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West Fargo's Bob Wenzloff (left) prepares a grocery bag for customers picking out vegetables from his stand Thursday at the West Fargo Farmers Market at South Elmwood Park. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

VICAR OF VEGETABLES

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By 3:25 p.m. Thursday - more than a half hour before the official opening of the West Fargo Farmers Market - Bob Wenzloff already had customers.

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An hour later, nearly half of the longtime West Fargo resident's produce was gone. And he still had more than 2 hours to go.

It wasn't like Wenzloff had a stand that really stood out. His modest display of two folding tables out the back of his white Chevrolet Silverado was, admittedly, less impressive than some of the other dozen-or-so vendors.

But even as one of Wenzloff's customers would leave - generally laden with plastic bags of fresh vegetables - two more would be ready to scrutinize his wares.

What is it that makes this fulltime maintenance worker such a draw for Farmers Market visitors?

"He's just a friendly guy," said Kim Wangler, Recreational Specialist for the West Fargo Park District. "Everyone knows Bob."

Green thumbs

For as long as Wenzloff can remember, he has been playing in the dirt.

"My father and mother gardened, and so did my grandparents," he said. "It's fun."

With knowledge from a lifetime of growing produce at his beckon call, Wenzloff has turned his favorite hobby into a small business that helps keep the professed busybody from getting bored. Every Thursday, you can find him in his usual spot at the Farmers Market, which is located at South Elmwood Park just west of Sheyenne Street off 13th Avenue South.

Although Wenzloff lives in West Fargo with his wife, Debbie, the 20-acre family farm is located more than 30 miles west of here in Embden, N.D. There Wenzloff works roughly 3 acres for his garden by hand, while his cousins farm the rest.

Many people at the Farmers Market may only recognize him for his fresh vegetables, but Wenzloff is well known throughout the community.

For instance, he could have retired in April from West Fargo Public Schools, where he has spent more than three decades as a maintenance worker.

"But I like going to work every day. I like what I do," he said.

When the driven 54-year-old is not traveling from school to school in the state's largest district, he helps out at the West Fargo Fire Department where the volunteer firefighter has 23 years of service under his belt.

And then there is the hunting and fishing he enjoys on the side, plus canning or pickling all the extra fruits and vegetables that remain after his yearly harvest. A four-year-old grandson - already an expert in the garden by Wenzloff's standards - and three-year-old granddaughter keep him on his toes.

With so much going on, it is hard to imagine Wenzloff ever gets a chance to rest. Not that he'd actually want to.

"I can't sit still," he said, shaking his head as he pulled fresh ears of sweet corn from a burlap sack and stacked them by the dozen in plastic grocery bags. "It drives me nuts."

Wealth of knowledge

A lady caught Wenzloff's eye as she rounded the corner of his truck.

"Hi Doris," he said. "What can I get you today?"

Besides seemingly knowing all his customers by name, Wenzloff is more than happy to share tidbits of information with whosoever is in earshot.

"Boil them in water, and then slather them with butter and salt and pepper," he said to a pair of ladies with an armful of beets. "Mmm - so good."

Other prospectors investigated an odd assortment of green globes covered in papery leaves. When Wenzloff noticed their looks of concern, he spoke up.

"Those are tomatillos," Wenzloff said, "Think of them as Mexican tomatoes."

Still unconvinced of the strange vegetables' edibility, Wenzloff peeled back the leaves, polished the shiny pale-lime morsel on his trousers, than handed it to the woman.

"Try it," Wenzloff said.

She did, and then handed the bitten vegetable to her partner with a look of surprised satisfaction. He took a bite, and nodded in approval.

This sort of interaction played out with many of Wenzloff's customers, who he refers to as "clients." It's part of the reason people come back every Thursday like clockwork.

"When you get your clientele, business is good," he said.

The vegetable vicar gives samples of various varieties to anyone, whether they ask or not. His kohlrabi is a huge hit Thursday, and runs out before this reporter's interview is finished. The yellow and green beans also go fast, and there are few visitors who leave without at least a couple ears of corn.

More often than not, it's a full dozen.

Although Wenzloff does have a mind-boggling display of veggies - from staples like tomatoes and carrots, to more exotic specimens of habanera peppers and Swiss chard - he does not carry everything.

When a lady asked if he had any dill, Wenzloff points across the parking lot.

"Try his stand," he said. "I'm pretty sure there's dill over there."

And you won't find signs or lists of prices for Wenzloff's goodies. Although he does have a scale, most of the calculation takes place in his head and, often, favors the customer's pocketbook in the end.

Looking ahead

While Wenzloff likes his job at WFPS, he does have grand ideas for the future.

First, he'd love to make his plot of land on the family farm a bit bigger so he can grow more vegetables. Maybe even automate the process so he does not have to painstakingly nurture each plant by hand. Then there's always that early 1990's Dodge Rampage sitting in his garage that could use a restoration.

Plus, hunting and fishing are top priorities when the occasion calls, as is his family.

But after only a short time of thinking, Wenzloff shook his head and decided against it. Besides, he's having a ball, and as more customers worked their way toward his stand, Wenzloff could not think of doing anything else.

Another customer left with a smile, her hands full of fresh cucumbers, potatoes and okra.

"Come back again," Wenzloff said. "I'll be here next Thursday."

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