PRODUCE IS A GROWING BUSINESS FOR THE RUPPERT FAMILY
October is National Farm to School Month
Farmers, like the Ruppert family of Currie, turn seeds that are planted into the rich soils on their family’s Minnesota Century Farm into food on the table. They raise traditional Midwest row crops including corn and soybeans, but they’re best known for their garden produce. The Rupperts provide fresh foods for eight school districts, three restaurants, 3 farmers markets, and various food shelves in the area.
“Our garden has grown in size as our kids have taken on more and more responsibility. Gardening is their full-time job from spring into fall. Once school is back in session, Kerry and I do the weekday picking and delivering,” says Kim Ruppert, who has served as Murray County Farm Bureau president for the past three years.
Raised in the city of Marshall, Kim discovered her passion for agriculture after marrying a fourth generation Minnesota farmer. The couple shares a desire for hands-on learning, as well as for higher education. Kim recently graduated with a degree in Agriculture Business from Minnesota West. Each of Kerry and Kim’s three children have a 529 Minnesota College Savings Plan that is funded through the produce they raise and sell. One might say they’re turning greens into greenbacks.
What started as a one-time sale has turned into thrice weekly farmer’s market stands in three communities.
Twelve years ago, Kerry’s parents raised more garden vegetables than they could use. They asked Kim and Kerry’s oldest daughter Haylee, if she would like to sell the produce in town and keep the proceeds. The 10-year-old netted $179 and discovered she really enjoyed interacting with consumers at the farmer’s market. The following year Kerry’s parents showed Haylee, Zachery and Katelyn how to plant seeds and tend a garden. They try to plant around the middle of April, weather permitting. Potatoes, cabbage, onions, beets, and carrots are some of the first things that are planted. Plants that need re-seeding, such as, watermelon, muskmelon, and cucumbers get done quickly so they mature at relatively the same time. Planting the garden this year was challenging with the cold wet conditions. Many items went in later and matured later.
The garden is an FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE) for 17-year-old Zach. A senior at Tracy Area Senior High School, he creates the crop plan and researches what varieties to plant. He keeps track of how many pounds of fruits and vegetables are produced, what sells where and to whom. Last year his SAE earned 1st at the regional competition and 3rd at state. He’s hoping to improve his ranking this year.
“Zach spends a tremendous amount of time weeding the garden all summer long,” says Kim. “We’re not certified organic, but we don’t spray for weeds or insects. We make our own sugar water using tomatoes or muskmelon and watermelon rinds in five-gallon pails along with four or five inches of water. The bugs are attracted to those pails, so that minimizes the insect damage to our garden produce. To attract bees to help with pollination, we plant Cut & Come Again Zinnias.”
Now that she joined the Tracy Area FFA this year, 13-year-old Katelyn is spending more time in the garden by planting. She also helps Kim with the marketing by contacting radio stations to promote the markets, as well as posting photos to the Ruppert’s Garden Produce on Facebook.
The girl who started it all is now an adult with a full-time, off-the-farm job. Haylee, 22, graduated with an associates degree in Agriculture Business and works at US Bank in Marshall. Her degree was funded by selling garden produce. She also is pursuing a nursing degree. Haylee lives in Marshall and enjoys helping in the garden as her schedule allows.
“The garden has always been on the home farm. We took it over once my parents moved to town,” says Kerry. “Gardening has become something our family really enjoys doing together. I had a garden of my own growing up, along with my mother tending her own.”
Their one-acre garden raises enough produce to feed their family plus hundreds of others in southwestern Minnesota. About eight years ago, they began selling in-season fruits and vegetables to local schools as part of the Farm to School program.
“Schools want large watermelon and muskmelon,” says Kim.
The Rupperts grew 3,500 pounds of muskmelons, and over 8,000 pounds of watermelon last season. Muskmelons ranged in weight from 7 to 13.5 pounds, and their watermelons weighed between 20 and 35 pounds. Some of the schools freeze carrots, peppers, and onions so they can incorporate locally grown foods into their lunch program well into the winter.
“We pick our produce when it’s ripe, which maximizes the flavor. We occasionally donate what didn’t sell at our farmers markets to local food shelves or nursing homes,” says Kerry. “We don’t like to see food wasted, so we try to take it where it can be used. When we heard there was frost in the forecast in early October, we picked the peppers and contacted schools to purchase them for freezing purposes.
In addition to green bell peppers, the Ruppert family plants and then sells the following fruit and vegetable crops: sweet corn, onions, potatoes, beets, carrots, zucchini, muskmelon, watermelon, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes. They purchase their cabbage, tomato and pepper plants locally. All the other crops are started from seed.
Ruppert’s Garden Produce is available weekly July through September at the farmer’s markets in Westbrook on Wednesdays, Walnut Grove on Fridays and in Currie on Saturdays. Kim and Zach also bake at least 30-40 loaves of zucchini bread each week to sell at the markets. This year they sold over 330 loaves. They still use the hand grinder and a 1970s-style mixer from Kerry’s mom to crank out the homemade sweet bread that brings customers from miles around.
“We’ve met so many great people at the farmer’s markets,” says Kim. “They’ve become more than customers to us. We’ve developed a relationship with them, and they like knowing where their food comes from. Some of them have even visited our farm and even toured our garden.”
While earning their own money has taught them the value of a dollar, Ruppert’s Garden Produce has provided the children with priceless learning opportunities.
“We’ve involved our kids in making decisions for our farm and garden,” says Kerry. “From the time Zach was 10, he’s really taken control of the produce business. It used to be a project, but now it’s a business. Zach doesn’t spend a dime of what he earns because he wants to attend college next year for precision agriculture.”
The Ruppert family enjoys working together, as well as playing together. All of them are involved with the Tracy Area Pool League. Weekly billiard games begin in October and ends in March. Kerry has been president of the Tracy Area Pool League for 30 years, and he’s been shooting pool with the same group of guys for 28 years. Zach and Katelyn also belong to the Tracy Area Youth League, which Kerry and Kim oversee from January to March. Haylee also shot pool in her youth. Katelyn also plays Jr. High basketball.
With their corn and soybean crop currently being harvested and kids’ activities to attend, the Rupperts rely on easy but delicious and hearty recipes to keep their family fueled. Today they’re sharing with us a family favorite recipe they enjoy making with the potatoes they raise.
Potato/Hamburger Crockpot Hotdish
- 6 medium potatoes, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 pound of hamburger, browned and drained
- 1 can cream of chicken
- 1 can cheddar cheese soup
- 1 cup of milk
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Mix all ingredients in a large bowl.
- Pour into a large crockpot.
- Cook on high for approximately 4 hours, stirring occasionally.