On summer Saturdays, Ross Faris starts work at 4:30 a.m., packing up zucchini, peaches and other produce for the trek to farmers' markets in Broad Ripple and Zionsville.
Then he stands in the 90-plus-degree heat, answering questions about heirloom tomatoes or new varieties of peppers, greeting regulars and loving every minute of it.
"It's just a rewarding experience," Faris said. "I can't tell you how many people appreciate what we do here."
Faris, owner of Indianapolis-based Your Neighbor's Garden, is just one of a troupe of merchants who wander like nomads from market to market. And they have many more options these days, said Jennifer Dennis, an assistant professor at Purdue University and specialty crop marketing specialist for its extension service.
Dennis and a graduate student did research that shows there are about 110 farmers' markets in Indiana. That number has more than tripled in the last 10 years, she said.
"[Consumers] are pushing to understand where their food comes from, and there's more interest in local food," she said.
And that trend means extra cash in the pockets of local growers, who see the best profits when they can sell direct to consumers. When working through a wholesaler or grocery chain, farmers are lucky to see half of a product's selling price, Dennis said.
"[Growers] see better profits anytime they can take away the middleman," she said.
For some vendors, the markets help diversify their sales. Faris' 2-acre operation on Indianapolis' north-west side, for example, makes about half its sales at markets. Most of the rest comes from an on-farm store, plus purchases by local restaurants.
But others have had such success at the markets that they've focused fully on those.
"I always sell out," said Linda Chapman, owner of Harvest Moon Flower Farm in Spencer. She sells at markets in Bloomington, Broad Ripple and downtown Indianapolis.
"Markets are the bread and butter of my business," she said.
Vicki Fields, co-owner of Westfieldbased Fields Farm Fresh, said her family used to sell produce to local groceries and wholesalers, but they make a bigger profit by taking their wares straight to the public at five local markets.
But making a living as a small grower is a tough road. In 2004, John Ferree started Danville-based Seldom Seen Farm, where he and his fiancÃ©e grow produce without chemicals. At first, he tried to expand quickly, ramping up the farm by buying equipment and hiring employees to increase production.
But after struggling, Ferree said they're rethinking the business. Now the couple is focused on staying small and doing most of the work themselves. For 2006, the farm made about $60,000 in sales, and Ferree said it may hit $70,000 this year.
"You've got to stay small and barely hire anyone, or get your gross volume up past $250,000 to survive," Ferree said. "It takes a certain mentality to keep going at it, because it's not easy."
Different markets, different vibe
Growers weigh which markets to visit mostly based on the clientele, not the booth fees that range from $50 to $150 per season. Different venues attract different crowds, and several sellers said they've dropped some markets from their rotation because they're not worth the time.
The serious shoppers show up Saturday mornings at Broad Ripple Farmers' Market, many said.
"Those people are there to buy," said Fields, the Westfield grower.
And people go out of their way to shop at the market hosted by Traders Point Creamery in Zionsville, many said. The newbie market-started in 2003, when the creamery opened-focuses on food produced without chemicals. The creamery also packs up its wares and sells them at the Broad Ripple, Carmel, Binford Boulevard and Bloomington farmers' markets.
Crowds in Carmel are more interested in socializing, the growers said, and the office dwellers who show up at the downtown market often do more window shopping than grocery shopping.
"You get a lot of people walking around but they're not necessarily buying," Ferree said of the downtown market, which he dropped from his rotation this year. "You get a small clientele, but it wasn't enough to keep me going there."
Vendors' trade secrets for standing out in the crowd vary. Bright tablecloths featuring an eggplant print attract attention, as do peppers arranged in catchy color patterns. Many merchants chat up shoppers as they wander by.
But the main selling point is produce bins stocked to overflowing.
"Nobody ever buys the last tomato," Ferree said. "Nobody ever buys the last anything."
And though they try to stand out, sellers say there's also a camaraderie amongst growers.
"We're competing with one another, but it's not cut-throat competition," said Faris. "We want each other to do well."
Times are a changing
While most vendors get along, there are some who grumble about how the markets have changed. Many markets now allow sellers to hawk produce they haven't grown themselves as long as it came from an in-state producer.
"Markets used to be growers only, and that's one thing they're getting away from. I don't like it," said Fields, who sells only produce her family grows.
Consumers don't always understand the difference, though. They buy from a vendor thinking they're directly supporting a grower. Or they'll ask for produce that can't possibly be grown in Indiana.
"I've had some people who asked for bananas," Fields said.
Others argue the flexible rules help those growers who can't make the retail circuit. Faris sells peaches he buys from a LaPorte County orchard, for example.
Another change is the incorporation of more and more specialty, non-produce offerings-from fresh meat and goat cheese to soaps and baked goods.
Robert Engleking started taking his locally produced cuts of beef, pork and eggs to markets last year, trying to drive interest in his on-farm store-Engleking's Country Beef Shop in Charlottesville. The former dairy farm converted to a chemical-free meat operation in 1998.
"We thought that markets would mostly get the word out about our home shop," he said, but sales now make up more than 90 percent of his business. "We're doing so well at markets, we can't quit."
David Lehman, co-owner of Bloomington-based Earth Drops, was doing a brisk trade in homemade soaps despite the heat at the downtown market recently.
Lehman and his wife made 21,000 bars of soap last year and hit markets and craft shows to drive interest in their Web-site sales and to find new retail outlets.
"We do the show more to advertise," he said.
I'll be home in November
For many sellers, markets aren't just about the money though-they get in the blood. Faris said he's a fanatic, visiting farmers' markets while on vacation in Montana, New York and France.
"I have a real passion for them," he said.
And the nomad's life suits most vendors just fine. Lehman said he was only home seven days in July and planned a vacation to Colorado in order to hit some markets. He and his wife sold soap on the weekends and hiked during the week.
Others said the markets are a nice change of routine.
"It's work," Fields said of making the market rounds. "But it's a break from working out in the hot field."