With the planting season now behind us, we can begin to enjoy the fruits and vegetables of our farmers’ and growers’ labor. Farmers markets are hitting their midsummer stride with strawberries just past peak and the first tomatoes just weeks away.
Minnesota has a long history of farmers markets. Recently, they have arrived in cities and towns across the state. From a decade ago, the number of farmers markets has increased from 89 to over 200, and despite high gas prices, Minnesotans are still congregating Saturday mornings to pick out bedding plants, fresh cheeses and the perfect head of lettuce.
The St. Paul Farmers Market has been serving the Twin Cities for over 150 years, and in the last few years has expanded to 17 sites which rotate throughout the week. Minnesota Grown, a directory compiled by the state’s agriculture department, lists nearly 70 communities hosting farmers markets, including small towns like Cokato and Princeton.
“The market has seen at least a 10% increase in customers over the last year,” reported Jack Gerten, referring to the St. Paul Farmers Market, which he manages. “All of the new [satellite] markets are doing well,” he added.
The Princeton Farmers Market also reported an annual 10% increase in customers, with season totals between 1,500 and 2,000 customers. The number of vendors in the Princeton market has doubled in the last ten years.
Despite marked increases in both markets and customers, there are several inhibiting factors to the continued success of Minnesota’s farmers markets.
Meat and dairy product vendors, for example, are facing higher refrigeration costs and need to work in high-volume markets to make a profit. Wheat prices have increased four-fold over two years ago, hitting artisan bread makers hard.
Mankato Farmers Market manager Jackie Hilgert reported that, “across the board, vendors have raised prices. One vendor told me ‘I’m not going to work for nothing.’ She raised the prices on her rhubarb 50 cents a bunch and her jams $1 per jar over last year.” In reaction to the higher prices, “the vegetable vendors have not heard a backlash from customers.”
Many specialty vendors are opting out of smaller markets and weekday markets and selling only at heavily trafficked markets, a move which limits the selection and, ultimately, the vitality of the smaller markets.
Daniel Whitcomb, market manager of the Princeton Farmers Market and former head of the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, says that we have reached a saturation point in the markets. With over 200 farmers markets in the state, there simply are not enough local farmers to keep up with rising supply of market space.
Part of the problem for well-established markets and newcomers alike is high gas prices. The majority of the price hike manifests itself in higher production costs, from greenhouse heating to petroleum-based fertilizers. Increasingly, though, transportation costs have become a factor.
Farmers are staying closer to the farm when deciding at which farmers markets they want to sell. “The Princeton market requires produce to come from within a 45 mile radius, but because of gas prices, I would say the farmers are not coming from farther than 20 miles out,” Whitcomb said.
This problem is compounded in outer ring suburbs where communities court produce growers to downtowns while city planners simultaneously zone growers out of their fields. Farmers markets are considered an amenity in the suburbs instead of a local economic development tool, and thus rarely get off the ground.
The desire for quality and food safety has outweighed cost in customers’ minds. Gerten noted, “With recent food safety issues like salmonella, people presume buying local is better than buying from California or Mexico.” The Saint Paul Farmers Market regularly surveys its customers and repeatedly customers favor freshness over cost when choosing their produce.
As of yet, customers have felt little effect from the higher production prices, since many vendors have not raised prices. Gerten said vendors would need to raise prices by at least 25% to keep a profit margin, but “competitive, market forces” are holding them down.
Even if prices at Minnesota’s farmers markets go up, customers should continue supporting this vital part of our local food supply. The unique personal interaction and local produce that farmers markets offer attract not only engaged residents, but also smart spenders.
Out of every dollar spent on locally-produced goods, 68 cents stays in the community, according to a MN2020 report released last year, Made in Minnesota. This compares to just 43 cents if that dollar were spent in a national chain. Supporting local farmers and strengthening community bonds are two positives steps toward strong economic development.