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How To Choose a Twin Cities Farmers' Market

Updated on July 21, 2013

Who Need Farmers Markets, Anyway?

I inhale the aromas of mint, lavender, and basil that waft throughout the market, as all around me a hundred chaotic conversations sound out between growers and shoppers, of vendors offering up free samples of hot sauce and honey sticks, and of Hmong children translating for their parents. A band plays jazz while, across the street, a lone man plays 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 sample my first bison sausage stick, my first artisan Tilsit cheese, and my first rhubarb bread.

Anyone who has witnessed this plethora of agricultural abundance understands what I think that Saturday morning: How am I supposed to know whom to buy from? Who the heck needs fifty vendors selling broccoli, anyway?

--Christy Marie Kent

Writer | Storyteller | Speaker

Photo credit Christy Marie Kent

(Portions of this article appeared originally in the Twin Cities Runoff literary magazine.)

Schedules, Photos, and Write-Ups - -at www.twincitiesfarmersmarkets.com

I'm neither a farmer nor a market official. I'm just a local storyteller and writer who loves going to the farmers' market, and who writes about them. I also run the website at www.twincitiesfarmersmarkets.com, where I share info, pictures, and stories about the farmers' markets in the metro area.

The newest page added to http://twincitiesfarmersmarkets.com: Burnsville, which boasts one of my favorite views of the Minneapolis skyline. Check it out.

In an age of globalism, 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 the woman who made the salsa.

A Bounty of Beautiful Produce
A Bounty of Beautiful Produce

Minneapolis and St. Paul: The Markets Aren't Twins

Local food in Lowertown St. Paul

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.

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.

(Photo credit Amy Mingo from Minnetonka, MN, USA (A Bounty of Beautiful Produce)

Produce at the St. Paul Farmers' Market
Produce at the St. Paul Farmers' Market

Product at the St. Paul Farmers' Market

Photo credit Christy Marie Kent

Minneapolis Farmers' Market
Minneapolis Farmers' Market

Get it all in Minneapolis

the Minneapolis and St. Paul markets are as different as the cities. The Minneapolis farmers' 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. (Just to be clear, those brats for sale are bratwurst, not obnoxious kids.) The market 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.

Christy Marie Kent's Books on Amazon

Did you know that Christy Marie Kent is a writer and storyteller? If you like the writing style in this lens, you'll love Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness.

Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness
Pecan Pie, Cigars, and the One and Only Secret to Happiness

Imagine giving a toast to your grandmother, recognizing the amazing things she did in her life. Now, imagine that instead of telling true stories, you just make all this stuff up. That's the kind of stories you'll find in this fictional book.

 
Minnesota Wild Rice
Minnesota Wild Rice

When Minnesota Wild Rice Is Neither Minnesotan Nor Wild

My quest to find the source of the farmers' market magic led me 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.

(Photo credit U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Harvesting Minnesota Wild Rice
Harvesting Minnesota Wild Rice

Historic photo of Anishinaabeg harvesting wild rice on Minnesotan lake around 1905

(Photo credit Minnesota Historical Society)

Sadia's gourmet hot sauce
Sadia's gourmet hot sauce

This One Is Hot, but That One Is Only "Minnesota Hot"

My favorite part of the farmers' market is hearing the stories of the vendors. "This sauce is extreme hot," said a hot sauce vendor at the Northeast market, rolling her "r"s in her beautiful East African accent, "and this over here is only hot. We call it 'Minnesota hot.'" Every farmers market has vendors selling hot sauce. There's nothing interesting in that. But when the vendor comes from East Africa, is wearing an orange-and-yellow dress and a turquoise headwrap, and has seen war, drought, famine, and prosperity on her way to Minnesota ... well, that's interesting.

"What makes your hot sauce unique?" I asked Korad Abdi, the owner of Sadia's Sauce.

"It has dates in it."

I don't need dates. I'm married.

"The dates make the sauce thick. This is how we make it in my home country." She grew up in a small, rural tribe in Somalia. Her Somali grandfather married a Jewish woman; and her father's parents were Arabs from Yemen. Coming from such a diverse background and hearing more about the outside world, as a little girl she told her friends that she wanted to go to the United States of America.

"What is United States?" her friends asked.

"The United States of America is where Michael Jackson is from." That they understood.

Instead of coming to the United States, however, she remained in war-torn Somalia until she was a young woman, when she fled to a refugee camp in Kenya. She met her future husband in the camp, married him, and bore three children.

When she nine months pregnant for the fourth time, she was standing in line for her water ration and noticed smoke coming from her hut, a fire set by resentful Kenyans. Running home as fast as her unborn child would allow, she arrived in time to get her three sleeping children out of the burning hut, but as she ran out of the house, she was bleeding. She saved her three children, but she lost the baby.

Five times she applied to come to the United States before she was accepted. "Why Minnesota?" I asked. "It seems so different from Somalia.

She told me she went first with her husband and children to stay with her brother-in-law in California, but they found no work. They heard that there were manufacturing jobs in Minnesota, but having no car and no money for plane tickets, she baked traditional Somali cookies and sold them in her neighborhood. After a few weeks, she had saved up three hundred dollars, and her husband flew to Minneapolis to find work. After he earned enough, he sent for Ayan and the children.

The children, yes. She has nine now, from seventeen years to three months. "I am determined to do enough to take care of my family," she said.

Nothing has ever stopped Ayan in her journey from rural Somalia to Minneapolis, and nothing is stopping her as she builds her hot sauce company. She began selling it herself at the farmers market. She sells now 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's wife is a fan of her hot sauce.

This year she rented a commercial kitchen, began producing on a larger scale, and signed with a distributor. She has fifteen thousand bottles of hot sauce ready to ship.

"I come from Africa," she said. "There is opportunity here, and we work and work. 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, Ayan. You have inspired me. The next time I think I can't do something because I don't have the money, I'll think about you and I will work and work.

And no "Minnesota hot" for me, please. I need the extreme hot.

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 Jelly That Changes the World

The treat of the entire Bloomington market is 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.

Lakeville's Local Honey

“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.

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.

(Photo credit By Merdal at tr.wikipedia)

The Mill City Museum
The Mill City Museum

In the Ruins of the Washburn A Mill

Today the ruins of the Washburn A Mill host a new kind of farmers market blending shopping with entertainment, classes, and cultural growth. Founded by whole foods educator, chef, and restaurateur Brenda Langton, in conjunction with the Mill City Museum, the Mill City Farmers' Mmarket allows only vendors who are committed to a holistic approach to sustainable growing.

The market is new, but the building is old and storied. Home to Pillsbury and General Mills, the city of Minneapolis was born a mill town on St. Anthony Falls, the largest vertical drop on the entire Mississippi River. By the turn of the twentieth century, its millers produced 10% of all the flour and grist in the United States, the Washburn A Mill alone grinding 2,000,000 pounds of flour every day from a hundred boxcars of wheat.

In 1878, a spark ignited flour dust in the Washburn A Mill, creating an explosion that was said to be heard and felt in western Wisconsin, twenty-eight miles away. Learning from this explosion, better ventilation and other safety precautions were added to other mills around the country, fixing the Washburn A Mill in the books of flour milling history. The old Washburn A Mill was rebuilt and was productive for nearly a century before being discontinued forever in 1965.

A fire in 1991 nearly destroyed the building, but the remains were stabilized and cleaned by the city, and the Minnesota Historical Society built the Mill City Museum in its ruins.

(Photo credit By Jonathunder [CC-BY-SA-3.0 www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons])

Mill City Museum, built in the ruins of the Washburn A Mill on the banks of the Mississippi River.

(Photo credit quaziefoto from Ann Arbor (DSC02991) [CC-BY-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bonding of Cultures in Minneapolis

I passed by the saxophone player, whose music was beautiful even above the noise of the crowd and the trucks cruising on nearby I-94. I 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 social media. 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.

(Photo credit Christy Marie Kent)

What's Your Fave?

Which is your favorite Twin Cities farmers' market?

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So What'cha Think?

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    • ChristyMarieKent profile image
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      ChristyMarieKent 5 years ago

      @Joan Haines: It is, MiddleSister! I'd add a picture of the farmer's market in winter, but it doesn't LOOK like winter here yet. Here it is mid-January, and we don't have snow on the ground. I think I brought the Tennessee winter up here with me when I moved here.

    • Joan Haines profile image

      Joan Haines 5 years ago

      My farm markets are in Lancaster, PA. Isn't it energizing to see all the green and the colors in the midst of winter? I know Minnesota gets cold, cold, cold.

    • ChristyMarieKent profile image
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      ChristyMarieKent 5 years ago

      @TheLittleCardShop: Thank you! I love the farmers' markets, too; and I love having so many different markets with different products. I haven't seen this many in one place in other cities where I have lived.

    • TheLittleCardShop profile image

      Malu Couttolenc 5 years ago

      Haven't been to any of the farm markets in the Twin Cities and I'd love to go. I like buying in farm markets because it helps local producers. Great article :)

    • ChristyMarieKent profile image
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      ChristyMarieKent 5 years ago

      @JoshK47: Thanks, Josh. You should visit!

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Sound like a nice places to visit - love a good farmer's market.

    • ChristyMarieKent profile image
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      ChristyMarieKent 5 years ago

      @anonymous: Thanks for the thumbs up! When I began doing the research for the Twin Cities Runoff article, I was surprised by how many markets we have here. I don't recall having so many in Nashville or Columbus or Annapolis or Louisville or Atlanta, or any of the other cities I have lived in; so now I wonder, do those cities have as many, and I didn't know about them? Or is this something that has developed in many cities in the last few years? Or is it unique to the Twin Cities?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'd love to go to a farmers market in MN, I bet the honey is so good along with the fresh produce. you earned a 'thumbs up' from this reader.

    • ChristyMarieKent profile image
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      ChristyMarieKent 5 years ago

      @SusanDeppner: Thanks, Susan! You should *definitely* go to the farmer's market--if it is still open where you are.

      I had been to them occasionally before I moved to Minnesota, but I never knew how many fascinating stories there were until I accepted the assignment for the original article from the editor of the Twin Cities Runoff. I encountered so many other interesting people, too, other than the ones I selected for this lens. Maybe I'll add more of their stories later.

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      Clearly I'm missing out on an experience I hadn't anticipated by not frequenting our local farmer's market. Love the stories! Thanks for bringing them to Squidoo!