Farmers remember local market’s early days
The last outdoor Fairfield Farmers’ Market of the season Wednesday, with a handful of vendors braving the nipping cold on Halloween day, bore more resemblance to the humble beginnings of the market more than a quarter century ago than the bustling attraction it has now become.
One of the market’s oldest living vendors was among the few present. Ernie Hinkle, 88, sold persimmons and apples from his farm in Birmingham, which he’s done since he retired. Although he’d had many jobs in his profession, he said farming came naturally to him.
“I’m a farm boy,” he said. “When I started selling at the farmers market there were just five or six of us selling down at the parking lot of 1st National Bank.”
Hinkle remembers the market moving to Central Park after some years, and farmers began coming from Packwood, Milton, Douds and Keosauqua.
“It gradually built up,” he said.
Nearby Wednesday, Steve Keller, the son of another founding vendor who was Hinkle’s friend, sold greens, radishes and squash. Keller learned to farm from his father Mark. He remembered how his dad continued growing produce even while battling cancer.
“Me and my dad farmed together,” he said. “When he lost use of his legs after his cancer operation he started gardening to stay occupied.”
Keller said his dad bought used wheelchairs, and built himself an apparatus to allow him to garden.
“He laid on his stomach on it and he’d weed and plant vegetables,” he said. “He kept doing it 17 years after he was diagnosed with cancer; gardening is what kept him going.”
Former board member of the local nonprofit organization, Pathfinders RC&D, Gay Chapman, said she helped begin the farmers market in Fairfield in 1975. She and fellow board members Joyce Snakenburg and Joan Sturdeman proposed and received approval to begin the market from the Fairfield City Council.
Keller and his wife Kim began selling produce more than a decade ago from their own farm, Blooming Acres north of Fairfield. For the past four years, Kim Keller has been president of the farmers’ market board.
When Mark Keller died June 21, 2005, Hinkle spoke at the service. Steve Keller used his memorial money to commemorate his father’s contribution as one of the founding gardeners who contributed to the market.
“With the money, we bought a marble bench in memory of my dad,” said Keller. “We put it on the west side of Howard Park where he used to have his stand.”
The Kellers continue to sell at the market, and said have been pleased to find they can sell everything they grow, even as they expand their operation.
Steve Keller works full time as a welder at Fabrication and Construction Services in town, and Kim Keller is a horticulturist for the Iowa State University Extension program in Jefferson County. As president of the farmers’ market board, a volunteer position, she secures grants and funding to advertise the market, organize events and entertainment and enforce rules.
Aside from state regulations, she said they’ve added one non-negotiable rule.
“You have to make it bake it, or grow it,” she said.
Keller said she’s watched the market mushroom throughout the years, from five to as much as 50 vendors.
“We have grown tremendously,” she said. “People have become more aware of local food. People in Fairfield are really supportive of us, we’re very lucky.”
While markets are larger in metropolitan areas like Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, she said Fairfield’s market is unparalleled for a lower population area.
“It’s one of the top five in the state,” she said.
Keller helps organize events to promote seasonal produce.
For instance, she said, “In May, we do greens and show different ways to cook them,”
Steve Keller said Fairfield’s market has helped support he and his wife in raising three daughters.
“It’s helped pay for two weddings, and for three girls going to college,” he said.
Steve and Kim Keller are hoping to retire in a few years to become full-time farmers.
While they said they’d like to sell to restaurants, and perhaps start a “you-pick” blueberry patch, they said the farmers market will continue to be a main venue as long as the community supports it.
The Kellers recently built a greenhouse and high tunnel, and will be selling produce into the winter.
“We’re still growing peas, spinach, beets and lettuce,” she said.
Kim Keller said many people don’t realize the market is year-round, moving indoors to the Fairfield Senior Citizen Center from November through April. As more farmers have built greenhouses in recent years, she expects local offerings all winter.