Love Of Gardening Started Very Early For Veggie Stand Owners
By CASEY MURPHY
Dennis Oefinger was around 3 when he started learning how to tend the family garden.
Since planting a few crops near his house about five years ago, he has grown his lifetime love of planting fruits and vegetables into a full-time business.
|IF YOU GO|
|The Veggie Stand: 11282 Spur 248 (University Boulevard)|
Hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
Contact: 903-343-5995 or on Facebook
At The Veggie Stand, Oefinger and his wife of 31 years, Elissa, sell a variety of produce, including broccoli, cabbage, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, several types of squash and peppers, tomatoes, peas, green beans, strawberries, corn, peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon and lettuce.
When living in Nacogdoches as a child, Oefinger, now 51, would tend the garden when his father was often out of town for work. He said his father taught him how to do everything. When the family moved to Austin when he was 8, they had a smaller garden and chickens, and even though they lived inside the city limits, they still made it work, he said.
Mrs. Oefinger, 50, grew up in Austin, and when the couple married, they moved to Tyler.
About five years ago, Oefinger started a garden on their property off of Spur 248, using only about one-eighth of an acre. They started out with cucumbers, squash and tomatoes and quickly had more food than they knew what to do with. One thing led to another, and they started selling produce out in front of his commercial printing business just down the road.
Pro Image Printing, 2629 University Blvd., was started by Oefinger's parents 29 years ago, and he took over the business about 15 years ago. His father helped him build a couple of stands to put out in front of the print shop to sell his produce.
Mrs. Oefinger said they also started selling the fruits and vegetables to help send their son, 23-year-old J.C. Oefinger, to college.
Oefinger said the stand got so busy they couldn't simultaneously handle it and the printing shop. Although he still works part time at the printing business, he spends the majority of his days farming. During the growing season, Oefinger rises at 6 a.m. and works in the fields. He goes to the print shop from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and farms again until after dark.
Although running two businesses makes for a long day, Oefinger said he finds farming therapeutic and relaxing. "There's not a bunch of noise," he said. "And it tends to keep you in shape. ... I also enjoy the food, too."
Mrs. Oefinger takes their goods to the East Texas State Fair Farmer's Market. She goes every Saturday to the market, which runs from the first Saturday in May to the last Saturday in July. It is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays. "Going to the market is my favorite," she said.
When getting the first garden started, Oefinger said his uncle was instrumental in giving him advice. Chris Oefinger, an agriculture professor at Northeast Texas Community College, is getting ready to retire and help with the business. Dennis Oefinger also gives credit to Greg Efurd, a peach farmer in Pittsburg who helped him and who sells them peaches.
After five years, Oefinger has grown his operation to four acres, including two gardens -- one nearly an acre and the other three-quarters of an acre -- which can be seen from the produce stand. There they grow mainly tomatoes, strawberries and blackberries.
They have expanded their strawberry plants to 4,000, which have been "unbelievable this year," he said. They have already sold more than 3,000 pounds of strawberries so far this season and hope to make it 4,000 pounds if the weather holds up, he added.
He plants his strawberries at the end of October, and they grow all winter long, he said recently while picking a few before popping the fresh red berries into his mouth.
The Oefingers also have about 80 acres in Pittsburg and, between two partners, are working about 45 acres in New Chapel Hill, where they grow the bulk crops, such as onions, potatoes, cantaloupe and watermelon. Oefinger said between the properties, they have diverse growing fields - with clay and sand soils that are good for different crops.
They also have about 140 free-range chickens on their Tyler property. They sell the eggs and use the chicken litter for compost. "I try to fertilize naturally as much as I can," he said.
They have a unique drip irrigation system that doesn't waste water and allows the grower to control the soil conditions and put liquid fertilizers down the lines to maximize the fields' yields per square foot. He said it allows them to have 1,000 tomatoes plants in the small field.
They can compost just about anything on the property and have waste food they throw to the chickens, Oefinger said as his wife threw a peach into the pen. A man with a tree service gives him wood mulch he uses as a base in his compost and his neighbor allows him to pull out of his water well for irrigation so they don't have to use tap water.
"We try real hard to keep it as natural as we can," Oefinger said of the business. "There's absolutely no comparison from what you pull out of there (the ground) and what you get at the grocery store."
Oefinger said spring is always an exciting time, tilling the dirt and seeing the fresh plants coming to life. But by the end of August, the summer heat makes him question why he does it and by the end of the season, he is ready for a break.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
The Veggie Stand opened April 1 for the season, offering planting baskets and flowers. In the middle of April, it started selling "groceries," Mrs. Oefinger said.
Crops that were not in yet May 8 were tomatoes, peas, corn, okra and eggplant but he was selling some of the vegetables from other areas. His peppers were just starting to come in and his summer squash and just about everything else was producing already, he added.
Because of the drought and extreme heat last year, they closed the shop for the season in September but usually stay open through the middle of October. Oefinger said they hope to have it open this year into November and offer fall greens, squash, tomatoes and pumpkins.
He said they often have people stop in asking for advice on starting their own garden.
Oefinger said people got away from growing their own produce for years and now want to get back into it. "It's amazing to me how many people are wanting to get back to ... growing their own food," he said. "It's really like a lost art."
Oefinger's son is amazed at how much easier everything is now. "You learn as you go," he said. When they started the first garden, they had a small tiller and had to do just about everything by hand. Now, they have tractors and mechanic pickers, diggers and tillers.
Oefinger does most of the farming himself but recently hired a full-time employee to help him. They also have a part-time employee who works at the stand on Saturdays.
Oefinger has a lot of dreams and plans to grow his business in the future.
He said he has been approached to start selling his produce to local schools, as well as by a chef who wants to set up a program with him to teach people how to grow the produce and how to prepare the food. He said they plan to add a structure at the property to do that.
They also want to start "community-supported agriculture," which is like a co-op, where people can pay a set fee to receive a box of produce each week. He said it gives the grower money up front to plan and schedule what to produce and it is really popular in bigger cities.
The Oefingers have nine varieties of chickens, and within about a year, he hopes to expand the operation to start selling young and adult chickens instead of just eggs.
He also hopes to get a fresh salad center going, where customers can pick from different lettuces, spinaches, tomatoes and other vegetables from one spot to use for salads.
Oefinger's first orchard of blackberries should come in soon, and he plans to double the crop in a couple of years to allow customers to pick their own. He starts nearly all of his produce from seeds and hopes by next spring to sell vegetable sets for people to take small plants and plant them on their own, he said.
But planning to do things on a farm can sometimes be difficult.