Years ago, farm stands were mostly little tables along a country road or a rural stretch of a state route. Sometimes they weren’t even stands – just a sign directing you up the driveway to a farmhouse, where you could get fresh-picked produce in a one-on-one, usually cash transaction.
A quarter-mile north of the house where I grew up in New York years ago was a 20- by 8-foot display of fruits and vegetables. Lights attached to its clamshell roof, which closed over the shelves at night. Woody and his family (wife and sons) took shifts manning the cash box – no register – and bagging produce for customers.
It was open during the growing season, although sometimes it would be open to sell the Christmas trees Woody bought out of town and trucked in during the early winter dark.
Today, here’s how Joe Cramer of Cramer Farms near Racine, Wisconsin, tells his farm stand’s story: “We are a third-generation farm. We will become a 100-year-old farm in 2026. We – my two brothers, John and Pete, and I – farm around 150 acres. My grandparents and my dad had some chickens, a couple of cows and raised vegetables. They sold to small local stores in town.”
Later, in the 1980s, the brothers started raising more livestock. At some point, they started to grow vegetables for the winter.
“In the middle-1990s, urban sprawl was starting to knock on the door and livestock prices were poor. So we got in touch with a local vegetable market and started growing produce for them,” Joe says. “In 1999, Dad wanted our now 10-year-old grandson/nephew to put some sweet corn out by the road. We put a round picnic table out by the road with some sweet corn on it.” They met with little early success. It took a few years for the idea to catch on with passersby.
“We had, and still have, a lot of intense competition in the area,” Joe adds. They continued to work hard. As a result, Cramer Farms has been recognized by the community in an unexpected way.
“We have been voted best sweet corn, best roadside stand and best produce in the local newspaper several times,” Joe says. The Racine Journal Times has featured the operation in the paper for the past two years. This past summer, Cramer Farms was on the front page.
“I decided to name the stand after our nephew, calling it Matt’s Produce,” Joe says. “We found some good quality varieties of sweet corn that customers seemed to like. We then began to plant more peppers and tomatoes along with other fruits and vegetables. We spent hours in the winter researching and looking for better varieties of sweet corn to plant.
“Often we would plant up to 10 different varieties of sweet corn, looking for customer input,” Joe says. The effort wasn’t in vain. “In 1999 we sold maybe a quarter-acre of sweet corn out by the road stand. This year we sold 20 acres.”
Some farm stands are a happy marriage of agriculture and art. This is where ag and art come together – and go on the road, giving a whole new image of the traditional farm stand that is the usual by-the-road variety.
There is an artistic subspecies to be found rolling around Wisconsin. These particular stands cannot only be beside the road – they are designed and built to travel. They are also artistically inspired, colorful and even whimsical.
The Reedsburg-based Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit “evolving laboratory of the arts and ecology and fertile ground for creative work” sponsors and encourages artist-built mobile farm stands that may vend fresh local produce, act as outreach vehicles or both. These stands come together at existing food and farming events in a caravan or “Food Chain,” creating a vibrant marketplace of food, art and ideas.
As the Wormfarm’s website notes, “Planting a seed, cultivating, reaping what you sow, both farmer and artist have these activities in common.”
Jay Salinas, director of special projects for the institute, says, “We want an ongoing relationship with growers and food chains” and these mobile markets are just the ticket. The idea is to bring the rural to the urban, so farmers can sell their fruits and vegetables in city neighborhoods, making a connection between the fields and the inner city.
The stands are modeled after the iconic “homegrown” vegetable stands that, for generations, peppered the countryside during the growing season, as farmers sold their produce along gravel roads and in parking lots on the edge of town. The Wisconsin artists make their stands roadworthy so they can travel the highways safely and be parked in urban and rural settings.
Small operations thrive
You might call it a collateral farm stand, but Stoney Acres Farm – a third-generation farm near Athens, Wisconsin, operated by Kat Becker and her partner, Tony Schultz – sells its produce along with a “pizza-dinner-on-the-farm” evening.
Only one night a week – Friday – they serve what they call a “Wisconsin pizza,” which measures 16 inches or more, Kat said. Since they have been involved with the CSA movement for several years, they also sell produce.
“Some of our neighbors piggyback on our Friday night pizza suppers by setting up their own stands to sell their produce,” Kat says.
HIGH-PRESSURE SALES, FARM STAND STYLE
Joe Cramer tells this story of a special sale at his family’s farm stand: “Last fall, a little tyke was here with his grandpa. He was only 3 or 4 years old. He says to me, ‘Mister farmer, I want to buy a pumpkin with my own money.’ Well, with a serious business transaction about to take place, I got down on one knee so I could be more to his level of sight. I say to him, ‘How much do you want to spend?’ He reaches into his little pocket (mind you, grandpa is right there… and I know grandpa) and the little tyke pulls a dollar bill out of the front pocket and says: ‘This much.’
“I was right, this was a serious transaction. Well…I had no choice. He had me over the barrel. I wasn’t going to pass up a dollar’s worth of business from this apparently shrewd businessman, so I got up and directed him toward the $4 pumpkins, telling him to pick which one he wanted. He picked which one he wanted and paid me. Of course, now I had to give him his change back. Did I mention he was a shrewd businessman?” Cramer chuckles.
“I got back down on one knee and we shook hands on the deal. He headed for grandpa’s car, got buckled in his car seat and was happier than a mule in a thistle patch. Grandpa said, ‘Thanks.’”
No doubt that Joe Cramer will get more than $3 worth of advertising and goodwill as the story is told and retold around the county. That human touch is one good reason why farm stands tend to be consumer favorites.
Another, larger farm stand story
What was a round picnic table many years ago has become something quite different. So, is size important?
The Pearce family farm in Walworth, Wisconsin – originally purchased by Amos Van Dyke in 1848 through the Homestead Credit Act for $1.25 per acre – has grown exponentially. A few of the original buildings from that long-ago era are still in use today.
Starting in 1967, the Pearce family had an extra few dozen sweet corn and some surplus pumpkins. The five Pearce kids decided to sell additional vegetables by the edge of the road to raise money for 4-H projects and college education.
In the beginning, only a few vegetables were offered for sale. Podded peas were available in June and sweet corn in July. With a ready supply of enthusiastic youthful labor, more varied crops were planted and cared for by hand throughout the season.
In years to come, sweet corn went from being planted a couple of times to regular plantings throughout the spring and early summer to ensure a continuous supply to the one-wagon farm stand where a young person would wait for a customer.
In the mid-1970s the Pearce family’s market expanded to multiple wagons with a variety of produce from the farm including: zucchini, beets, basil, tomatoes, leeks, winter squash, cucumbers, dill, green beans and beyond. Apple products were also provided by a local grower.
The farm, which started out as a humble operation more than a century ago, is now a thriving multigenerational effort that isn’t just a large-scale farm stand, but a wholesale produce operation as well. The Pearces also host seasonal activities, especially in the fall with tons of pumpkins and a haunted barn and hayride.
Small, medium or large farm stands have grown and matured over the years, bringing in additional income to family farms and making a concerted effort to connect agricultural and urban communities. They champion freshness and better, healthier eating, while bringing a larger understanding of art to agriculture.
Read more: 4 Tips for Marketing Your Farm Stand