Story by MARK SAAL • Photo by BENJAMIN ZACK
WEST HAVEN — We might not be able to tell you what a successful farmers market business looks like. But we can tell you what it smells like.
Like a basement full of dirt. Or worse.
More on that in a moment.
Levi and Carrie Call are raising their five children on three acres of land in western Weber County. And although Levi has been running a fence company with his father and brother for a number of years, what he really wants to be is a farmer.
This year will mark the fourth season the Call family has participated in Farmers Market Ogden. But this year, rather than selling vegetables at farmers markets as a side business, Levi Call is hoping to make that into a full-time job.
His father is retiring and the two brothers are transitioning away from the fencing business, so Levi figures this is as good a year as any to pursue his dream of full-time farming.
On a smaller scale, of course.
“I guess it’s farming, but it’s non-traditional — it’s on a smaller scale,” Levi said. “Because a traditional farmer around here has to have a couple hundred acres and hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment.”
But Call’s Freedom Farm, as the family refers to it, is growing produce on a little more than an acre. Levi says he’s hoping to double his vegetable production this year.
When Levi and Carrie first married, they moved into a small house — with an equally small yard — in Roy. One of the first things Levi did was rent a sod cutter and take out a big section of lawn to put in a vegetable garden.
“The whole time we were there, I was yearning for more elbow space,” Levi said.
Three years ago, they found that space in West Haven. They moved there that spring, and by summer Levi was tending a large garden plot. It’s grown from there.
“There’s something about getting your hands in the soil and participating in the growing process,” Levi said. “Growing your own food and watching or stewarding the land and the plants — it was good for my soul.”
To see more photos from Call's Freedom Farm, click on the photo below.
Carrie confirms that her husband is a farmer at heart.
“Levi connects to the earth,” she said. “He’d come home from work, take his shoes off and go out in the garden in his bare feet. I’d tell him to put his shoes on, and he’d say ‘Nope.’ That’s how he connected to the land.”
The Calls have added two greenhouses to their small operation to get an earlier jump on the growing season. In the past they’ve used the basement of their home for starting vegetables, but there were definite drawbacks to that plan.
“Our basement smelled like dirt,” Carrie said. “We had so many plants; they were everywhere in the basement.”
Of course, a dirt smell was preferable to the odor that developed the year Levi used fish and seaweed to fertilize the plants in the basement. A mistake, he confesses.
“It kinda smelled like a salmon processing plant for a few days,” Levi said.
The Calls are pursuing something they say is relatively new to this market — “community-supported agriculture,” or CSA.
In CSA, consumers support small local farming by purchasing shares of a farm’s produce for the upcoming growing season.
“For 20 weeks they receive a weekly share of the harvest in a box or basket or bag that they pick up here at the farm,” Levi said.
Once you’ve had this hyper-local, hyper-fresh produce, you’ll never go back, according to Carrie.
“Our children have a hard time eating vegetables in the winter months,” she said, referring to the bland taste of imported vegetables.
It’s the first year for the Calls selling CSA shares, but Levi says Farmers Market Ogden has been good practice for growing on a larger scale. They’re also developing a website to begin an online presence for their farm.
Syracuse couple Chad and Elizabeth Midgley are already living the farmer life Levi and Carrie Call seek. The Midgleys run Chad’s Produce, which makes its living off farmers markets in Northern Utah.
“On Wednesdays we’re in Park City, Thursdays we’re in Bountiful, and Saturdays we’re in Ogden and Salt Lake,” Elizabeth said.
“As many as we can do without killing ourselves,” Chad adds.
Once upon a time, Chad worked for JCPenney’s corporate offices in Salt Lake City. But for about the last dozen years he’s been farming the land full time. In all, the Midgleys harvest about four acres in Syracuse, West Bountiful and the heart of Ogden.
“This is my favorite piece of land,” Chad says, standing on a two-acre plot near 13th Street and Orchard Avenue in Ogden.
“This is the best soil I’ve ever farmed on. It grows like a jungle here.”
In fact, Chad refers to his garden spot as a “food forest.” He plants produce that comes back every year — including the lemon spinach he’s become famous for at Farmers Market Ogden.
Chad says his Ogden land has been farmed since pioneer times.
“And there’s a reason why the pioneers chose here to farm,” he said.
In addition to good growing soil, nearby canyon winds stir the air and reduce the chance of frost damage in the early spring and late fall.
Chad believes these small urban farms are the wave of the future, and it’s absolutely possible to make a living at it. A wise farmer can use about an acre of land to make $100,000 a year, he says.
And although other farmers markets have decreased in popularity, the Ogden market is actually growing, according to the Midgleys.
“And the nice thing about Ogden is people actually come to buy,” Elizabeth said. “In Salt Lake, they just browse and get out to walk around the market.”
But in Ogden?
“It’s like Las Vegas,” Chad says. “People throw money at you like it’s a slot machine.”
STONE URBAN FARM
Out in Farr West, Kyler Stone is growing vegetables on a quarter-acre lot behind his house. Called “bio-intensive farming,” Stone says his mini farm packs a lot of food into a small area.
He grows greens, salad mixes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beets, turnips, basil, cilantro and dill.
“Basically, I do anything that’s under 60 days to maturity, so I can get out of my beds quick,” he said. “I’m always kind of cycling through my beds, so I never run out of things like lettuce.”
He also uses hand tools almost exclusively.
Stone says he’s always been interested in gardening and growing his own vegetables, but never “full-on farming.” But then he started learning about where the food in most grocery stores comes from and how it’s treated.
“Tomatoes are picked when they’re green in Mexico,” he says. “And by the time they get here they have no nutrients.”
Although selling produce at farmers markets is currently a side business, Stone hopes to eventually make it his sole job. He envisions the day networks of small farms grow “super fresh” produce that’s delivered within three hours of harvesting.
And his heroes have always been farmers.
“If you ate today, thank a farmer,” Stone said. “Because who’s going to grow our food in the future? The average farmer is 60 years old today, and is probably doing some of the hardest work there is.”
TIFFANY’S SWEET SHOP
Unlike the others, Tiffany Schoenfeld didn’t go the vegetable route with the farmers markets. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been able to make a living off of weekend bazaars.
For about four years now, the Washington Terrace woman has turned selling her fudge, lemon bars and other sweet treats at farmers markets into a career. In fact, she’s done so well that in September 2015, she and her husband, Richard, opened Tiffany’s Sweet Shop at 2246 Washington Blvd.
“We were selling out at farmers markets and becoming successful enough to open this place,” she said. “And we still do farmers markets, which keep the doors open here.”
Schoenfeld, a former 911 dispatcher, grew up around carnivals — her parents ran them for local schools and the like. She and her mother used to enter cooking contests at county and state fairs.
“And we started winning them all,” she says.
That’s when Schoenfeld realized she could make a living at it. She began with caramel apples, then added waffles, fudge, lemon and peanut butter bars, and more.
‘JUMP IN THERE’
For those with the right product, making a living selling at farmers markets is possible, according to Schoenfeld.
“The secret is finding the right product to sell,” she said.
She advises potential farmers market sellers to do their research and pick a product that is exclusively theirs.
“If you can show something is locally produced, you’ll do well,” Schoenfeld said.
And Levi Call advises potential farmers market produce sellers to just “jump in there.”
“You learn in the doing,” he said.
But don’t wait, Levi advises. Get started as soon as possible.
“My first summer I didn’t have much to sell at first because I didn’t get things done early enough,” he said. “It was kind of embarrassing to have so few things on my table when my neighbor vendor had so much produce. But then, you have to start somewhere.”
As much as Levi says he loves partnering with nature to grow healthy foods, he’s also focused on creating “a healthy environment for our kids to grow up.” The children help with the vegetables, and sons McKay, 12, and Kyler, 10, have even started their own egg business. They have about 55 chickens — far too many to give names to, according to the boys.
“They’re all named ‘Chicken,’” Kyler explains.
The chickens produce in excess of 15 dozen eggs each week, which the boys sell to neighbors.
“We usually deliver Saturdays on our bicycles,” McKay says.
Mom and Dad put baskets on the boys’ bicycles so they can use them to deliver the eggs. And the young businessmen learned the hard way to transport just one or two orders at a time, then go back home and get more eggs to deliver.
Says Carrie: “They have literally learned not to put all their eggs in one basket.”