Nell Graham and her friend left the downtown St. Paul Farmers Market on a Saturday morning in August carrying tote bags that bulged with carrots, cucumbers, onions, leeks, broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage — all in season in the bountiful time between Minnesota's summer and fall harvest seasons.
Graham makes fairly regular visits to the St. Paul Farmers Market. She loves its vibrant displays, its prices, which she says are cheaper than her local co-op, and the activities it supplies for her kids.
“I think it's the most beautiful farmers market in St. Paul — in the Twin Cities,” she said.
For farmers market lovers like Graham, times are good in Minnesota: the number of markets in the state has been on the rise for the last 15 years. Today, there are more than four times the number of markets in the state than there were in 2001, and markets are available on more days and in more locations than ever before.
But all those options means consumers are more spread out now than they were in the past, creating pressure to be at more markets where individual farmers make less money. For some farmers — especially those who sell in the Twin Cities — that’s making an already-tough job even more difficult.
Market numbers booming
Farmers markets are nothing new for Minnesota: The St. Paul Farmers Market opened for business in 1853 — before Minnesota was even a state — in a two-story brick building at Seventh and Wabasha streets. The Minneapolis Farmers Market's roots go back to 1876.
We don’t have data that show the number of markets in the state throughout most of the 20th century. But starting in the 1980s, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture began publishing its Minnesota Grown guides, a directory of local food resources in the state — including a listing of farmers markets.
For much of this time, the number of farmers markets in the state held steady in the 40s, with a few dips. But after decreasing slightly from 43 in the 2000 guide to 41 in 2001, the numbers started to rise — and haven’t stopped rising since:
The 2016 guide lists 177 farmers markets in the state — a more than four-fold increase in the span of fifteen years. There are markets operating in every corner of the state, from Cook in the north to Wells in the south, and in almost every Twin Cities suburb. Minneapolis has nine different markets, St. Paul eight.
There may actually be more farmers markets in the state — the markets listed in the guide are required to pay a fee to be involved with the program. Still, you’d be hard-pressed to find a major market not included in the guide’s pages, said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the Minnesota Grown program. MinnPost counted only farmers markets in the Minnesota Grown guides that appeared to focus on food and did not count as separate markets any that occurred on different days in the same location.
Challenge for farmers
For many farmers, more markets means more work and more expenses — and not necessarily greater financial reward.
“The more farmers markets we have, we are are diluting the pool of potential customers … as a grower, I can only be in so many places at one time and it costs me money to have someone either sitting at the table or getting the product to the market,” said Mike Mastey, who teaches farm business management at Ridgewater College in Belgrade, Minn. (Stearns County).
Selling food at the farmers market is a tough job to begin with: it costs a lot to produce it — even when the weather cooperates — and profit margins at farmers markets tend to be low. Most produce needs to be sold quickly, as it doesn’t have a long shelf-life.
“I think there's a really good intention behind the rise of the farmers markets ... (but) it also illustrates that when things are grown in an uncoordinated way, it can have negative ramifications,” said Pakou Hang, the executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association, who grew up selling produce with her family at farmers markets in Minnesota.
Some farmers’ market sales are decreasing by as much as 15 or 20 percent per year, Hang said.
“Some families are making maybe the same amount of money they made in the ‘90s,” she said.
A Wednesday evening in late August, Melissa Schwartz and members of her family sold fresh produce from their farm in Andover to eager customers at Eagan’s busy Market Fest, a sprawling bazaar that combines farmers market vendors, food trucks and entertainment.
Schwartz’s family has been in the business for decades. She’s noticed the proliferation of farmers markets — especially in the last couple years — and thinks an estimate of 60 markets in the Twin Cities, which is what the Minnesota Grown guide reflects, is a lowball one.
“There’s way too many of them,” she said. “Obviously it cuts down on the dollar because you sell less, but you have the same amount of land so you still produce the same.”
Part of the difference in profit margins at some markets could be changing demographics, Schwartz said: as parts of the Twin Cities age, their residents have fewer mouths to feed and make less frequent trips to the farmers market. But she thinks the sheer number of markets is creating too much competition for customers.
“We do a market in Shoreview and now they just opened another one in Vadnais Heights, and so it’s too close together,” she said. “And then there’s one in White Bear on Fridays, so you’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday, Fridays, really within a (few) mile stretch.”
Why more markets?
All those markets didn’t pop up out of nowhere — somebody went to the trouble of starting them up in so many pockets of the state. Why?
The upswing in farmers markets coincides with a few larger trends: among them, consumers who are more concerned about where their food comes from, more people interested in producing food, and cities and towns looking to revitalize their downtown areas.
Jesse Davis, a Grand Rapids garlic grower and the program and outreach coordinator for the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, which works to support vibrant, profitable farmers markets, believes this transparency is one of the major drivers of farmers’ markets popularity.
“I think people are finally realizing our diets that we consume in this country are killing us,” he said. “One of the best ways to have more healthy relationship with our food is going out to the farmers market and just becoming a little bit less detached from our food.”
Consumer spending on local foods has more than doubled since 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2014, Americans spent an estimated $11.7 billion on local food. In 2008, that number was just $5 billion.
More widespread interest in farming is also a likely factor in the rising number of farmers markets. In recent years, Mastey said, more people seem to have developed an interest in cultivating and selling food. Many of them do it part-time, and have other sources of income that supplement market sales.
Still, Mastey said, many small-scale “lifestyle-type farmers” who have started cultivating in the recent wave of interest eventually find the low profit margins in relation to the workload make it untenable.
“After a few years, they get out, but you still have a new group of people who now have an acre or two and they’re going to try this,” Mastey said.
And then there’s the community aspect. Farmers markets are an easy sell on communities — a good way to draw people out where they meet their neighbors and support local growers, and liven up a town.
But it’s not just towns and cities starting farmers markets. It’s also businesses, entrepreneurs, churches, and nonprofits. Farmers markets in Minnesota are not required to be registered with the state to operate, though local ordinances may dictate where and how markets operate.
“A lot of those things all kind of were going on simultaneously and as a result, we ended up with a lot of new markets all over the state. Really, it’s not just a metro phenomenon, it’s not just a rural thing. It’s not unique to Minnesota. What’s happened here mirrors what’s happened all over,” Hugunin said.
More of a metro issue
Davis, with the Minnesota Farmers Market Association, said the increase in farmers markets, in general, presents bigger challenges for farmers in the Twin Cities metro area than it does outstate. In the Northwest and Southwest parts of the Minnesota where there are fewer opportunities for farmers to reach consumers directly, having more markets has generally been a good thing for growers, he said.
That’s not necessarily the case in the cities, where instead of having a few big, centralized markets, there are now markets all over that draw their own followings.
Pat Nelson, the Minneapolis Farmers Market manager, says that’s a challenge for his market, one of the largest in the state.
The Minneapolis Farmers Market is as popular as ever, with thousands of people visiting on weekend days during the summer and a waiting list to get a vendor stall on weekends, but the average consumer is spending less money at the market than they used to, Nelson said.
Consumers’ habits have changed, he said. Between farmers markets and more grocery stores selling organic and local produce, suburbanites no longer have to make the trek to Minneapolis to find the food they’re looking for, and there are fewer people buying in bulk for canning. Fewer sales creates pressure for farmers to be at more markets, and some of them can’t make it work.
Last year, Nelson said his market lost a meat and lamb producer from Arlington, southwest of the cities, after the farmer decided it wasn’t worth the time to trek into the cities.
“We really needed the beef because we only had one and a half other beef people and they have a great product, but they found out they couldn’t make it work — traveling an hour and a half into Minneapolis, trying to sell their stuff and then traveling all the way back. It’s time out of their day,” Nelson said.
Finding more customers
Efforts are underway to make sure farmers markets remain a vital part of Minnesota’s food ecosystem.
One way to keep farmers markets operating is to expand their customer base.
“We definitely know from our research that there is a fairly small (number) of people who are really passionate about farmers markets who go really frequently and buy a large share of their food there,” said Dawn Thilmany, a professor at Colorado State University's College of Agricultural Sciences. They make up the minority of farmers market shoppers.
Part of the Minnesota Grown program’s job is to raise awareness of the markets and help them reach consumers and advertise, Hugunin said.
About a third of the markets in Minnesota are equipped to accept EBT, formerly known as food stamps, Davis said — a tactic designed to draw in more low-income customers for farmers markets, and provide more access to healthy food.
Under the Market Bucks program, EBT-eligible customers at participating farmers markets can get up to $10 in matching dollars to spend at farmers market, doubling their buying power. In some cases, churches or other organizations will commit to matching the initial investment again, so $10 gets a person $30 worth of farmers market goods, Davis said.
Beyond farmers markets
Efforts to increase the number of customers at markets notwithstanding, some farmers are looking for options outside of the traditional markets to sell their produce.
A Moua’s family had always grown vegetables so they’d have fresh produce to eat, but they started farming for a living in 2004, after his father was laid off from his job.
The family rents a plot of land in Vermillion Township, south of St. Paul, from the Hmong American Farmers Association, which was launched in 2011 to support Hmong American farmers who have immigrated to Minnesota in the last four decades. The association estimates that more than half the farmers at local farmers markets are Hmong American.
The Moua family used to do more markets, but these days they’ve cut back to two — Bloomington on Saturdays and Eagan on Wednesdays — where they know they can make money.
“We decided to drop some of them because we weren’t making enough or not enough people would be there. We can’t do those markets because they get in between our harvesting time and our selling time,” Moua said.
Now, the family also sells produce through the Hmong American Farmers Association’s food hub. Through the hub, which started in 2013, HAFA aggregates food from many farmers and sells it as CSA shares and to local schools and retailers.
Moua said his family is doing pretty well: Farmers markets still make up the bulk of their income, to which the food hub money adds, he said.
HAFA hopes this type of innovation will help keep farmers farming — and going to farmers markets.
Keeping farmers markets
It’s not clear whether or not the ranks of farmers markets will continue to grow in Minnesota: have they reached saturation? Are there really too many and, if so, will their numbers decline?
What is clear, Hang said, is that consumers benefit from having access to them.
“I would argue that with farmers markets, the return on our investment is more than just access to fresh produce, which increases our nutrition and healthy lifestyle. (They) increase social capital,” she said. “For me, the farmers markets are the foundation of the local food economy because that is really where we as customers are interacting with our farmers. That’s where we really are understanding this is the livelihood of a farmer.”
In order to keep them vital, Hang said, it’s important for markets to work together.
“I don’t think we can afford to view each other as competitors. Better to come together and say ‘How do we coordinate our farmers markets so we can increase availability of fresh produce, but also draw all these people — more people — to farmers markets,’” she said.
For consumers who want to do their part, making a commitment to buying from the farmers markets is key, Hang said, urging people to tell their friends and neighbors, and bring them along on shopping trips.
“Be intentional about buying produce at farmers markets, and (don’t) just be intentional about buying coffee,” she said.