Farm families grow up happy at the South Bend Farmers Market
“I’m 79 years old and I shouldn’t be here,” says Carol Lemler, sweetly. “But I’m going to be here as long as I can drive myself” to the South Bend Farmers Market, 45 minutes from the family farm. She started coming to the market at 10 years of age with her grandmother, a Pennsylvania Dutch woman with a long red braid wrapped around her head.
Today, Lemler shepherds the fourth and fifth generations of her family at market, who run up to five booths year-round. “Nothing any better” for kids, says Lemler. When hers were small, they started pitching in, loading and unloading, helping customers and learning about perennial plants. Then, “as we were ready to slow down, they picked up the business naturally.”
This fast, adaptable stire-fry is great with any summer vegetables you have on hand. Make this truly seasonal by grabbing whatever produce is fresh at the market that day.
The extended family runs three farms all within five miles of each other. Fresh produce, cut flowers and perennials are available during the growing season, and lots of creativity rounds out the winter months. Everyone has found a niche. All the grandkids help Lemler with maple syrup. A daughter-in-law crochets baby hats and hand-pours candles, while a daughter grows wheat and dries it to make decorations like angel tree-toppers. Granddaughters sew scarves and bibs. The market is the main source of income for the family, so resourcefulness is an early lesson.
Learning the Ropes
Granddaughter Tana Stamberger, now 22, made her first trip to market at 1 week old. As a little girl, she and her cousins played under the counters or in crates on the truck behind the stall. She learned new things while exploring nearby booths. A jewelry vendor across the aisle used to bring her beads to string into bracelets. A hand-woven basket vendor would give her scraps to make tiny baskets for herself.
A community of regular customers and vendors watched over her as she grew up. “There are people all over that market that are more like family than friends to us,” Stamberger says. In fact, her middle name honors Marie Walawender, who runs a neighboring stall and has long been the market’s office manager. Walawender introduces Stamberger as her “granddaughter.”
Market also means responsibility, explains Stamberger. You get up early, you only ever have a one-day weekend, and there is farm work to be done when you get home. “You have to have a passion for it or you won’t do well and you won’t enjoy it.”
Joe Sawyer, fourth generation of the market’s founding family of butchers, grew up with a fierce work ethic. He remembers, “when I was 5 years old, Grandpa would pick me up at 3:30am and I’d sit on the table while he was cutting meat and drink coffee with him.” By the age of 8, Sawyer was running his own area, selling giant pickles and discount packages from the meat counter. Shortly out of high school, he bought the family stall from his father. High on the wall behind him hangs a photo of his grandfather at work on his 80th birthday, with a cake brought in by a customer.
Making a Living
Bob Vite, whose father started at the market in 1928, also grew up sleeping under the counter as his mother sold her goods. He learned how to sell and get along with people from a very young age. He is still shocked that “your average young person today can’t count change back to a customer. They just put a bunch of change in your hand, whatever the computer says.”
Summer begs for ice cream, and this delicious recipe combines the best of sweet and savory for a flavor that will keep your guests guessing about the ingredients.
Vite remembers the market with live chickens, potbelly stoves down the middle of the aisles and coal fires. When asked about the hard work and early hours, he responds, “It’s all we knew.” Farm kids were used to getting up early. “Milk the cows and get going, that’s all.”
There was mischief at the market, too. “Of course, when you are a kid, one of the things that always fascinates you is the river. I had two brothers, and we always tried to sneak down there. If my mother ever knew we were down at the river, she would have had a fit, I’m sure.”
His father had no other job outside the farm, something that has become harder for small farmers to do. In 1924, his family bought property and built a house in Florida, in order to cultivate citrus to sell in winter. They still drive down and bring back fresh Honeybells and other oranges
He wonders where the market is headed. “It’s hard to get young people interested in this work, since it’s not very profitable.” He points to the Richert/Phillips cousins as a hopeful example of the next generation reinvesting in the market.
The cousins first came to the South Bend Farmers Market about 17 years ago. They warn against choosing farming solely as a money-making proposition. According to Daniel Phillips, they “always tell younger farmers that if you have to decide, then you’re not a farmer.” Michael Richert confirms: “If you add up the hours, it’s not worth it.” But they have found happiness in returning to the lifestyle of their grandparents, raising organic crops, foraging in the woods, making maple syrup. They are full-time farmers, dependent on the market for all of their income.
Phillips has a 2-year-old son who will grow up at his father’s side, farming and at market. He says that for his son, “it’s not going to be work. He loves being there with us, making the maple syrup, or in the greenhouse, so we give him little tasks to do. … It’s not work if you love doing it.”
Carol Lemler would agree. As she puts it, “We’re not going to be millionaires. Our bills are paid. We’re happy.”
Summer is a wonderful time to grill and eat outside. Feel free to substitute other vegetables or meat depending on what you have.