Dining a la King: Shirk’s roadside produce stand enjoying growth, change

GOSHEN — Harlan Shirk started with selling cantaloupes from a picnic table in his front yard at the corner of County Road 32 and County Road 13.

Soon there was a small building to sell melons and more from the 40-acre farm.

That business of growing and selling fruits and vegetables to folks willing to stop at a roadside stand has grown for 35 years. A new building that has a larger retail space, as well as washing and cooler space, opened earlier this year. Three greenhouses help supply plants for their fields and their customers’ gardens.

Sales have grown with the expansion, said Marlin Shirk, the son who with his wife, Berneice, is taking over Shirk’s Greenhouses & Produce at 24009 County Road 32, west of Goshen.

Harlan and his wife, Annetta, operated the stand with their seven children for decades. He is a partner in the Wakarusa Produce Auction, an operation that started in 1994 to wholesale the food that he and others raise. About three-fourths of what’s sold there comes from Old Order Mennonite farmers, who also could be called horse and buggy Mennonites. The Shirks and others take items to and from the auction with either horse-drawn wagons or sometimes the steel-wheel tractors they use in the fields. “We actually buy more stuff there than what we take,” said Marlin.

The Shirk business has become one of the largest roadside stands in the area. Harlan, in particular, has spent years greeting customers and gently cajoling them into purchases. Their six daughters were involved in various ways. Miriam still does cut flowers and green beans. As Harlan and Annetta wanted to step back from the business, they built a house on the back corner of the farm and offered the home place on the corner to Marlin’s family. “He offered I take over the business if we moved here,” Marlin said.

He’d been living down the road and spent four years working in a woodworking shop. When springtime arrived, he realized how much he missed the farm. “I was in the woodworking shop. It was nice outside. It was hard to stay in there all day,” he said. “It was an opportunity here I guess.”

Berneice had also grown up on a dairy farm and was happy to move to the vegetable farm, which had also been a dairy farm until 2009. About 10 acres of the Shirk farm has conventional cash crops. About 15 acres is planted in sweet corn. Another 10 or 15 acres is available for other crops.

Marlin enjoys being in those vegetable plots, more than he enjoys tending the cash register. Yet he tends both tasks. Berneice often goes out to pick, taking their three children under the age of 5. “The children often ride along out in the wagon,” she said. “If it’s not too hot out there, it’s really fun working in the field.”

The new farm stand has more space to display their food and the food they gather from others to sell. This time of year, stacks of pumpkins and squash, bales of straw and rows of mums are available for customers to purchase. Shopping carts full of gourds are in the retail space, along with items from Dutch Country Market and Country Lane Bakery in Midddlebury. The canned and baked goods expand on the range of seasonal produce.

I’ve loved Shirk’s for years. On my way home from the office, I would stop and buy the strawberries and blueberries of early summer, the peaches that arrived in July, and apples that came as seasons progressed. This hasn’t been my only source for such things, it’s just been a welcome one. I have some assurance that what I’m buying is at least relatively local and the prices reflect the season and demand. In a great strawberry year, the prices drop.

The prices also reflect the deal that the Shirks may have gotten at the auction. If they got a deal on Honeycrisp apples, the customers are more likely to get a deal, too.

When I leave Shirk’s, with my back seat full of fresh food, I tend to be smiling and grateful for the bounty of summer.

Marshall V. King is a food writer based in Goshen. You can find him on Facebook (DiningALaKing) and on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat (@hungrymarshall).

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