Eastern Iowa family business supplies farmers markets | State and Regional5 min read
DURANGO — As a child, Tracy Merfeld frequently could be found at the Dubuque farmers market on Saturdays.
Her mother, Sheila “Dobie” Merfeld, was the newly minted owner of Dobie’s Flowers & Produce, selling her wares at the market starting in 1994. Tracy and her younger sisters, Amy and Molly, usually came along for the ride.
“It was just like a giant Tetris game, squeezing all us kids and all the plants into the van,” Tracy recalled.
“Their reward was to go to Walsh Stores if they were really good,” Sheila added with a laugh.
The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports that nearly three decades later, the family business is flourishing. Dobie’s offers vegetables, fruits, herbs and eggs, as well as fresh and dried flower arrangements and starter plants, at several area farmers markets, including the Dubuque farmers market and the Dubuque winter farmers market.
“I really like to be able to give products to people that appreciate it,” Tracy said, as she served customers at the winter farmers market on a recent weekend. “You get to talk to the people that are getting to enjoy your stuff.”
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Sheila began pursuing organic gardening on the family’s Durango land in 1981.
“I never really gardened much in my younger years, but then it just kind of got into my blood,” she said.
The name of the business is drawn from a nickname Sheila acquired as a child.
“I would stand in front of the TV because everyone wanted to watch (the sitcom) ‘Dobie Gillis’ but I didn’t,” she said. “So they’d say, ‘Get out of the way, Dobie,’ and then they all started calling me Dobie.”
Armed with a bright yellow van emblazoned with her business’ moniker, Sheila initially occupied a single stall at the Dubuque farmers market. The business now sprawls across three stalls — with the yellow van a Dobie’s trademark — as it enters its 28th summer at the market.
These days, Tracy handles the vegetables and herbs for the business, while Sheila tends to the flowers.
The entire family pitches in where needed, however, with Sheila’s husband, David, keeping equipment in working order and their daughters helping to arrange flower bouquets.
Sheila hand-waters many of her greenhouse plants and checks the seedlings regularly, as the temperature in the farm’s greenhouses can reach up to 100 degrees in the summer. She uses organic fertilizer, soil and pots and reuses all the plastic trays in which she buys her cuttings.
“It’s pretty much hands on,” she said on a recent morning, gesturing around one of the greenhouses toward hundreds of small plants and seedlings.
Each tray was carefully marked to distinguish chives, spearmint, thyme, yarrow and other herbs and flowers.
Dobie’s Flowers & Produce has seen its share of obstacles, such as uncertainties and supply chain shortages brought on during the COVID-19 pandemic and summers of dry weather and prevalent weeds on the steep, rocky terrain of the family’s 10-acre property.
“It’s a lot more fun to pick flowers than to pull weeds,” Tracy quipped.
Sheila said the family uses a no-till method of growing that has caused production to “skyrocket” since it was implemented about three years ago.
“Last year, we had a bumper crop of tomatoes, peppers and potatoes,” she said, noting that the business also saw booming sales in radishes and carrots.
The farm also boasts more than 200 blueberry bushes, as well as 180 laying hens and some roosters.
Business has been booming lately. Sheila said the family is growing about four times more flowers this year than last year due to heightened demand. The family recently began growing heirloom roses, which Sheila hopes will be ready for customers in two to three years.
And, after two years at the winter farmers market, increased requests for produce have led the Merfelds to expand their winter growing options.
Dobie’s Flowers & Produce has two greenhouses: A heated 20-foot-by-48-foot greenhouse along with an unheated 12-foot-by-20-foot greenhouse.
Sheila said that the family is constructing a new, larger greenhouse, which will be 30 feet by 96 feet and will allow for year-round, in-ground growing.
“Up until this point, we haven’t felt the need to do year-round growing because we haven’t felt that community support,” she said. “Now, people are asking for produce that we don’t have, but we have the potential of growing it now.”
Once the new greenhouse is operational, ideally by early May, the 20-foot-by-48-foot greenhouse likely will serve as retail space for customers who visit the farm to purchase plants, Sheila said.
Shawn Vera has been a regular customer at the Merfelds’ stand at the Dubuque farmers market for the past four years and also visits them at the indoor winter market to purchase herbs and flowers.
“Their service is just phenomenal, and they have a good variety of products that I can’t find anywhere else,” Vera said.