The Millers are making a living at having fun.
On a cool summer morning, Gordon and Susan Miller walk between long rows of lush, tall plants, stopping periodically for a closer look. The onions are ready for harvest on their farm just south of Fremont, Neb., and they’ll be pulling, chopping and sorting all day long to get ready for market, where it’s almost as much fun as being in the fields.
“It’s the interaction with people,” Susan explained with a knowing smile. “People are interesting.”
Susan and Gordon are backyard farmers, and their clientele, the happy and curious wanderers of farmers markets around Nebraska. Since 2007, when they retired from their full-time jobs — Hormel Foods for Gordon, and a local doctor’s office for Susan — the couple has been gardening for a living. And that life has been good.
One could say their backyard farming lifestyle began with Susan, who grew up on the farm they now own. It was where her dad, Christian Krause, grew acres of corn, wheat and alfalfa. Her grandpa worked that same soil, too.
Years later, when her mom, Carol, decided it was time to part with the land she’d inherited, it was a no-brainer buyout for the Millers.
“We were lucky to get this place,” Gordon said fervently. “We eventually wanted to farm, but there just wasn’t enough ground to do it. That’s why I started the vegetables.”
Every year, the Millers would plant and tend a small vegetable garden for the family. With the farm life in Susan’s blood, and Gordon’s love of being outdoors, they had a mutual passion for the work. And over time, the hobby farm began to evolve into something else.
The sweet corn was soon growing with wild abandon, so Susan began frequenting the Haymarket Farmers Market in Lincoln, Neb., to sell off the excess.
“We saw there was a market need for other vegetables (at Haymarket),” Gordon said. “So we just started experimenting. Every year, we would add a few more vegetables to our garden.”
Today, the acreage of their backyard farm is filled with the flora (and sometimes fauna) of a diverse vegetable garden. Zucchini and summer squash plants with dark green leaves shoot tall toward the sky, settled in between rows of green- and purple-leafed varieties of sweet potatoes and the cantaloupe, its bulbous fruit peeking out from under a network of gently sprawling vines.
The Millers still grow sweet corn too, as well as other staples, like tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, and winter squash. In February, they plant the romaine and beets in the greenhouse, both of which go to market by mid-May.
While the onion harvest is ongoing this month, they are also planting cauliflower in the field that abuts the Brussels sprouts and a veritable jungle of asparagus plants — their blue ribbon vegetable.
“That’s our largest market,” Gordon said of the asparagus, now past its prime harvesting season and left to grow into tall, feathery ferns, ensuring another tasty crop will grow next year. “You can’t sell it for long, but at the farmers markets, you can get such a good price for it.”
Asparagus work doesn’t come cheap, though.
During its harvest season, the Millers hire eight employees, as opposed to their average four harvesters. They’ll pick the shoots every day, seven days a week, for eight weeks.
It’s also Gordon’s favorite crop, for a couple of reasons.
“During the harvest season, we eat asparagus every single day,” he said with an impish grin. “Asparagus is a real challenge, but if you get it done right, it does really well.”
They also found a niche market for the Brussels sprouts, a plant that Gordon said isn’t commonly grown in the area.
The Millers harvest some of their Brussels sprout plants wholly intact, selling the heavily sprout-laden stalk at the holiday markets, where they are somewhat of a novelty item.
Though they have expanded their business model to include a food distributor, Lone Tree Foods, the farmers markets are still their main source of produce income. During market season, Susan spends every weekend in Lincoln at Haymarket and the Sunday Farmers Market at College View, while Gordon sells produce all weekend in Omaha, switching between the markets at Village Pointe and Aksarben Village.
They also have a booth every Thursday at Fremont’s Memory Farmers Market, which benefits the Fremont Area Alzheimer’s Collaboration. It’s the small hometown market where they can chat with neighbors and friends, swap stories and field notes about their crops and techniques, and share their passion for gardening.
Even though they are having fun with their food, the Millers still take their full-time hobby farm seriously. Every year, they strike out to the Great Lakes Expo Conference in Grand Rapids, Mich., where backyard farmers across the nation gather to learn about new foods, techniques, and equipment to improve their operations.
The expo is where the couple learned about growing vegetables with black plastic mulch, a technique they adopted and has served them well so far. They picked up a handy fine mist waterer there, too — the plants love it.
Every time they try something new, the Millers learn a little more about how to make their backyard farm a success. With 12 years of experience as full-time gardeners, they said it’s all about trial and error, starting small, expanding naturally, and most importantly, appreciating the process.
“It’s a lot of work, so if you didn’t enjoy it, it wouldn’t be fun,” Gordon said. “It’s satisfying to raise high quality vegetables for our customers.”
Susan nodded at her husband’s words, smiling as she summed up their backyard farming operation in three words: “We love veggies.”
Katy Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.