Listening to their customers has kept veteran farm market operators in business
Peggy and Dean Slater pose by some of the mums and asters that are among the most profitable items they sell from their farm market in Vigo County. Their primary means of promotion is word of mouth – plus a location right on Highway 41 south of Terre Haute – but they recently started using a Facebook page. The market is open every day April – October. Photo by Kathleen M. Dutro
When talking with Dean and Peggy Slater about the farm market they opened in 1985, one concept comes up over and over again: Adaptability.
“We’re not at all what we started to be – not at all,” Peggy said.
“Just listen to your customers and keep growing,” Dean advised. “And grow at a pace you can afford to grow.”
Slater Farms Market, which is located in Vigo County south of Terre Haute on U.S. 41, sells fruits, vegetables and plants. It employs both of the Slaters fulltime as well as a temporary work force that varies from four to 10, depending on the season. Almost everything sold is grown on the Slaters’ 85 acres.
But it started out as a small U-pick operation. Back in 1985, Dean was working fulltime as a machinist, and Peggy had left her job as manager of a restaurant to stay home with their two small daughters.
“The chance to buy the family farm came up and so I purchased it,” Dean said. “We…figured we’d have to come up with a way to pay for it other than my paycheck every week.” So they started a farm market with just a few acres of U-pick summer vegetables.
Their first goal was to bring Dean into the farm fulltime – something that didn’t happen until 1992. A U-pick, they decided, would require less labor. But in that rural part of Vigo County, many of the people interested in picking vegetables had their own gardens. So the Slaters started a farm market adjacent to the highway.
Besides the fruits, vegetables and plants, most of which they grow themselves, they also grow wheat – primarily for the straw – and some soybeans, but produce and plants are their bread and butter.
The plants, which they started producing after they built their first greenhouse in 1988, are their most profitable items. Although originally grown for the Slaters’ own use, customers started asking if they were for sale.
“That started us in the plant business, which I would have to say is our best business today,” Dean said. They now have eight greenhouses.
Almost all of the Slaters’ crops, including these mums, are watered with a drip irrigation system. The exceptions are the green beans and sweet corn, which this year were pretty much nonexistent due to the drought. The drought offered what Peggy Slater somewhat wryly referred to as “some challenges.” Photo by Kathleen M. Dutro
“The biggest thing is just being able to change as you go. You can’t be so set on what you think you’re going to do,” Peggy added. “It just evolved into something we never suspected we’d do. And yet it’s worked out and it’s been great.”
“We’ve been at it long enough that we never worry about the weather, never worry about crop losses because you’re going to hit a homerun somewhere, you just don’t know where,” Dean said.
“And you’re going to have a loss somewhere – you just don’t know where,” Peggy added.
“You just have all your numbers, all your facts straight, you just don’t worry about it,” Dean explained. “If you worry about it, it doesn’t do anybody any good, so don’t go negative, just stay positive and let it go.”
Resources help Hoosier farmers learn to take advantage of local
The percentage of food purchased at farmers markets and farm stands in the U.S. is still tiny – but it’s growing fast, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As of 2007, farmers markets accounted for only 0.4 percent of total sales, the USDA’s Economic Research Service said in a May 2010 report titled “Local Food Systems: Concepts, Impacts, and Issues,” but that nonetheless represents $1.2 billion in sales.read more