Cultivating connections with our local global marketplaces: a social exploration of Twin Cities farmers’ markets


Keeping It Local in Lowertown

On a sunny Saturday morning in downtown St. Paul, hooves clacked against the pavement and metal-rimmed wheels rattled as the horse-drawn wagon transported us from our parking space underneath nearby Highway 52, with the roar of trucks overhead and the greasy smell of diesel engines, to an agricultural bonanza in the heart of the city. Beneath the St. Paul Farmers’ Market’s awnings at the corner of Fifth and Wall Streets were tables laden with the bright colors of a Minnesota spring: red rhubarb, green spinach, white onions, red and yellow and green peppers, and a vast bouquet of yellow and purple and pink and red and white flowers. The scents of mint, lavender, and basil wafted throughout the market, and all around us were the chaotic sounds of a hundred conversations between growers and shoppers, of vendors offering up free samples of hot sauce and honey sticks and spring rolls, and of children translating for their parents. A band played in the middle of the market, while across the street a lone man played blues guitar on a shaded sidewalk, his guitar case open for tips. Next to a hand-written sign urging shoppers to bring their egg cartons to be refilled, I sampled my first bison sausage stick, my first artisan Tilsit cheese, and my first rhubarb bread.

The St. Paul market allows only locally grown produce or derivative products, so the availability varies depending on which crops are in season. One week early in the season was all about rhubarb—tables piled high with red and green stalks, a sure sign that winter has been banished for another year. “Mine is strawberry rhubarb,” said one farmer. “It’s sweeter than regular rhubarb, and the redder it is, the sweeter.” Another week the seasonal produce made the perfect salad with crisp lettuce, spinach, pungent radishes, and sweet onions, topped with artisan cheese and Minnesota wild rice (hand-harvested, of course). Later in the summer we found the produce to make the freshest pico de gallo from succulent tomatoes, white onions, fragrant cilantro, sweet corn, and capsaicin-loaded jalapeños and habañeros, judging our mixture by the perfect balance of red, white, green, and orange. Regardless of season, we found non-seasonal products such as local artisan cheeses and breads, meats, honey, and eggs.

Anyone who has witnessed this plethora of agricultural abundance understands what I thought that Saturday morning, as I wandered past booth after booth of produce: Who needs fifty vendors selling broccoli, anyway? How am I supposed to know which vendor to buy from? Why are we so captivated by these noisy, crowded, bewildering markets where we have to check out with each separate vendor we buy from, instead of filling a cart and checking out once? Why do we like the farmers’ market so much that we have dozens of these markets scattered around the metro, calling us to forsake the air-conditioned supermarkets?

An Organic Process: How the St. Paul Farmers’ Market Happened to Grow

Seeking answers to these questions, I approached Jack Gerten, manager of the St. Paul Growers’ Association, the nonprofit organization of about 170 local growers that operates the St. Paul markets. Farmers’ market customers “want one-on-one relationships with the growers,” he told me. “They want to ask whether the produce is organically grown, or what type of fertilizers they use, or whether the varieties are genetically modified or heirloom.”

One of the country’s oldest farmers’ markets, the St. Paul Farmers’ Market began in 1853 as a central exchange where buyers from family-owned grocery stores bought their produce from local farmers, where food processing businesses bought large quantities of fruit and vegetables, and where families purchased large quantities of seasonal food which they canned for the long winter. Because the market has always served as a meeting place for local growers and residents, the association restricts produce to that sold by the growers, not by brokers, and grown within a 50-mile radius of the city; and shelf-stable products such as wild rice, cheese, or bison, from within the boundaries of Minnesota. These requirements ensure that produce is freshly picked and has not spent days or weeks in warehouses or in transport from other parts of the country—something that Gerten points out is especially important during hot weather like this July, when vegetables spoil more quickly.

As distributors replaced the exchanges as the middlemen for grocery stores, the farmers’ market focused more on retail sales to individuals and families. Over time those families moved to the suburbs and expanded the bounds of the metro area, pushing the farms farther out from the downtown area and prompting the St. Paul market to expand its local produce rule to its current 50-mile radius. Before the recession, Gerten says, the association’s members considered expanding the radius by another 15 or 20 miles, but they do not believe it is necessary now because of the slowdown in suburban growth.

Your Culture on a Grain of Rice

But this history doesn’t quite capture why farmers’ markets thrive in the Twin Cities, and my quest to find the source of their magic led to the most quintessential Minnesotan agricultural product: Minnesota wild rice. As a born and bred southerner, I find that the best gift of moving around is discovering new regional foods. Now hooked on the robust flavors of Minnesota wild rice, fuller and more earthy than white rice either in soup or boiled in chicken broth, I was disappointed to learn that most commercially available “Minnesota wild rice” is neither wild nor Minnesotan, sometimes cultivated as far away as California.

A vendor explained that the rice labeled “wild” and “hand-harvested,” is a different variety, showing me the half- to three-quarter-inch brown, irregular-length grains. He described the two-person harvesting crews, working on lakes up north near Bemidji, bending the rice stalks over the canoe, and hitting it with a pair of sticks, knocking the rice grains into the boat. The cultivated variety can threaten the wild stocks if it is intermingled, he told me; having been bred for hardiness, it is more invasive and can crowd out the wild version if it spreads into the lakes. That hardiness also makes it tougher and drier, taking as long as forty-five minutes to cook. The packaging of the hand-harvested wild rice at the farmers claimed that it cooks in only twenty to twenty-five minutes. When I tried it myself, the farmers’ market variety “popped” in the promised twenty-five minutes, not much longer than white rice, allowing my new favorite hand-harvested Minnesota wild rice to fit easily within a hectic weeknight cooking schedule.

More Variety than the Mall of America

Still looking for what the farmers’ market culture does for us, I visited only place where you can hit up a farmers’ market and art gallery in one visit: Bloomington. After shopping for produce and visiting with vendors on Saturday morning outside the Civic Center, inside you can check out the Greenberg Gallery, the Schneider Gift Shop, and two theaters.

We sampled flavored pickles—sweet, garlic, bread and butter, cinnamon, jalapeño, and habañero—and stopped to chat with the gentleman vinegar importer, who responded to “How’re you doing?” with a friendly “It’s never been this good! It’s not snowing, it’s not raining, it’s not a hundred degrees.”

But the treat of the entire market was the two retired ladies selling jam and jelly from the back of their van at the far end of the parking lot, and giving the profits to a different charity each year. This year everything goes to Smile Train, an organization that pays for corrective surgery for children with cleft palates. “I think we’re going to start putting smiley face stickers on our car for each $250 we raise,” said Virginnia Vista. (“That’s Virginnia with two ‘n’s,” she said, explaining thMaat her Swedish father pronounced it “We’re in ya.”)

The Vista sisters retired to their parental farm between Waseca and Albert Lea about ten years ago. “We’re not the kind to just sit around and not do anything. It drives us crazy,” she said, so they made jams and jellies. They have always given the profits to various charities; but a few years ago when they were visiting India during a famine, they decided to give the entire year’s profits to Bibles for the World to help the local residents. “Our profits doubled!” she said. Every year since, the sisters have chosen one charity per year to receive the profits.

Last year the beneficiary was KICY, a radio station in Nome, Alaska, broadcasting 1,000 miles into Russia, the only commercial radio station in the United States licensed to broadcast into another country in that country’s native language. Now KICY can continue its mission using the profits from two Minnesota ladies’ jams and jellies. I chose the apple jelly, perfect on biscuits. Although the jelly tastes the same as the commercial jelly from the store, the total experience of these ladies’ jelly and knowing that it is helping people in India and Bangladesh and Alaska and Bolivia is more than just filling—it is fulfilling. You can’t buy that experience at a supermarket.

Keeping It Hot in the Church Parking Lot

“This sauce is extreme hot,” said Korad Abdi at the Northeast Farmers Market, rolling her “r”s in her east African accent, “and this over here is only hot. We call it ‘Minnesota hot.’” What makes her Sadia’s Sauce unique? “It has dates in it, which make the sauce thick. This is how we make it in my home country.”

Nothing has ever stopped Korad—not war, drought, famine, or intense personal loss—in her journey from rural Somalia to the Twin Cities metro, and nothing is stopping her as she builds her hot sauce company. She sells at fourteen markets and various food co-ops. She recently received a loan through the Alternative Finance Program from the city in cooperation with the African Development Center. It didn’t hurt that the mayor is a fan of her hot sauce.

“There is opportunity here, and we work and work,” Korad said. “I work so that I can take care of my children, and so I can send money to other African children who need help.” Best of luck with your hot sauce and with your family, Korad. And no “Minnesota hot” for me, please—I’ll take the extreme hot.

As I visited markets around the metro, I saw that each community market has its own personality that sets it apart from the other markets, from a Greenwood Tree hammer dulcimer performance at the Northeast Farmers Market in the St. Boniface Church parking lot to closed-off streets in Prior Lake, a perfect place to eat sweet rhubarb pie at one of the many shaded picnic tables on a relaxing Saturday morning. Many American ciites have one large farmers’ market downtown, and an individual farmer’s booth in a parking lot or on the side of the road, but the abundance of community-based markets in the Twin Cities reflects our area’s embrace of farmers’ market culture.

Goods from Everywhere in the Middle of Nowhere: The Minneapolis Farmers Market and Annex

The St. Paul and Minneapolis farmers’ markets are as different as the Cities. While St. Paul’s market is in Lowertown, an area of redevelopment a couple of blocks from Mears Park, surrounded by downtown offices, condos, and artists’ venues, the Minneapolis market is hidden in a lost neighborhood of asphalt, concrete, and gravel, in the shadow of the skyscrapers but neither downtown nor residential, accessible by car from the east only by navigating the serpentine Lyndale/Hennepin exit from I-94. Yet in this nether-neighborhood, the Minneapolis Farmers Market sells everything from vegetables to clothes to soap to brats in an atmosphere that feels more like a county fair than a farmers’ market. It boasts of having the broadest selection of any farmers’ market in the Upper Midwest because it allows not only produce, food products, and crafts, but also resellers who import produce that is out of season in Minnesota but in season elsewhere. Signs displayed at each booth indicate whether the vendor is a local grower, producer, manufacturer, or a reseller, so that the buyers can choose to buy from local growers if they prefer. Operated by the Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association, the Minneapolis market traces its roots back to 1876. It has been at the current location on Lyndale since 1937, with some of the original vendors still holding booths run by fourth-generation family members. It is open seven days a week at its main Lyndale location, and has expanded with an all-day bazaar on Thursdays on the Nicollet Mall in the heart of downtown.

Already the largest market in the area, the Minneapolis Farmers Market with its three red sheds appears even bigger because of the adjacent Farmers Market Annex, a separate operation with its own three red sheds. Unlike the farmers’ market, which is operated by the growers’ association, the Farmers Market Annex is a private business. With stalls for windows, rock sculptures, massage therapy, crafts, jewelry, bags, palm readers, sunglasses, and “guaranteed the most comfortable pillow you will ever own,” the Annex seemed to me more like a European bazaar than a farmers market. So is it really a farmers’ market, if it has all these other products? Owner Scott Barriball said there is a debate about the definition of a farmers’ market. He never insists that his business is a farmers’ market; he said he wanted to combine a real first-class farmers market with arts and crafts and other businesses, renting space to people who have unique items to offer, and using live bands, tarot readings, and children’s scavenger hunts to entertain the shoppers and make the experience fun enough to draw them away from the big box stores. He said this helped the Annex survive the saturation of the Cities with farmers’ markets.

Soap maker Loretta Ellis used to rent a permanent space at the Annex, but this year she moved to the Farmers Market, Thursdays on Nicollet Mall and weekends at Lyndale, moving around depending on which space is available. (When vendors with permanent spots are not present, the booths are rented to others.) The competition to be admitted to the farmers’ market can be quite difficult; Ellis says the Annex is easier to get into for crafts, although it can be difficult for growers.

As for why she makes and sells soap, Ellis said, “I make these. It’s either that, or I have to get a real job.” She did social work for over seventeen years before she opened her soap business. Because her son is highly allergic to most soaps, she made her first soap when his doctor recommended bases that cost eight dollars per bar. She added essential oils when her son asked for scented soaps. “One year we decided to make it for Christmas presents, and the response was quite patronizing. ‘Oh, isn’t that sweet. You’re making soap.’ And after a couple of weeks, my sister called me back and asked, ‘Do you have more? Are you going to make more? You should be selling this!’ And so I thought if it passed the sibling test, I must have something.” I chose the Tea-Tree soap, with a blend of tea-tree, lavender, and comfrey root, which Ellis said is antimicrobial and speeds healing.

As we walked through the rows and rows of Minneapolis stalls, we passed by the saxophone player, whose music was beautiful even above the noise of the crowd and the trucks cruising on nearby I-94. We passed henna, pashmina shawls, rows and rows of flowers, a good three minutes before finding the first vegetables, grown by local Hmong farmers. I asked the question that I most wanted to know, to which I related in a specific way because I moved to Minnesota from the hot southern states: Of all the places on earth, why would a family from southeast Asia come to the frozen tundra of Minnesota?

Ken was born in the United States in 1979, the year after his parents emigrated from Asia, because his Laotian father had fought with the Americans during the Vietnam War and was retaliated against by the communist regime that took over Laos. (“The big secret war,” Ken called it.) Following the war his parents fled to neighboring Thailand, and then to California in 1978, and then to the Twin Cities, following their family and community leaders.

Since his father died a few years ago, Ken leaves his full-time tire warehouse job in St. Paul around 5:00 or 6:00 every day during growing season, drives to Woodbury to pick up his mother, and takes her to the farm near Rosemount, where both mother and son grow the crops that they sell at the farmers‘ market. She hand-sews aprons and placemats during the off season, her “winter harvest,” Ken said. I ran my fingers along the stitches of her reverse applique technique, in which she uses two layers of differently colored fabric, cuts out the pattern on the top layer to reveal the color of the lower layer, then tucks and stitches the edges. “This is a traditional Hmong pattern,” he said, pointing to a design in the center that represents the family, surrounded by a repeated circular pattern. “It represents a herd of elephants protecting the family.” Although all of her work was gorgeous, my favorite was the elephant pin cushion—I vowed never to stick pins in the elephant that I bought.

Perhaps the farmers’ markets’ role in this culture is simply to provide a venue where everyone who grew up on a farm, or near a farm, or whose parents had a garden, or who just wants good food, can find that food or reminisce about the family farm or just take comfort surrounded by domestication—and make human connections at the same time. Our brains are wired to seek out those human relationships in a setting more personal than the 24-hour grocery store. The young man was half my age and rooted in a culture from half a world away, yet for a few brief moments on a Sunday morning, we connected, we understood each other, we bonded over two dollars and a handful of chives.

The Industrious Hives of Lakeville and the Market in Savage

“We started out with two hives; we didn’t learn much, but we got stung a lot,” said Lakeville beekeeper Larry Hill at the Savage Market, outside the recently restored 130-year-old railroad depot, red with white trim. At his fragrant Aspen Ridge Honey tent at the Savage market, he tempted me with samples of clover, wildflower, buckwheat, and basswood varieties, each with a color and taste drawn from the primary source of pollen for the bees. He explained the varieties in terms of light and dark beers: Lighter beers are more universally accepted, but darker beers’ more powerful flavors generate stronger love or hate feelings. Most supermarket honey is the clover variety, light enough to offend no one, but not particularly flavorful. I bought the dark, full-bodied buckwheat honey, and found that its malty scent and molasses taste paired wonderfully with the equally strong-tasting whole wheat pancakes. Buckwheat honey also has more iron and antioxidants than other honeys, a rare find that both tastes good and is good for you.

Hill became infatuated with apiaries when he went to the state fair and saw the bees. Not having his own farm, he needed a place to put the beehive where they would have easy access to pollen. His neighbor agreed to house the hive on his own farm, benefiting both the bees and the crops. Hill set up the two original hives, and expanded the next year into a small business, placing additional hives on other farms. Today he has around two hundred hives on farms around Lakeville.

According to the Hills, honey has an additional benefit: It contains small amounts of pollen, which can help reduce symptoms of pollen-related allergies. To be effective, it should be local honey from within 50 miles of where you live. That’s one more benefit of buying local at the farmers’ market.

The Savage farmers’ market is a satellite of the St. Paul Farmers’ Market, one of many suburban locations born when the families that moved out to the suburbs missed the farmers’ markets, missed being able to pick up food from the growers whom they trusted, from whom their parents and grandparents had bought their produce. When they asked their local governments to facilitate new farmers’ markets, some of those suburban cities approached the St. Paul Farmers Market about expansion, in some cases providing space in a parking lot or park, and in others waiting for the association to seek out leases for appropriate space. But only in those communities that wanted a solid, long-term relationship with the association, he says, having decided not to open satellite locations for communities interested only a festival or in other temporary or short-term projects.

Growing with the Markets

For those more interested in growing their own produce than in buying it from others, each farmers market has more than enough potted plants, start plants, and seeds; and the St. Paul market even has volunteers from the University of Minnesota Master Gardener Program. This University extension service trains volunteers to answer local gardeners’ questions and diagnose fungus or diseases, all free of charge. In some communities, the volunteers help residents create with rain gardens that are strategically placed by the curb or underneath rain gutters to catch water and make use of it before it runs off into the sewer system. But, no, she told me, the master gardener volunteers won’t come out and do the hoeing and weeding for me.

For the rest of us who are more interested in eating than in growing, the abundance of markets throughout our cities and suburbs makes it easy to buy fresh, local produce, organic or not, and to connect with the local farmers. In my quest to learn why the farmers’ market culture is so important to us, I spoke to Somali and Hmong immigrants, local beekeepers and soap makers, ladies who give their profits to charity, volunteers who run a farm to provide jobs for disabled adults, craftspeople who were laid off from day jobs and used that opportunity to start their own businesses, cheese makers and buffalo ranchers and sausage makers, people who are so different from each other that I can’t find any common thread to bind them together except that I met them all at the farmers’ markets.

Perhaps I have been asking the question the wrong way. Instead of asking why we should buy from these farmers and verdors, maybe they and their stories are the reason: they provide us high-quality, fresh food while satisfying our urgent need for human connections. In an age of globalism, when we email people across the world but don’t know the names of our neighbors down the street, when store clerks can recall the location of every item on the shelves but can’t point to a product’s origins on a map, when our children think that ground beef comes from the supermarket and little brothers come from Babies “R” Us, the farmers’ market brings us back from the global village and roots us in our own village, in the present, by enabling us to shake the hand of the man who grew the vegetables and thank the woman who made the salsa. Just a little something to ponder as you reboard the horse-drawn wagon to ride back to your parked car and return to the world of corporate jobs and megastores.

Born in Mississippi and raised all over the south, Christy Marie Kent is a writer, storyteller, speaker, and insurance product geek. The insurance career moved her further and further north, until she found herself in the frozen tundra of Minnesota (don’tcha know), visiting farmers’ markets and telling stories about the south to any audience that will listen.