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Turning pies into college cash: Young farmers market vendors learn business, savings

Emma Blanshan holds a freshly-baked pie. Her uncles were her first customers, and encouraged her to branch out. She now is in her second year selling pies at the Holmes City Farmers Market. (Karen Tolkkinen | Echo Press)1 / 4
Emma Blanshan, 13, at her Holmes City Farmers Market booth, where she sells pies made from scratch. This is her second year as a market vendor. (Contributed)2 / 4
Emma Blanshan makes fruit pies from scratch and sells them at the Holmes City Farmers Market. Working as a vendor has taught her how to set prices, save money and work with the public. (Karen Tolkkinen | Echo Press)3 / 4
Emma Blanshan, 13, uses her Great-Aunt Margie's pie crust recipe. On Saturdays, she rises by 6 a.m. to make it on time to the Holmes City Farmers Market, which opens at 8:30 a.m. (Karen Tolkkinen | Echo Press)4 / 4

Emma Blanshan's uncle loved her home-made pies so much he began paying her to make them. Then another appreciative uncle suggested others might also.

So, armed with a state permit and her Great-Aunt Margie's pie crust recipe from Pennsylvania - "It has not failed once," her mom, Leann Blanshan, said - she began selling pies at the Holmes City Farmers Market. She was 12.

Now 13, Emma has returned for a second season at the market, held each Saturday morning in the small unincorporated area nine miles southwest of Alexandria. Farmers markets, prized by shoppers for their fresh produce and one-on-one contact with growers, play an important but less heralded role, said Kathy Zeman, operations manager for the Minnesota Farmers Market Association.

"Farmers markets are good business incubators," she said.

In rural areas, they can provide a great way for kids to earn summer cash when they're too young to land a part-time job. And the bigger the market, the bigger the cash - up to $18,000 a season for markets that draw 500 to 1,000 visitors a day, Zeman said. While Zeman doesn't collect statistics on how many children ply their wares at Minnesota markets, they're not an uncommon sight. They've sold lefse and hand-made wooden toys, cheese and syrup. Some farm families spread out between Saturday markets, youths handling one market while their parents tackle others.

At the Alexandria market, twins Carl and Eric Branch paid for their first year of college and then some by selling produce. Their dad, Ron Branch, serves as market president and said they began debudding strawberries on their own at age 5.

Now 21, they study plants at the University of Minnesota. They still come back on weekends to help at the market.

"It was a very good job for a middle schooler or high schooler," Eric Branch said. "It's not just the money. It's the experience."

They learned customer service at a young age, he said. If a customer dropped flowers, they'd swap them out for a fresh batch. He and his brother worked hard and got up early on market days. In fact, the start of each school year meant they got to sleep in.

At age 10, Carl and Eric landed a Farm Services Agency youth loan for a high tunnel, a structure similar to a greenhouse which helped them grow plants earlier and later in the season. The high tunnel allowed them to offer tomatoes and other produce earlier. It paid for itself in two seasons.

Half those early wages went to savings and half for whatever else they wanted. "Lots of Legos," Ron Branch recalled. "Legos and books."

Emma learned to bake mostly from her mom. She tries to buy fruit such as blueberries, strawberries and apples from local growers. Typically, she brings 12-16 pies per market, depending on what fruit is available, plus chocolate chip cookies and snickerdoodles. She makes full-size pies as well as mini ones for customers who live alone. Customers can also request specialty baked goods, such as gluten-free and paleo cookies.

"Every week, except for last week, I sell out," she said.

"She has some very good repeat customers," her mom said.

When the pies cool, she wraps them in a plastic covering that itself has a story. The wrap is from an enormous roll her parents received as a wedding gift 17 years ago. The roll is from a mushroom packing operation and bears a mushroom logo, which Emma has to cover up with her own label. Still, it sticks better than anything else she's tried, she said, and will likely last years more into the future.

Last year, part of Emma's earnings went toward, "A Keurig!" she said, sweeping her arms toward the machine on the counter. "I love coffee!"

This year, she has her eye on a loft bed with a desk below.

And, since she wants to become a veterinarian or a surgeon, she's also putting some away for college.

Meet and Eat

The public can join local farmers from 3-7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 10, for a Meet and Eat at Big Ole Park. The farmers sell locally grown food online through the Local Harvest Market Company, which is co-hosting the event with the University of Minnesota Extension office in Alexandria. The Meet and Eat will feature lawn games, music, and a meal of local seasonal salads, hot dogs and hand-pattied burgers for $5. Children age 3 and under can eat for free.