Farm Horizons, November 2009

Trial and error results in popular farmer’s roadside produce market

By Linda Scherer
Staff Writer

Jim Jacobs, a ‘77 Delano graduate, is a fourth generation farmer who is the owner of Jim’s Produce; a roadside vegetable market three miles west of Loretto on Hennepin County Road 11.

It was 15 years ago when he first opened the roadside market to supplement his farming income.

“We went into vegetables, so we could keep farming because prices were so poor on beef and pork,” Jacobs said. “I knew nothing about the vegetables so we started from scratch. It was interesting.”

It was trial and error to start with, according to Jacobs, but his efforts have paid off. When his roadside stand opens in July, it has a steady stream of customers throughout the summer until it closes Oct. 31. Jacobs attributes the popularity of his business to the stand’s location close to a busy road between Delano and Loretto.

However, Jacobs’ customers come from all over and many drive out of their way to buy vegetables grown at this particular farmer’s market.

On one September afternoon, in an hour’s time, Jacobs had people from Monticello, Buffalo, New Hope, Rockford, Minnetonka, and Delano stop by. His customer’s favorite item is his sweet corn.

On a good day, he will sell as many as 150 dozen ears of sweet corn.

“It is the best sweet corn around,” Marshall Goldish of New Hope said. “I tell everybody. I have been coming to Jim’s all summer long.”

Jacobs does 16 plantings of sweet corn. He starts planting his 21-acre garden in April, and sweet corn is the first of the seeds to go in the ground. Then, every six days after, there is another planting until July.

“I think some people think there is only one or two plantings of sweet corn,” Jacobs said. “If you go more than five days on a planting of sweet corn, usually the corn gets too hard or too starchy so you have to move on to the next planting.”

When the weather doesn’t cooperate, there might be a gap in between crops, but this year there was only half a day he didn’t have sweet corn to sell the entire summer.

The need for multiple plantings of sweet corn is just one of the things that Jacobs has learned about selling produce. He no longer grows his own potatoes. For the first 12 years, Jacobs sold his own potatoes. Now he buys them from Big Lake.

“They are too much work and the soil isn’t ideal for potatoes,” Jacobs said. “Our ground is so hard. We would spend an hour-and-a-half a day digging and washing potatoes. It is easier to buy them at Big Lake, where they have the sandy ground and irrigation. They grow nicer potatoes.”

There was a learning process in ways to pick the produce, as well. Green beans are picked by the plant.

“We pull the plants and pick the beans in the shade. That is why we have nine plantings of green beans,” Jacobs said. You can’t pick 50 pounds of beans a day on your knees so we just pull the plants and plant extra.”

Sweet corn is usually picked in the early morning hours by hand by Jacobs himself, which can be as early as 5:30 a.m. so he is free to do other field and farm chores the rest of the day.

Additional help is brought in throughout the summer to help pick other produce including cucumbers and tomatoes, and to help with the weeding.

Jacobs starts planning for the garden planting in January.

“We order our seeds and plan our fields, what is going to be where, ” Jacobs said.

As fall approaches, Jim’s Produce offers ornamental corn, squash, and pumpkins, and for the month of October there are barnyard animals for the children to see and pet including pot bellied pigs, ducks, chickens, goats and sometimes rabbits.

There are also little red wagons available for the children to go out into the fields and pick out their own pumpkin if they can’t find one they like from the hundreds of pumpkins sitting on the wagons, or piled up alongside the barn.

Jacobs’ pumpkins come in all sizes, from the very small to somewhere around 200 pounds.

Weather is a big factor in the kind of year Jacobs has in producing them.

Pumpkins don’t get planted until mid-May and he has to worry about frost in the fall.

“This year we haven’t had a frost so things are still growing, but some years the pumpkins are done already because of frost in September,” Jacobs said. “A light frost is alright, but those giants (pumpkins), because there is so much water in them, won’t take a frost, so we have to cover them at night if it gets cold.”

David Kahnk of Delano started helping Jacobs with the vegetable market about two years ago. Kahnk is impressed with how hard Jacobs works, as well as his knowledge of vegetables.

“Just being around Jim, I have learned a lot about vegetables,” Kahnk said. “He knows everything. People ask him a lot of questions and you have to have an answer. ‘What kind of tomatoes do you have? or what kind of sweet corn?’”

To make cleaning the vegetables less work, Kahnk and Jacobs rebuilt an antique Lobee vegetable washer during the winter that Jacobs had found at an auction. They had it ready to use this spring.

“We had to make a lot of the parts because it is so old, but all of those gourds were put in the washer,” Jacobs said pointing to hundreds loaded on a wagon. “Dave put them in and I took them out.”

“One way or another, we were going to get it to work,” Kahnk said.

One of Jacobs’ newest vegetables is Jaradhal squash, which he added last year.

“It is a big seller. A lot of people buy it and cut the lid off and stuff it, then bake it until it is tender,” Jacobs said.

Beets were another favorite. “And beets – they surprised me, how many people love beets,” Jacobs said. “People buy them to pickle and some like them fresh. I am amazed at how many we sell.”

Today, in addition to growing and selling produce, Jim and his father crop farm 550 acres of corn, soybeans, and some wheat, and raise about 100 Holstein steers.

“We have always farmed,” Jacobs said. “I started milking when I was 13 and the day I graduated from high school, I was farming full-time.”

Has Jim ever thought of doing something other than farming?

“Yeah – lately,” Jim said smiling. “After 14 hour days you think about something easier.”

“Right now we are just trying to make it through. We are all getting tired with the long days,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs gets additional help from his girlfriend, Sara Merlin from Rosemount who helps him on weekends, and his parents, Margie and Richard Jacobs of Maple Plain.

When Halloween comes, whatever has not been sold is shipped off to the food shelf or to the retired nuns at Bethany Convent or the Poor Clare sisters in Minneapolis.

Jacobs has three children: Andy is 26 and lives in Maple Plain. Jacobs’ two daughters, Jessie, 23, and Sarah, 21, both live in Delano.

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