Michael Gehman could be called a farming and growing legacy, considering that he grew up farming with his father, and his mother has owned a retail nursery business for a quarter of a century.
“My family moved to Illinois from Pennsylvania about 27 years ago, so I was real young,” he said. “My dad is a crop farmer—he just likes farming on a bigger scale than I do. I grew up a farm boy.”
Working with his parents over the years spurred his interest in farming. After trying his hand at a number of different jobs out of high school, including landscaping for several years, he decided to give farming a try.
Veggie Boy Produce is born
Today, Gehman is the owner of Veggie Boy Produce and one of the vendors you’ll meet at the on Saturday. He said he also sells at the Webster Groves Farmers Market, and his company has a market at Washington University School of Medicine.
“We started it about three years ago, it’ll be four in the fall, and that keeps us pretty busy,” he said. “We also have sales at the farm and have a couple of stands around the area, but we only attend a few markets.”
Veggie Boy Produce also provides produce for several St. Louis-area restaurants.
The challenges of growing and selling produce
Owning a business has presented a lot of challenges, but Gehman loves what he does.
“There are a lot of points of challenge for a local farmer,” he said. “One would be ensuring a quality product and making sure you’ve got staff when you need it.”
Gehman said that he doesn’t get much time off during the summer, especially because his markets tend to be weekend markets.
“It’s pretty labor-intensive, and I’m about 100 miles one way from the market,” he said. “We’re just about 10 miles south of Mount Vernon, IL.”
He loves going to the markets, he said, because it offers him a challenge as well as the opportunity to meet people and share his crops.
“I tend to like sales, which is what took me to the farmers market in the first place,” he said.
The family that farms together
Gehman has been married to his wife, Stephanie, for about three years. The couple have a 1-year-old daughter, Shanika.
“My wife helps a lot on the farm and takes in interest in stuff I do,” he said. “She works for my mom part-time at her garden center, and she spends a lot of time at home with our daughter, too.”
The family enjoys taking a couple of short vacations each year when it’s manageable, and Gehman said they do a lot together.
He loves growing produce and selling it at the farmers market because it gives him a chance to combine his two favorite things: growing and selling.
“I like to see what I can grow and what I can make out of the options I have—some crops are very challenging,” he said. “It makes it a lot more fun because I grew this stuff—I know what it takes to make it taste the way it did. There are a lot of things a person can do to tweak the flavors.”
For Gehman, it’s about more than just paying the bills.
“It’s about being connected with your farm,” he said. “You have a connection, even if you want to take a day off, that connection keeps you coming back and keeps you going.”
Veggie Boy offers veggies, fruits
Gehman said he doesn’t specialize in any one product.
“I tend to grow the whole spectrum,” he said. “Fresh tomatoes—heirloom and cherry, green beans, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers, hot peppers, lettuce, spinach, winter and spring greens, broccoli, cauliflower, watermelon, sweet corn and strawberries.”
Vendor says markets offer high-quality food
Gehman said that while people might get their produce cheaper at the grocery store, the quality will be much lower as well.
“When stuff is grown commercially for retail stores, it has to be planted ahead of time, so it won’t be fresh,” he said. “It’s barely starting to ripen when it’s picked, and they pick in large quantities.”
He said commercial growers will often leave the unripe products in storage and ship as needed, but that the storage time actually prevents the natural ripening process—which explains why a ‘hot house’ tomato is not nearly as tasty as a garden-grown one.
“Our stuff was picked when it was naturally ripened, and it’s ready to eat,” he said. “Most stores have to let their produce sit for a week or more because it’s not ripe yet.”
He added that most area stores sell fruits and vegetables from Florida and California, where many of the workers are immigrant workers.
“But most of all, when you buy from a farmers market, you’re helping the local economy,” he said. “You’re helping us to keep our farms running and feed our families.”