easy to get started, if you use the right plants to get started to grow,” she said.
To get started growing vegetables for a farmers market, Barbour recommended starting with something easy to grow, such as tomatoes, lettuce and green beans. Those common items are the type that more people will be interested in buying, rather than niche crops such as arugula and artichokes.
“You know that there’s going to be a farmers market, so people will probably be there to buy your goods,” he said. “You have to make sure you have an adequate supply for the demand you’ll have, and the only way to find out is to go and try it.”
Barbour will be one of the featured speakers at this year’s Johnson County Garden Celebration on May 2.
Growing fruits and vegetables is in Barbour’s heritage. The Indianapolis resident’s family formerly owned an orchard and produce farm, and he used to work with Purdue Extension Services teaching master gardeners classes.
In his work, he’s seen the problems people sometimes have trying to sell produce at the farmers market.
People need to decide early in the season that they’re going to sell and which markets will work best, as opposed to growing and then figuring out where to go, Barbour said.
“Talk to other growers about what varieties to plant, and how that’s going to grow, to see what they’ve had success with,” Barbour said. “Start out slow, and let your market develop.”
But developing a demand for your produce might not happen right away, he said. Most first-year vegetable growers overplant for what they need for the farmers market.
One of the biggest mistakes people make is growing a lot and expecting to find a ready-made customer base their first weekend of the market. When they don’t sell all of their produce, or even a good portion of it, they get discouraged, Barbour said.
The first season selling may be spent determining what people like and what they don’t, Barbour said. Then the next year, you can plant more tomatoes and fewer cucumbers, for example.
“As you talk to your customers, they can suggest things that they’re looking for, and you can get more things like broccoli and Brussels sprouts. That next season, you can grow some of those,” he said.
Allen Davidson, a southside Indianapolis gardener, started taking the produce that he raised in a community garden and selling it at the Greenwood Farmers Market six years ago. When he started, his booth was mostly selling homemade laundry soap, with some vegetables on the side.
But now, he does everything from heirloom tomatoes and peppers to beans, onions, melons and specialty potatoes.
“I normally don’t do potatoes, but I had a friend last year who did very well with specialty potatoes, so I’m going to try them this year,” he said.
Building up a market and customer base can take time, which is why he shifted his priorities at the market, Davidson said.
“Be patient, because, when you first start out, people have their favorite vendors. Year after year, hopefully they’ll start coming to you as well,” he said.
Farmers market season
Hours: 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays May 9 to Oct. 10
Where: Greenwood United Methodist Church, 525 N. Madison Ave.
Vendors: E-mail email@example.com to request an application and for more information
Hours: 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays May 9 to Oct. 3
Where: Jefferson and Jackson streets in downtown Franklin
Vendors: Two sessions offered, May 9 to July 18 and July 25 to Oct. 3. $35 per session, or $60 for both sessions.
Hours: 1 to 6 p.m. Wednesdays year-round
Where: The Banquet Center, 107 S. Pleasant St., Trafalgar
Vendors: $5 per week; cost is $100 for the session through Aug. 22, $85 from Sept. 2 to Dec. 18, and $55 from January to March 9.
Information: Contact Betty Davis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 878-4424.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturday through Sept. 20
Where: Fourth Street between Washington and Jackson streets through May 30; 510 Brown St. afterward
Vendors: Full-time vendor slots filled up. Part-time vendors, who will attend three weeks or fewer before May 30 or 11 weeks or fewer between June and Sept. 20, are still being accepted. Cost is $20 per week.