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In Defense of the Minneapolis Farmers Market

I received this letter from Susan Berkson, longtime environmental health advocate and co-host of "Fresh & Local" (on AM950, Saturdays, 8 am), in response to my question regarding her role at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, and whether the market is misunderstood within the local community. I liked the letter so much I decided to publish it, with Susan’s permission, of course.

My role is busybody. Not really. Bless the market, they asked me to host their new radio show and I said, Yes, and. Yes, I will host and I want to do social media and help with x, y, and z. So here I am.

And I have become such a fan of the Market and farmers. My understanding of the food system has broadened and deepened.

There used to be 12 red sheds filled with farmers, but by the 70's, there were so few local growers that the city was going to tear down the remaining three. It was the resellers who saved them. Without them, the farmers market would have disappeared. Today, the growers association has 240 grower-members and 5 reseller-members. It’s easy to frown on them, but they serve a need. As they did when they saved the market in the 70's.

We are in an under-served neighborhood. A neighborhood without food security. Without us, there would be no fruits or vegetables in this area. So by default, we are the green grocer for this neighborhood. And people want their bananas and pineapples and cherries. And they should be able to get them. Regardless of their income.

I don't know about you, but I like bananas. I like them year-round. Coffee, too. And none of it is grown here.

There is a moratorium on resellers, so no new ones can join. But those who are members now are not being kicked out. They fill a need. And when strawberries and raspberries are in season here, the resellers are not allowed to sell them.

The resellers meet a need. And that need should be met.

We feed families here, Minneapolis families. We are their green grocer.

When Second Harvest wanted a partner to provide real produce for families, they came to us. We have the real produce to serve families. Nobody else does.

Also, to serve the community, starting July 21, we are open on Tuesday evenings so people can shop after work. And there will be no resellers. It will be all locally grown.

240 grower-members here. Not trendy. Not chic. Not hip. But real.

It’s dense, crowded. noisy. The amenities are few. There are no corporate funders or deep-pocketed backers.

Which is why I took a picture of the mayor when I saw him at the Market Sunday, and I thanked him for coming.

Basta.

Please let me know what YOU think. Is the Minneapolis Farmers Market serving its community? Is it okay to eat bananas and drink coffee in Minnesota? Is all-local the only way to go? Please comment below.

Comments

I live in the neighborhood and am a Farmers Market "regular." Because of access to the market, I really find myself eating seasonally. That way I get the best produce at the lowest price. But it's not a religion: when our Morel season was even shorter than usual, I bought some shipped in from California. But over the years, it's gotten easier to pass on the bananas and pineapples in favor of some really fine locally grown raspberries or melons.

A few weeks ago, I picked up some California corn, and enjoyed it. But it's just not the same as local corn 4 hours from the field. I'll be waiting a bit for my next cob.

The grocers serve a need for inexpensive produce that might not be sourced locally. I think they're a part of the Farmers Market ecosystem at this point and have earned their place.

I think the crafted non-food goods attract people to market - and that's a good thing. I've never purchased anything from those vendors, but they contribute the vibrancy of the market.

That does explain the presence of out-of-state foods. But I'm not convinced that the rule preventing out-of-state items from being sold when the same items are in season here is being enforced; I was at the market a couple of weeks ago and saw a stand selling strawberries from Florida, when several other stands were selling berries from MN. The out-of-state berries were considerably cheaper.

Of course it's OK to eat coffee and bananas in Minnesota. There are already distribution systems that ship goods all over the world; refusing to eat pineapple is not a superior moral position for anyone who buys clothing at the mall, rides around in a gasoline-powered vehicle, or even rides a bike manufactured in another state from metals mined who knows where. Almost everything we touch and use every day was produced somewhere else.

I'm not arguing against local food--far from it. Local food is, I think, more delicious than trucked-in food. It keeps my food dollar in my community, too. But I don't object to my food dollar providing for the needs of, say, a coffee grower in Colombia or a banana picker in Honduras, too. The resellers at the Farmers Market provide a distribution point. Every time someone buys from them, it's a vote by pocketbook for their inclusion in the market.

It irks me to see people discounting the Minneapolis Farmers Market just because they have a few non-local vendors.

Like Susan pointed out, let's look at the bigger picture here. The market serves a valuable purpose, and is located in an area of Minneapolis where there are no other green grocers in the immediate vicinity. Not everyone has ready transportation, extra income or the time to seek out other food sources.

Yes, the Mill City Market is also downtown(it's one of my favorites) but it's only open on Saturday mornings, and a visit there can get pretty darn expensive.

Saying that you will only go to the Mill City Market or St Paul Market because they are more "local" does a great disservice to those local vendors who are working their butts off to grow produce to sell at the Minneapolis market.

I guess some people may make the assumption that if it's sold at the farmers market, it must be local (or the vendors are trying to pass it off as local), but come on, we're intelligent people here, we know that bananas, pineapples, peaches and nectarines are not grown here.

I'm a supporter of fresh, local, organic foods but am a bigger supporter of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, period.

Let's celebrate the fact that we have a number of vibrant farmers markets to choose from in our metro area, including the Minneapolis Market.

OK, glad I got THAT off my chest....

Thanks for your comments, Lon, Amy, Amy, and Amy. Such great points you all make. I'm caught between the desire to eat locally and seasonally - for the great reasons you all mention here, including that it tastes best - and the knowledge that I will never willingly give up bananas or coffee (or chocolate!). Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm also amazed that so many of our city's best thinkers are named Amy!

How you over there, Mill City? St. Paul? What do you think?

Re: Amy's comment about the strawberries:

That was a couple of weeks ago when the strawberries were just starting to come in, that reseller was sited and told to stop selling them. Amy might have seen his stall; at the same time, one of the board members confronted him regarding the rules.

So he was busted.

Sandra Hill, Communications Director
Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association
Office 612-333-1718
Cell 651-895-7568
Fax 651-457-3319
E-mail sandymfm@cs.com

Sandy, thank you so much for being part of the conversation. Your honest, straightforward response, your willingness to confront, and your focus on the mission help us all - and the market too.

-Lee

my sister in law and husband have a hand-made pottery bussiness and make a good portion of their livelyhood at the mpls market. also their daughter plays violin beautifully and makes a decent chunck of change in tips playing there. i like the grand size and scope of the mpls market, love the people watching and brats! but for actual grocery shopping i prefer the st. paul farmers market or my neighborhood one, the midtown farmer's market.

For me buying from a reseller misses the entire point of going to the farmers market - namely the farmer. I go to farmer's markets to buy products that people have grown or made with their own hands. The greatest joy I get from the market is talking to the farmers about what they're doing and why. Seeing bananas sold out of Dole boxes makes me question the integrity of the whole market.

It's great that you are serving a community that's under-served and all, but it also undermines the value that you provide for the people who actually farm.

Perhaps you should have two sections, one for farmers and one for vendors.

Any chance those pineapples and bananas are Fair Trade? I'd feel a lot better about buying them.

Last I checked, Dole Pineapples are not what would be termed "fair trade." But that is ok.

To counter Anon's point above, I'm not really sure what "integrity of the market" is. I guess people's views can differ. But in my view, the cool thing about really good markets (of which I consider the Mpls market one) is vibrancy. Different people selling different things to meet different needs.

I've been to amazing markets in central mexico, columbia, and russia (of all places). In my experience, these markets have everything from local produce to knock off sunglasses to car parts- all in one place.

So, let the market be what it is, and if Anon only wants to buy from local growers, more power to him/her. As for me, I'd rather support a small re-seller than a big chain grocery for my pineapples.

This farmers/resellers distinction and the rule banning reselling of produce that is in season locally is news to me. Is there an easy way to tell the farmers and resellers apart (aside from the presence of bananas, etc.), and how do I know what the market considers to be officially in season?

After reading this I do get how the resellers can be good for the neighborhood, but as someone who doesn't live in the neighborhood and has to drive past many nice (super)markets to get to a farmers market in the hope of getting better quality produce, it is so much simpler to go to St. Paul (even though it is further away). The Minneapolis Farmers Market always seems like such a crapshoot to me. If I go to St. Paul and see strawberries, I know what I'm getting. If they aren't in season, they aren't there. If I go to Minneapolis it seems I really have no idea unless I interrogate every vendor every week about every item.

I think if the vendors were just required to post the place of origin of each item alongside the price, I would have no complaints and would visit a lot more often. Maybe I am missing something obvious, though. Unfortunately, I'm not the only one--I've lived here a long time and have never heard anyone say that the Minneapolis Farmers Market was a good place to find local produce. It's always St. Paul or Mill City...Minneapolis only as a last resort.

Thanks all - your notes make terrific sense and your arguments are clear. Anon really hits the nail on the head, from my perspective. Is the Minneapolis Farmers Market a green grocer that feeds its neighborhood, or is it a place where city residents can connect with local food and farmers? Maybe its the desire to be both that has us confused? Or maybe that's what makes it great?

What a pity that our wonderful little farmers' market, the Midtown Farmers' Market, www.midtownfarmersmarket.org, at Lake and Hiawatha, gets such short shrift in discussions like this. St Paul has a venerable history, and many fine vendors; Minneapolis is a great market when you know how to shop it, and a spectacle. Mill City has its place, too, but Midtown has a longer tenure--now in its seventh year--all local goods, including naturally and organically raised produce, natural and grass-fed meats, great access (via bus, light rail, bike, car) and ample free parking, and a vibrant, diverse, and progressive neighborhood atmosphere. You can argue the live-long day about the merits of local-only vs. imported produce at our markets, but let's remember while we do that there are well more than just three worthy markets in town (not neglecting Kingfield, Richfield, Northeast, etc....). Cheers~ Brett

Hey Trout Caviar, right you are. Thanks for standing up for the other guys. It's a big city, with loads of great markets and other things. You're absolutely right.

This looks real good and tasty. The Minneapolis farmers market has been known to give away promo codes

To lee ("green grocer or place to connect") and others:

I think it does a great job of being both. Even for people who are experimenting with locavorism (and thus might not naturally connect as well as some of the other shoppers do with vendors selling other things).

Just my opinion.

Well, and a tip for everyone--I have cut through confusion by asking people if they grew their produce or if it's from the area.

If your speech is humble and friendly, and they tell you "No" but pitch why you should buy it anyway ... although it might be a little awkward after all that conversation to decline and leave, it won't hurt their feelings.

I've walked away feeling embarrassed for having asked many a time, but I've never walked away feeling like I embarrassed the vendor by asking.

I've found that potential to feel embarrassed goes away, by the way, over the years. Over the years, you might just start to be able to "tell!"

On the Midtown Farmer's Market: I have visited it. It is great. And what a location.

On the St. Paul Farmer's Market: I have visited it. It is great. Good prices. Good selection.

On the Mill City Farmer's Market: I have not visited it.

On independent neighborhood and suburban farmer's markets: I have visited some and I have not visited others. The ones I have visited were great. Summary: ...quirks.

On the Rochester Farmer's Market: I have visited it. It is great. Processed food cheaper than St. Paul.

On the Minneapolis Farmer's Market: I have visited it. It is great.

On a farmer's market in suburban Kansas City: I have visited it. It is great. (And has a food import tradition I still haven't seen much of here in Minnesota.)

Every single farmer's market I've been to seemed to be exactly what was perfect there. Farmer's markets are amazing that way. Simply amazing.

Very interesting blog, looking forward to sharing more.

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