by Britt Aamodt
Summer is the season for yard work, mosquitoes, cabin traffic and, if you’re a fanatic for fresh produce, farmers markets. Depending on the day of the week, locals can beat a path to markets in Rogers, Elk River, Nowthen and Zimmerman for their fresh-from-the-farm fixings.
Gina and Dave Nelson have quite another relationship to farmers markets. The owners of Dave Nelson Greenhouse on County Road 15 just south of Zimmerman, they’re the ones who slip out of bed before first light to work the fields and deadhead the greenhouse plants that will eventually make their way to market.
But you won’t be able to buy their hanging plants, flower boxes and veggies locally unless you visit their greenhouse. To find the Nelsons working a farmers market, you have to make the same trek they do every weekend May through October to the biggest open-air food marts in Minnesota.
For several years, the Nelsons have joined the predawn caravan of farmers heading out of the suburbs and rural areas to converge on the Cities for the downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis farmers markets.
“We pick the day before and it goes to market the next day,” Gina Nelson said.
On market days, they’re up at 3 a.m. Gina drives a truck, and their son Justin drives another. They load up flowers at the greenhouse and veggies at their other farm in Corcoran. Once they get near the Cities, the trucks split off. One goes to St. Paul. One goes to Minneapolis.
The markets open at 6 a.m.
“But a lot of customers get there early,” said Gina. “You have to get there early if you want canning cukes.”
Regulars know the ropes. They know who sells what, where and at what price. And they’re usually willing to pay a little more to buy their food directly from the farmers who grew it.
“Our veggies are all hand-picked. Many of them are hand-washed. I wash and wipe all the tomatoes,” said Gina. “If a tomato is bruised, I take it out and give the customer another one.”
In the past decade, Minnesota has seen a boom in local-sourced food. Consumers want fewer pesticides and better tasting food that hasn’t traveled half the country to sit on the grocer’s shelf.
Part of Gina Nelson’s job is to educate consumers about good produce.
“I’ve had customers ask me why our peppers are so hard. That’s the way they’re supposed to be. But everyone’s so used to the peppers they get at the grocery store,” she said.
Gina didn’t always have a green thumb. She married into the business.
Husband Dave Nelson learned the trade at Broman’s Greenhouse in Rogers. He was a high school student when a science teacher asked if he was looking for a summer job. The summer job at Broman’s matured into a full-time career. Dave worked for the greenhouse until he was nearly 30.
The genesis of today’s Dave Nelson Greenhouse began in 1985 with the purchase of a vegetable farm in Corcoran.
The next year Dave and Gina married, and the girl who liked air conditioning and gardens – so long as they were appreciated from the comfort of a window-side seat – suddenly found herself elbow-deep in dirt.
“I hated the vegetable farm at first,” she said. “It was a lot of hard work and very hot. Everything was heavy because I wasn’t a farm girl at all.”
In 1991 they added a greenhouse and two years later bought the land in Orrock Township where they now live and run their greenhouse business.
Late snow and cool temperatures made this year’s growing season the worst the couple has ever seen.
“And people don’t want to go to an outdoor market when it’s wet and cold,” said Gina, who nevertheless remains hopeful.
Nature has a way of catching up, and market customers can’t resist a sunny day.
“We’ve had many of the same customers for years,” said Gina. “They search us out. Many of them have become friends. I think that’s the best part of the job, just getting to know the customers.”