Operating a farm market has changed a lot since Gary Heck joined his familyâ€™s business near Arena.
Gary started with his dad in the 1970s and now operates the market with his wife Cheryl. â€œIt was totally different back then. There really was no such thing as a farmersâ€™ market,â€ he said.
The market at their farm, which sits along Highway 14 west of Arena, used to be a full service grocery story. People would stop in there for bread and milk as well as the vegetables the family grew. Back then the store was open all year because it was a full-service operation.
Heck recalls that as convenience stores sprang up at every gas station their own business off the highway dwindled. â€œWe decided we had to go out of business or join the trend to farmersâ€™ markets and thatâ€™s what we did.â€
The couple hosted the Wisconsin Fresh Market Vegetable Growers Association meeting at their farm Nov. 8. The association is educational and promotional and updates growers in the spring and fall about issues in the industry, says Chuck Maenner, Waterloo, who manages the organization.
Gary and Cheryl began selling at Madison and Middleton farmersâ€™ markets and from a roadside stand near Dodgeville as well as their home place.
They also sell their own line of canned produce and preserves. So far they have contracted with a shared commercial kitchen to produce their line of tomato sauce, pickles and other produce packed in glass jars.
But they have begun the process of building a commercial kitchen in their building so they can do some of that work themselves. The kitchenâ€™s walls are built and the couple has been trying to learn from regulators what the requirements are for this kind of installation so they can continue.
Cheryl said they have been looking for used commercial restaurant equipment to cut down on the cost of installation. A ventilation hood came from a restaurant up north that was going out of business.
â€œThe kitchen is a way to utilize more of our product and get our name out there,â€ said Cheryl.
Gary said they sold 80 acres of farmland so they could get <FZ,1,0,6>rid of that mortgage and concentrate on their core business, with the added emphasis of the commercial kitchen. â€œItâ€™s nice to see your own label in grocery stores. It gets our name out there.â€
The Hecks said they grow about three acres of strawberries, along with crops like green beans, baby potatoes, zucchini and a large acreage of sweet corn. On their sandy ground, he said, they can produce crops as early as anyone.
Their remaining 100 acres is more than enough to keep their farm market going as well as supplying the produce they need each week for the farmersâ€™ markets.
They also grow squash, pumpkins, gourds and tomatoes, which are a big crop for them, Gary said. He prefers crops that offer a good profit potential and those that work in a double-cropping system.
Heck has three main helpers and one of them has been with the farm for 12 years. Itâ€™s been harder and harder to find high school kids who want to do farm work, he added.
Cheryl talked with other growers about some of the frustrations they have had in trying to get their commercial kitchen up and operating. One inspector tells them one thing and another tells them something different.
Gary said they are making an investment and theyâ€™d like to avoid doing the wrong thing since it will cost them additional money to set it right.
Though there are still pumpkins in the bins at their market, the couple is also just ramping up for the holiday season when their store is turned over to selling Christmas trees and the hundreds of wreaths they make themselves.
On the day of the growersâ€™ meeting, a truck had already arrived to deliver a load of Frasier fur boughs that the Hecks will turn into wreaths.