DEKALB – With temperatures warming and grass slowly turning green, spring has finally sprung. One person who anxiously awaits the springtime weather is Mark Yaeger.
Yaeger is the owner of Yaeger’s Farm Market, located at 14643 State Route 38 in DeKalb. After the long, cold winter and with 40 acres of land waiting for fruits and vegetables to be planted, Yaeger is ready for spring.
Yaeger’s Farm Market was started in 1967 by David Yaeger, when his mother persuaded him to raise flowers to put around her house. Pleased with her son’s work, she bragged to her friends about her new flowers. Soon, Yaeger was taking requests for flowers, and he built a small greenhouse. When his business expanded, he decided to also grow produce and to build a farm stand. In 2002, due to his failing health, Yaeger gave his nephew, Mark Yaeger, management of the operation.
Today, Yaeger’s Farm Market has over 30,000 plants, two large greenhouses, and 40 acres for fruit and vegetables. The market opens for the season April 21.
After tending to and watering his plants, Yaeger spoke with MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about what life is like owning a farm market.
Milton: When do you start growing flowers?
Yaeger: Well, we start the first greenhouse around Valentine’s Day. We get our geraniums in, and days are not long, maybe four or five hours of work for three or four days each week. Then we steadily increase. Now we’re in April, and I can easily fill a 10-hour day and still not be finished with what I want to get done.
Milton: When do you start to plant the vegetables and fruits?
Yaeger: They are started inside the greenhouse. …Then the rule of thumb is that you never put them into the field before Mother’s Day. Even if the weather is nice, we always seem to catch a cold stretch. …Onions are hardy, so they can go out earlier. In the later season, tomatoes and potatoes need some extra heat and protection from Mother Nature. We actually start picking our homegrown tomatoes right around the Fourth of July. That gives us a nice long season on tomatoes.
Milton: What do you do during your offseason?
Yaeger: During those six to eight weeks, my wife and I go a couple of shows, we attend conferences about gardening. We catch up on paperwork.
Milton: What is a typical day like?
Yaeger: I start by 7 a.m. and leave by 5 p.m. for dinner with my family. Some days, I come back to work. And the hours will just get longer. Sweet corn season starts in July, and we’re picking sweet corn as soon as the sun rises in the morning and we close up around 6 p.m. Then we have another hour or two left of work. We have 14-hour days, seven days a week. When it rains, days get a little shorter, maybe six or eight hours a day.
Milton: What is work like?
Yaeger: With the greenhouse and the fields, it’s all manual labor. Sometimes, it’s just better to do it by hand.
Milton: What do you do with the extra produce?
Yaeger: We donate them to local food banks. We have their schedules now, and we ask them to let us know if they change their schedules. They give us a call to see if we have some extras, and we do donate them to the local food banks.
Milton: Do you donate flowers to churches for holidays?
Yaeger: I don’t do the poinsettias or Easter lilies because I have a friend who raises them. We’ve been getting those flowers from them for years.
Milton: Can you tell me more about your Fall Festival?
Yaeger: Yep, we’ve been doing it since 1982. We have free hayrides to the pumpkin patch, and pumpkins in the yard if people don’t want to walk. We have several different fall decorations, fall squash, and a play land area. It’s really geared toward families, toward family time. We’re a family business, and we want to have a nice fall day and to have the whole family just come out, enjoy the country, and have some fun. I build a corn maze every year.
Milton: Do you do your canning in the fall?
Yaeger: We actually distribute (canned goods). We have Amish and Mennonite families that produce them and we sell them here at the stand. …There are salsas, pickled products, jams, and jellies. We do business with a gentleman from up in Wisconsin, and we get maple syrup from him. …There are about 105 different items sold in our farm stand.
Milton: What are your goals for the future? Are you looking to do something different or try something new?
Yaeger: We’re always looking to improve what we do. …If people are looking for us to raise something and there is enough interest, I’m willing to try it. I’m constantly trying to update the look of our farm, update what we’re doing. We’re always trying for perfection, but Mother Nature’s always changing. But we’ve learned to adapt with it. I don’t know if expansion is going to happen in the next year or two, but we are talking about expanding. It has to fit into what we do. There are no more hours in the day that our bodies can physically work, so it has to be something that fits into what we do in our daily routines.
Milton: How would you say that your flowers differ from large-name companies and stores?
Yaeger: If you go to one of those stores, the flowers are outside and they’re getting beat up by Mother Nature, the wind. My flowers, they’re all inside. …I harden them and make them a stronger plant by slowly taking the heat from the greenhouse away from them. We’ve been in this business for 47 years. We know how to take care of plants … we know what to look for. We know all these plants.
Milton: Do you have any family secrets?
Yaeger: There are a couple of things that I do differently from the stores, but I’m not going to tell anybody. I’ve had friends of mine that cannot figure it out. They scratch their heads, they sit there and look at me and keep on asking me, “How do you do it?” …There’s some things we’ve learned, yes. That’s what this whole business is, a learning process. Not every year is going to be the same, weather-wise, temperature-wise, insect-wise, or disease-wise.
Milton: Last year, I know it was awful with the Japanese beetles. What are some of the pests that you have to battle each year?
Yaeger: Aphids! Aphids, aphids, aphids. They are the worst in the greenhouse industry. Thrips would be the next worst. We keep things elevated, so worms and ants don’t get into it.
Milton: Do you have a favorite plant?
Yaeger: My favorite would have to be the calibrachoa, a member of the petunia family. We call them callies. They’re just a lovely plant, very versatile, a lot of different colors. My favorite vegetable? Probably sweet corn, just because I love to eat it so much.
Milton: Do you eat sweet corn with butter on top?
Yaeger: Actually, I eat it raw out in the field. That’s how I know if it’s good, if it’s too far advanced. We have almost 11 different plantings, so we have sweet corn from July until the end of September. And that’s pretty much how I tell, eating one or two ears of corn every morning. Of course, at supper time, I have it boiled and buttered and salted.
Milton: Do you grow any exotic flowers like orchids?
Yaeger: No, we’ve stayed away from the exotics. We just started perennials, a lot of the popular, mainstay varieties. We started that last year. …If we were to be raising exotics, we’d have to be going year-round with them.
Milton: Would you consider your farm organic?
Yaeger: I minimize the amount of pesticides that I have to use, and we do that by scouting. It really depends on how a person wants to define organic. I talk to people, and when they ask me, “Is this organic,” I ask them what they perceive organic to mean. Everyone perceives organic in a different way. I tell them how I produce it, and they can make up their own mind. …We do use an organic spray I can put on them, and I’ve used it successfully. We get organic fertilizer. With our weather, it is very hard to raise good, healthy plants without fungicide in this area. I try to minimize the exposure as much as possible.
Milton: When do you open for the season?
Yaeger: We open on April 21, but I’ve had several people come in already. They wanted to be reassured that spring was actually coming. They walked around and looked at the flowers… I was ready for winter to be over January 1. Spring is coming, slowly but surely.