Fourth of July weekend kicks off local produce season

Justin Wheeler of Blackfoot sells produce and purses Saturday at the Idaho Falls Farmers Market. Wheeler has been selling at the farmer’s market for more than 15 years. “This is just the beginning of the season,” Wheeler said. “About this point is when you start seeing homegrown produce coming into the market.” Photos by Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com

Patriotic-themed parades and fireworks displays have slipped into the rear-view mirror, but the fun’s only beginning for local produce growers and their growing legions of customers.

The Fourth of July weekend kicks off the unofficial start of the locally grown fruit and vegetable season in eastern Idaho — at least that was the consensus among a handful of vendor/growers who were setting up their booths Saturday morning at the Idaho Falls Farmers Market.

Shortly after 8 a.m., Blackfoot vegetable grower Justin Wheeler was busy stacking a table with piles of homegrown carrots, beets, onions, lettuce and radishes.

This is the time of year, Wheeler said, when local produce comes into its own.

“I typically (start selling produce) at the end of June or the beginning of July,” he said. “By the end of July, I’ll be bringing in new red potatoes and peas.”

Wheeler’s said he’s been selling produce at the market since he was a teenager. Today, his half-acre vegetable operation — which includes a number of raised beds — involves the whole family.

Egan’s Greenhouse also is a family affair.

Mike Egan already had filled his booth with 20-pound boxes of his fist-sized beefsteak tomatoes — vine ripened — in anticipation of a big Saturday morning crowd. He also sells his fresh cucumbers at the market.

“Last year, we had a big crowd the day after the Fourth. When it’s busy, we can average 200 customers in a day. It’s amazing,” Egan said.

Egan’s Greenhouse got its start in Idaho Falls in the late 1960s. Besides tomatoes and cucumbers, you can find bedding and vegetable plants there, as well as trees and shrubs.

“We’ve been going for four generations — my dad to me and my son to his,” Egan said.

Egan also looks at the Fourth of July weekend as the beginning of the local produce season, but noted that “we’ve been picking (tomatoes) for a month.”

Dave Woods has been a part of the Farmers Market for 14 years, as a produce vendor — Woods Gardens — and member of the market’s board of directors.

“July, August, September and October are the best months for locally grown produce,” Woods said.

Woods grows much of what he sells — he operates four greenhouses.

For what he can’t grow locally or find in eastern Idaho, such as avocados, he turns to growers located elsewhere. But his first choice remains produce grown in Idaho.

“Our real preference is to buy out of the Boise area (and) western Idaho,” Woods said.

By the end of July, Woods said he will be selling Hagerman Valley-grown watermelons and cantaloupe. He’s already selling Idaho-grown cherries and apricots.

“The raspberries are two weeks away,” he said.

Since its start in the mid 1990s, Woods said the Farmers Market has grown and evolved — especially in the last 10 years — making it easier and more profitable for local grower/vendors such as Wheeler, Woods and Egan to sell the fruits of their labors.

“We have almost 3,000 tomato plants in our greenhouse,” Egan said. “We pick (the tomatoes) fresh every day so they have that (special) flavor. It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun.”

And, after all these years, Egan remains fascinated with the growing process.

“You put the seeds in the ground, watch them come up and see what you get,” he said. “It gets in your blood.”

Assistant City Editor Mike Mooney can be reached at 542-676.

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