Audubon finds recipe for success in Minneapolis Mini Farmers’ Market

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Location, location, location. That oft-quoted mantra of real estate comes immediately to mind in a church parking lot in northeast Minneapolis on a Thursday afternoon. Vendors set up tables lined with piles of kale, beets, broccoli, raspberries, rhubarb, and other fresh produce. Customers start trickling through even before the market’s official start time of four o’clock. 

In the heart of the Audubon neighborhood, at 27th Avenue and Johnson Street NE, blocks from the larger weekend markets in Columbia Heights and on University Avenue, the Audubon mini farmers’ market has found its perfect location and that has made all the difference.

“From talking to other managers, it seems we might have the most traffic of all the mini-markets,” Audubon market manager Sarah Olson told me. The busy corner gets both drive-by traffic and neighborhood regulars. As an off-duty parking lot for the adjacent Gustavus Adolphus church, it’s open on weeknights.

“The church was very on board right from the start,” said Anne Gibertson-Seeling, one of the original organizers behind the market. When the idea originated, she had her sights set on a different Northeast corner: a grassy abandoned lot on Lowry and Central. City ordinances requiring that markets be held on concrete ruled that spot out, but when Gustavus Adolphus was approached, things clicked into place.

Minneapolis mini farmers’ markets

The markets, said JoAnne Berkenkamp of IATP, are neighborhood-appropriate, scaled markets with five or fewer farmers each. They began two years ago with six markets, doubling to twelve markets last year, and growing to as many as 21 this summer. Markets are hosted by trusted organizations in the communities. “All the groups are coming to us,” Berkencamp said. ” It’s all coming out of the community. … I think there’s a certain empowerment that comes with these organizations bringing food to the community. We support it, but the markets are theirs. We want it to be owned by the neighborhood.” Mini-markets bring maxi-fresh food to inner-city Minneapolis

Gilbertson-Seeling quickly recruited five vendors from the larger Northeast and Lyndale markets. “The first five people that I approached are the same that we have now,” she said.

For one of those recruits, local grower Ying Ke Thao, Thursday afternoons spent selling colorful bouquets of flowers in the small church parking lot are a gentle warm-up for the busy market weekend ahead.

Thao outlined for me the non-stop schedule he and his family work on their 11 acres of land in Rosemount, MN: Early in the week, the days start at 5 a.m., picking flowers for bouquets. They break at noon for their one meal of the day and then start again by 12:30, continuing on past sundown until anywhere between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m. Yet even this grueling schedule is not the hardest part.

“The worst of it is Friday and Saturday,” Thao said. “You leave for the markets at 4 a.m. and don’t get home until maybe 11 at night.”

While Thao recognizes the role of the large markets in his overall sales, the neighborhood markets are less hustle and bustle and give the farmers the space to relax.

“At Lyndale, there are so many people; everything is so jammed,” said Thao. In comparison, the five-vendor market on 27th Avenue and Johnson Street is a breath of fresh air, in this case literally-Thao’s stand at the Lyndale market is immediately adjacent to the men’s bathroom.

Rosemount farmer Ying Ke Thao sells bouquets of freshly cut flowers on the Audubon market in Northeast. Photo by Sarah Vig.

 

For Thao, the advantage of the neighborhood market is clear. “It’s more convenient,” he stated simply. “You don’t have to wake up as early or stay as long.” But there’s also benefit for the customers; they don’t have to wait in lines or elbow through crowds. “It’s good for us, it’s good for them,” Thao said with a smile and a shrug.

Reflecting on the market’s origins, Gilbertson-Seeling concluded that, “it was a real simple thing to do.” “People were ready for it,” she added.

She explained that the mini-market model means low overhead costs, making it “very friendly” for neighborhood associations to take on. It also means the markets don’t have to charge fees for the vendors, making it more appealing for them to sell there.

 Olson agrees that the process has gone almost surprisingly smoothly. When asked what lessons she has learned in the market’s second year, she replies with a chuckle that, because last year’s market was a such a success, “we really haven’t had much to change.”

“They [the Institute for Agriculture Trade and Policy] have done a great job at coordinating the logistics. We just get to do all the fun stuff,” she beamed.