EYOTA, Minnesota — Nothing says summer in southeast Minnesota like buying freshly picked sweet corn from the bed of a truck.
One family is responsible for most of the trucks found in the Rochester area, to southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa.
Mike and Kristi Blattner, owners of Produce Plus in Eyota, sell cucumbers, zucchini, green peppers, onions and tomatoes all raised on their farm. Their most popular item is sweet corn, picked daily by Mike and delegated to truck stands organized by Kristi.
At one of the most heavily trafficked Produce Plus stands located in Rochester on North Broadway Avenue, Mike Blattner's sister, Marcia Hartman, was working the hottest Friday of the summer so far.
"I've been doing this my whole life," said Hartman, who is a teacher at Rochester Public Schools. "Our uncles did it, so I when I was 5 years old I was in the back of a truck."
Hartman lives about a mile from the farm in Eyota. She loves getting to do a job outside in the summer, and the work reminds her of the fun she had helping at stands as a kid.
"It's not easy work, and it's very physical," Blattner said of manning one of the produce stands.
"My husband says, really, you're 56-years-old and you still gotta do this?" said Hartman, when the sun's rays were the strongest of the day. "I love it because it was my life."
The kind of energetic knowledge it takes to command a classroom could be compared to what it takes handling a sweet corn stand on a busy summer day.
Hartman loves the connection she gets to make with regular and new customers to a stand.
"It's a lot more personal," Hartman said, before turning to face a regular customer who was coming back from her vehicle after taking additional produce orders from her husband. A Rochester professional commuting from the Twin Cities daily, she told Hartman they'd eaten her corn "every day this week."
On her stop before the weekend, she picked up some more corn along with tomatoes, potatoes and watermelon.
"And I guess we have grown each year, at least some," said Blattner. "We try to see what the market is, and then try to change things."
But their philosophy to the business hasn't changed since the start, she said, and they haven't raised prices for their produce in five years.
"This is just what we do, and it's part of a lifestyle that we don't think much about," Blattner said on the evening of July 23, waiting with a fresh cup of coffee for the trucks to start rolling in from the day. "We produce what we can and do the best that we can, and you know people like the product, so you give them that product."
A fleet for corn
Blattner said they have "over a fair amount" of trucks to sell from, all of which were found by Mike via Craigslist, classified ad or other online marketplace.
Blattner estimated that from 25-35 trucks go out on an average weekday to sell produce and more on weekends.
"Sometimes up to 40," she said.
They also sell their produce at the farmer's markets in Rochester and La Crosse, as well as grocery stores in each city as well as in Owatonna and Kasson.
"We really try to service our local community," Blattner said. "Because people like our fresh stuff in the area, and it's easy for us to bring them it fresh every day."
All have just about the same characteristics — two doors and an open bed. “Candy Corn" is written on all of the trucks, which is how they refer to the variety of their sweet corn.
"It's what we're known for," she said. "It just means really sweet, yellow and white corn."
Blattner said they've seen every type of seller at Produce Plus, except for the type that doesn't show up for a scheduled job.
"All ages — we've got high school kids, college kids, retirees, people that have other jobs and want to make some extra money," Blattner said. "We have senior citizens, people up to the age of 80 that are selling."
She said their hiring process is simple and they mostly rely on word of mouth to recruit more sellers.
"I don't really interview people per se, and will usually give people a chance that come out here," she said. "If people are interested in selling, they can come out and get some product."
Day in the life
Mike Blattner leaves the house each day around 4:30 a.m. to pick corn that is then put into trucks and then sold that day.
"Loading is huge," Kristi Blattner said. "We have to load all these trucks every day."
The loading begins with the earliest sellers showing up around 6:30 a.m., and the last trucks return to the farm around 8:30 to 9 p.m., she said.
Kristi Blattner said without her husband's knack for knowing exactly when to pick corn, there is no Produce Plus.
"He's done it for so long that he just knows the right time for corn," said Blattner. "Quite honestly, hats off to my husband because he's literally one of a kind — smart, ambitious and he grew up around all of this."
This summer he's had two extra hands to help with harvesting. The youngest son in the Blattner family, Blake, is a student athlete at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa.
Blake Blattner, listed as a 6-foot-2-inch, 200-pound defensive end on the team's roster, said he can't recall a day of work in the summer that his dad missed. He's appreciated getting to learn from his father and said he plans to take over when his parents decide to hang it up.