Minnesota among nation's farmers market hot spots

Monday, July 20, 2009

The popularity of buying locally has led to a statewide explosion of farmers markets. In five years the number has tripled to about 130.

By LAURIE BLAKE and KEVIN GILES, Star Tribune staff writers

Last update: July 19, 2009 - 8:01 AM

It's opening day for a new farmers market in Minnetonka and -- following a trend that's taken off in Minnesota -- shoppers flock by the hundreds to buy fresh, local produce.

Awaiting them at a shaded table loaded with strawberries, potatoes, snap beans, green beans, zucchini, onions and herbs is Hmong grower Long Yang. He's brought this bounty from his 40-acre farm in Rosemount where he and his family raise fields of food for the metro area's booming farm market.

"The customers keep coming more and more," said Yang, who can sell most everything he grows at one market or another, seven days a week.

Many of today's growers are selling at more markets than in the past because demand for fresh local food is exploding in Minnesota. In just five years, the number of farmers markets statewide has nearly tripled to about 130, including more than 50 in the metro area. At least two dozen suburbs have one or more, and the big markets of Minneapolis and St. Paul have spawned neighborhood mini-markets at 12 locations. This year alone, new markets opened in Woodbury, Minnetonka, New Hope, Inver Grove Heights, Savage and South St. Paul.

Noting a fast upswing in farmers markets nationwide -- from 1,755 to 4,685 over 14 years -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranks the Twin Cities with Chicago, Atlanta and Madison, Wis., as the nation's metro hot spots.

In Minnesota, the demand for local foods is so strong that 80 percent of the nearly 300 growers who attended the annual Minnesota Fruit and Vegetable Growers conference this year said they now are selling directly to consumers. That's the opposite of 20 years ago, when most of them sold to wholesalers and stores. And many more farmers are striving to extend Minnesota's growing season -- and their profits -- with a new generation of greenhouses.

Why the boom?

Thriving in part on the nostalgia of long-ago trips to grandma's and grandpa's for fresh food from the garden, customers come to today's farmers markets for the superior taste and health benefits of fruits and vegetables grown nearby.

"Everybody's thinking healthy these days," said Terry Gerten, who sold tomatoes recently at a new market location in Inver Grove Heights. She and her husband Mike, of Hastings, have sold produce at markets for 30 years but they find the latest trend amazing. "Now it's the thing," she said.

With a farmers market now just 2 miles from her Minnetonka house, Jackie Zimmerman plans to shop there every week. "There is something appealing to me about coming here and buying a fresh box of beans to take home and cook for dinner," she said. "Because I live here, I keep running into people I know -- it feels personal and fresh."

Alan and Carol Bensman of Minnetonka said they had read a convincing case for eating local food to reduce money and energy spent to transport food. "We want to eat local because it's healthier and because it supports our community," Alan said.

"The local food movement that we see nationwide, it's really strong in Minnesota," said Terry Nennich, a University of Minnesota extension professor who specializes in farmers markets. The markets are multiplying because they are "the most common way that people can access local foods," he said. By selling directly to consumers, farmers can make 50 percent more on their produce, Nennich said.

Food scares, including worries about pesticides and contaminants, also drive people to farmers markets.

"People want fresh produce and people want to know where it's coming from," said Eden Prairie raspberry and tomato grower Terry Picha. "The vendors are the growers and the customer gets to meet the person who is growing their food."

Hmong are big players

Twin Cities markets couldn't have spiraled to their level of popularity without Hmong farmers, who like Yang increasingly supply most of the cropland vegetables, such as lettuce, onions, potatoes, beans, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, zucchini and herbs. They also sell flower bouquets by the thousands.

Hmong growers represent about 70 percent of sellers in suburban markets and more than half of all growers in Minneapolis and St. Paul markets, said Jack Gerten, manager of St. Paul Farmers Markets. "If you didn't have the Hmong you couldn't have these markets," he said.

Yang said he works dawn to midnight keeping the produce coming from his farm. His pledge to customers: "Picked today -- sell today."

Profits vary wildly depending on growers' overhead costs. Mike Gerten, Jack's second cousin, said that vendors can expect to make a few hundred dollars a day at a suburban market and more at the large markets in Minneapolis and St. Paul. No one tracks overall sales.

Extending the season

Because of the surging interest in Minnesota-grown food, new ideas have burst onto the scene to draw even more dollars into the market. Some chambers of commerce now sponsor markets and more sellers now can accept payments from customers on public assistance.

About 400 growers in Minnesota are trying a new solar-heated "high tunnel" to try to open the cold state growing season five weeks earlier in the spring and keep it going five weeks later in the fall, Nennich said.

Typically 25 feet wide and 100 feet long and covered with a thick plastic, the tunnels let heat inside and keep interior temperatures at 80 to 90 degrees even when the outside temperature is hovering around 40 degrees.

One tunnel near Fargo, N.D., this year yielded ripe cucumbers in May and tomatoes in June, Nennich said.

Now, close to the peak of summer bounty, markets soon will be bursting with tomatoes, corn, squash and beans.

"I love fresh produce," said Karen Stokfisz of Minnetonka, who shopped at that city's new market on the Minnetonka Civic Center campus at 14600 Minnetonka Blvd. "I believe in buying local. It really does taste a lot better."

David Peterson contributed to this article. Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711 Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432


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