County fair reaps benefits from family's roadside vegetable business
Four generations pursue dual set of interests
For 33 years, four generations of a Calumet County family have been pursuing dual interests of earning part of a livelihood and supporting the county fair on Labor Day weekend with thousands of entries during that period by growing a menagerie of vegetables on land along County Y between Chilton and Potter.
They are Ken and Deb Schneider, Deb's mother Kathy (now Binversie), the Schneiders' three children, and the eight Wieting and Bolz family grandchildren who live in Calumet County plus two more in Sheboygan County, which also stages its county fair on Labor Day weekend.
Depending on their age, six of the grandchildren living in Calumet County will be entering up to 15 vegetables each in either the junior or open class at the 2016 county fair. The two in Sheboygan County will be participating in the fair there.
County fair entries
One of the junior class exhibitors will be Alydia Wieting, who is a member of the Chilton Tip Top 4-H club. In addition to washing and otherwise preparing the vegetable entries for the fair, she helped her grandmother Deb by placing about 1,600 onion sets in the rows when the garden crops were planted this spring.
Because they have not yet reached the age of 9 in the calendar year to be regular 4-H members, Alydia's siblings Eliot and Iyla will be exhibiting as Clover Bud 4-Hers this year. The other grandchildren in Calumet County are Ella, Noah, and Will Bolz – all of whom will be in the open class because they're younger than the Clover Bud group.
In Sheboygan County, Elise and Sam Schneider are members of the Clover Crusaders 4-H Club, which is based near Plymouth. Their parents are Jason Schneider and Angela Pethan Schneider. In the coming years, Jack Bolz and Oriya Wieting will be joining the group, enabling Deb to say that all 10 grandchildren are involved in county fairs.
Before the county fair limited the number of vegetable category entries to 15 per person, each of the Schneiders' three children (Jamie, Jennifer, and Jason) had up to 25 entries per year. By that time, Deb no longer competed in the open class.
What can be said about the 2016 county fair is that the Schneider kin are not responsible for a significant drop in the junior class vegetable and crop entries. Total entries in that category are down from 404 in 2015 to 241 for this year.
What's been a very successful venture for many decades at the roadside garden market and numerous other sales outlets began a bit more humbly in 1984, the Schneiders recall. That was when their daughters Jamie (Wieting) and Jennifer (Bolz) tried, without success for two days, to attract buyers for an abundance of muskmelon that they displayed in coaster wagons along County Y in the town of Rantoul.
Taking a different approach, Ken filled the trunk of his Chevette car with the muskmelon and headed for the county fairgrounds in Chilton. Within 90 minutes of setting up there, he says he had sold all of the melons.
An expanding enterprise
With that shot of confidence, the Schneiders began to raise sweet corn the next year. They sold it for 60 cents a dozen compared to today's price of $5.
When they added pumpkins a year later, the vegetable enterprise began its ascent. That was about the time when Deb began to exhibit vegetable entries in the open class at the county fair.
For a few years, the Schneiders sold at farmer's markets in the area. Deb went to Brillion on Saturday morning while Ken made an occasional trek to the farmer's markets in Chilton and New Holstein on Friday and Saturday respectively.
With Ken and Deb as the only readily available work force to handle sales today, they no longer go to any farmer's market. Since 2013, they've been selling at their new residence along County Y south of County E just inside the town of Charlestown.
It didn't take long for the Schneiders to make the growing of pumpkins a specialty. One of the motivations was to win the Emil Steiner memorial plaque at the county fair. It is awarded to the exhibitor of the largest true pumpkin – whether in the open or junior class.
In the early years, Ken entered large pumpkins in the open class. By the 1990s, the children were old enough to show at the fair as 4-H members. In addition to the vegetables, they showed steers raised by their grandmother Kathy and her late first husband Ron Redig.
During the past 20 plus years, the Schneiders' largest pumpkin entries have been entered under the name of either their children or grandchildren and have won the Emil Steiner memorial many times. To be fair to everyone, a rotating schedule was developed to determine who would have the largest pumpkin entry in a given year.
In addition to growing large individual pumpkins, the Schneiders evolved into growing huge numbers of them – thousands per year. Buyers could find them at many outlets in Green Bay, Appleton, Fond du Lac, Manitowoc, and other communities
Two outlets no longer available this year for pumpkin sales are the former Save-A-Lot store in Chilton and Whispering Orchards between Cleveland and Howards Grove in Sheboygan County. Two area outlets this year will be the Dick's supermarkets in Sherwood and Wrightstown.
Multiple market changes
“Every year is different” with the market for pumpkins, Ken points out. Among the variables, especially with chain stores, are the business decisions made at corporate level, he notes.
In their years of raising and selling their vegetables, the Schneiders have also noticed major changes in buyer preferences. Unlike the first few years, what buyers are looking for now includes beets, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, melons, and eggplant.
Another change in the past few years is the increase in the number of individuals or even businesses, such as Honeymoon Acres in New Holstein, that are growing and selling fresh vegetables on site, the Schneiders note.
Promoting one's produce or other merchandise on Facebook and other social media is another fairly recent phenomenon. The Schneiders aren't doing that but they're aware that it can be a successful endeavor. “That's a whole new media world,” Ken says.
For their merchandising, the Schneiders depend mainly on signs placed along several area roadways giving directions to N4864 County Y, word of mouth, and the long term loyalty of many customers. In addition to what's available during the season at the roadside stand, people can place special orders at (920) 849-1550 – particularly for large volumes of sweet corn.
In all, the Schneiders raise some 20 different vegetable types on about 7 acres per year. At the height of their pumpkin market, they used up to 10 acres. One new vegetable they're growing this year and about which Ken admits he might have a lot to learn is sweet potatoes.