The Dane County Farmers’ Market may be the star of the show every Wednesday and Saturday, but the farmers, managers and consumers all know the spotlight shines even brighter on the farms themselves. After all, that’s where farmers return week after week, to plant, grow and pick whatever they sell. That’s where the DCFM’s managers visit to inspect their crops to make sure everything is grown in Wisconsin. So that’s where I went, driving down I-94 west of Milwaukee, so I could visit Ebert’s Greenhouse in Ixonia.
As far as ranking goes, Mark Ebert is the most senior member of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, a highly-coveted title. He began going with his dad, Milton Ebert, to the market when he was nine years old, and has continued for roughly 40 years. But that wasn’t always the path he thought he would take. He earned a marketing degree in college. He worked for UPS. But those career paths didn’t feel quite right. When he met his wife, Renee, things changed.
“I thought I’ve got to do something more,” Mark says. “I’ve got to do something more, and not just on a whim. I’ve got to do something serious. I got hired by UPS and my dad came to me right around that time and asked if I wanted to buy his end of the greenhouse out. I thought to myself, ‘that’s two little huts.’ I thought I would do it part-time.”
For the first year, he did just that, juggling his job at UPS and the greenhouse with his brother, Ron. But Mark’s love for the greenhouse and its flowers blossomed. He called UPS and said he wanted to go into the family business. For the first few years that he, his brother and father all worked together, his father focused on growing vegetables, while Mark focused on flowers. By the mid-90s, Ebert’s became focused on trees, shrubs, perennials, herbs and more. The family business has grown from two greenhouses to 36 today.
“I love it now,” Mark tells me. “I knew my dad wanted me to stay on the farm and work with the vegetables. I didn’t want to do that. But it was my choice to work with the flowers, and that I really liked.”
While Mark may have left the vegetable business behind, some remnants of that background remain just feet away at the market every week: Tietz Family Farms.
“It’s ironic,” Mark says, laughing. “Our neighbors [at the market], the ones with the popcorn, they’re right across the field from us.”
Indeed, when I visit Mark the following weekend at the market, his neighbor at home and on the Square, Tammy Tietz, is quick to join our conversation. She doesn’t miss a beat, piping in with jokes about her neighbor, displaying the kind of banter and laughter that doesn’t just develop overnight.
“It’s nice to be with friends who watch you grow up together,” Tammy tells me. “We’ve also watched how the market has changed from when I was a child till I was an adult. When I was younger, his father grew potatoes, so we sold potatoes and sweet corn. Then, we watched them begin to grow their plants, and that business grew, while my husband’s side kept growing vegetables.”
While Mark says it’s fun having his friends right by his side there, those aren’t the only friendships he tells me he’s formed in his time at the Dane County Farmers’ Market.
“A lot of customers that have come by, I’ve handed out a brochure that says, ‘hey, you gotta come out here,'” Mark says. “And a lot of them have come out and it’s turned into a friendship.”
As someone who became completely overwhelmed by the market the first time I experienced it earlier this summer, I admit that I get intimidated walking past each stand. Indecisiveness is not a quality you want to display when there are more than a hundred vendors to choose from. When I tell this to Mark, he says the vendors truly enjoy talking to the customers, and have a lot of knowledge that they want share.
“It’s enjoyable,” Mark says. “I love watching the people come by, I love talking to the people that stop by.”
For Mark’s part, it may be informing buyers where the best place to place a plant may be, or when the best season to buy it is. But when you’re a part of a crowd of thousands of people, it’s wonderful to know you could walk away with a whole lot more than the products in your bag.
The Wednesday Market runs through November 8th. Saturday on the Square runs through November 11th.