Kat Theisen was selling soap she makes herself at the Hartung Park farmers’ market’s opening day Wednesday. But this wasn’t just any soap. Made of natural ingredients like local honey and organic oat flower, it’s soap you can also eat. In fact, Theisen uses it to brush her teeth.
A few tables down, a family of farmers sold sweet homegrown strawberries, sugar snap peas, garlic, and other vegetables to the locals who trickled through. The farmer, Qhuoa Lee, 49, immigrated 30 years ago to Wisconsin from Laos, where the Hmong people have a strong tradition of farming and closeness to the land.
Now he and his wife, Po Chua Vang, 38, and their two young children rent a Racine farm, where they grow vegetables they sell at local farmers’ markets. “We grow everything by hand, and we don’t use chemicals,” he said, proudly.
Janine Arseneau, a retired social worker who is on the board of the Hartung Park Community Association, said the farmers’ market has been around for three years. The few tables will line the Menomonee River Parkway just north of Burleigh Ave. at Hartung Park between 4 and 7 p.m. every Wednesday through mid-September. The park, which opened in 2010, used to be a quarry and landfill. Now, it has a children's playground in a serene natural environment that doesn't have an urban feel.
The hope is to attract drive-home traffic, Arseneau said. “It’s small by design,” she said, standing at a table with free Amish friendship bread and a box containing books that can each be borrowed for free and returned to a later farmers’ market. “Many of the farmers know each other.” She said many of the farmers selling produce at the market are Hmong, noting that the culture is known for “skill and love of the land, and the way they can coax things into growing.”
A massage therapist provided chair massages for a dollar a minute. A local orchid expert gave tips about growing the flowers. And Chuck Glander, a Milwaukee retiree, played guitar as a smattering of customers filtered through.
Sitting at a table piled with different varieties of her soap and a white porcelain pitcher, Theisen said she had spent time in the Peace Corps in Kenya, where everything was made from scratch. A former high school teacher, she started making her own soap, which is also available at Beans and Barley restaurant and Riverwest Co-op in Milwaukee, as well as other farmers’ markets.
The soap is made, in part, with oil and butter, said Theisen, 37, who lives in Riverwest. While she was talking, a woman who had earlier purchased soap pulled up in a car and gave Theisen some more water for her pitcher. She had commented that she was running out.
The orchid expert, Bruce Efflandt, a florist who is affiliated with the Wisconsin Orchid Society, explained that orchids have the “largest number of species in the plant kingdom — some 25,000 to 30,000 species.” He provided a number of tips for growing the flowers, such as making sure you have enough light on the orchids if they are grown inside and don’t use the “three ice cube rule” (putting ice cubes on orchids to water them).
Standing at a table with different varieties of the flowers, Efflandt said he has been interested in growing plants and flowers since he was a teenager. Efflandt lives just across the border from Wauwatosa in Milwaukee, in the family home he’s been in 58 years. He remembers when Hartung Park was a lannon stone quarry. “We would hear the booms.” He also remembers how there used to be a car wash nearby where cars would drive literally in and out of the river.
“I’ve been involved in the farmers’ market for three years,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
Lorri Hansen, 29, agreed with that sentiment as she stopped at Lee’s stand, while holding one small child and carrying a car seat bearing another.
“They have fresh produce and a good selection,” she said, adding that a friend recommended the market.