A Tale of Two Markets
Minneapolis Farmers Market
The intersection of Lyndale and Glenwood avenues
Not too long ago, I led a group of fifth graders through the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Before they got off the bus, I asked, "Do you guys know where peas come from?" Hands shot up, voices shouted out.
"The grocery store?"
"Those bags in the freezer?"
We filed down the narrow aisles of stalls, the kids pointing, pushing. One little girl asked if she could touch the pale green pea tendrils. Two boys with identical orange-streaked crew cuts grabbed fistfuls of shelled peas set out as samples by an indulgent Hmong woman. She smiled and nodded as they gobbled them up: "Eat," she said, "good."
Kids dug all the change from their pockets asking, "How many strawberries can I get for a quarter?" And as they took their seats, I overheard, "That strawberry dude was awesome."
How far removed are we from the source of our food that our kids visit farmers' markets only on field trips? Why would anyone hassle with schlepping from stand to stand for what's easily had at the store, wrapped, weighed, and ready to go? Here shoppers buy their food directly from the folks who grow or make it.
For those who care about fresh food and how it is grown, farmers' markets can be bastions of hope. When I hand my money over to the farmer for potatoes the color of his earth-stained hands, I am getting much more than the makings of tonight's salad. I'm engaging in a transaction as ancient as civilization. No packer, wholesaler, trucker, or store comes between me and the guy who planted, weeded, harvested, and packed the thin-skinned, sweet, firm fingerling potatoes. This is as close as I'll ever be to growing the stuff myself.
Small independent growers are local heroes, preserving and enhancing our landscape, keeping our air and water clean, and bringing us good things to eat. Independent of any boss, they must manage the arbitrary forces of nature and local and international politics. "Ask me about NAFTA, GATT, this whole global plantation," says Gene Thomas Kornder, a fourth-generation farmer at the St. Paul market. "It's not easy, but farming is not a business, it's a way of life."
For the most part, the growers at the St. Paul and Minneapolis markets rely on sustainable growing methods: rotating crops, using pest-eating critters in lieu of pesticides, and planting "green manure" instead of using chemicals that pollute groundwater and are absorbed into the atmosphere. Most lamb, beef, chicken, and egg farmers don't use controversial antibiotics or hormones, and their animals range free. Unlike commercially raised livestock kept in indoor pens, free-range animals roam the farmyard or grasslands. They tend to be stronger and their meat is firmer. Free-range chickens, for example, have bigger thighs and slightly smaller breasts (great for dark-meat lovers).
Yet few of these growers are "certified organic." "To become certified, the farmer must pay an enormous fee to the independent agency that inspects the operation, runs tests, reviews books, and keeps records," explains Bonnie Dehn of Dehn's Gardens, a Minneapolis-market grower whose stall flourishes with lush, fragrant potted and fresh-cut herbs. "We follow organic guidelines but would rather put our money back into the farm, not into agency bureaucracy."
Comparing the farm markets of Minneapolis and St. Paul conjures the differences in the cities themselves. St. Paul's market dates back to the mid-1800s, and it used to be a large indoor market that functioned year round. It has always been the venue where immigrants go to sell the foods of their homeland. Under its current charter, St. Paul's purveyors must come from within a 50-mile radius for two reasons: First, so that the market remains an outlet for growers too small to compete in the retail arena; second, to ensure that the produce is field fresh. Much like the farm markets in California and the green market at Union Square in Manhattan, the St. Paul Farmers' Market's focus is on small local growers who use sustainable methods such as those described above. It is a growers' market, with but a few select cheese, bread, and honey producers. No cappuccino, no brats, no dried-flower wreaths.
To that end, the St. Paul market is governed by a Growers Association, which each vendor must join. This association establishes the guidelines, employs the market manager, and funds the administration of the market. The market also enjoys the support of a nonprofit organization whose goal is to make sure that it is and remains a vital center for sustainable growers. The Friends of The St. Paul Market publishes a newsletter, runs a Web site, and sponsors cooking classes. Local chefs like Lucia Watson (Lucia's Restaurant), Jack Riebel (Goodfellow's), and Zander Dixon (Zander Café) with Nan Bailly (Alexis Bailly Vineyard) donate their time and energy to these free and open events. Personalities and politicians--radio hosts Lynne Rossetto Kasper, Katherine Lanpher, and Sue Zelickson, as well as St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman--also take center stage. There's even a children's book, Families Working Together, that tells the market's story.
After a 13-year tenure as market manager, Patty Brand, who is also a honey purveyor, founded Friends, which is supported by businesses and politicians. (The Chef's Gallery gourmet shop in Stillwater supplies cookware for the classes, area restaurants host benefit dinners, and Patty pursues grants from the government and area foundations.) Most recently, the association has been pushing to purchase the parking lot next door for an indoor, year-round market of artisans, craftspeople, and growers, with a café featuring local fare.
The market's quality has drawn in the likes of Mary and Dave Faulk of LoveTree Farm. Assertive and distinctively rich, their sheep's milk cheeses are cured in cedar, juniper, or fresh herbs and aged in specially built caves on the family's rolling green farm in Hinckley, Wisconsin, and are the darlings of fancy cheese shops in New York and California.
Here, too, is Mary Dorr's Dancing Winds goat cheese (including a feta that has more tang than salt), no longer to be found in stores or co-ops. Her stand is right next to Angelica's Garden, with its fresh, hand-rolled pasta, pestos, and dressings. And across the aisle, Todd Thomas sells handmade Midnight Chocolate, available only here, along with tooth-tugging, olive-studded, naturally yeasted, hand-rolled bread. There is Promised Land lamb, and folks selling free-range beef, chicken, and eggs. You can sample to your heart's delight, but only Golden's Café sells substantial street food, like mile-high fresh bagel sandwiches.
About one-third of St. Paul's vendors are Hmong. Many are grandchildren continuing work their elders began 20 years ago, farming their own land and leasing to others. When she is not at her weekday job as a research analyst for a small investment firm, PaKou Hang, who recently graduated from Yale, can be found helping with her family's stall and assisting in a new venture, the Hangs' fresh egg-roll truck, which should be up and running soon.
By contrast, the Minneapolis market is more street fair with vegetables, having evolved out of a wholesale market for grocery stores and restaurants. Assistant manager Ron Jorgensen grew up nearby in northeast Minneapolis. He remembers when the market stretched several blocks further, up to Olson Memorial Highway.
"Back in the 1950s, you'd see Lunds trucks pulling up to buy produce from the area's large farmers," he says, explaining that as our bigger farmers sold their land off, and the major retailers began to buy directly from California, the wholesale market shrank. "In the Seventies, the market shifted to a retail market serving a few restaurants and small grocery stores and more and more consumers. Hmong growers took over the abandoned stalls, and shoppers were attracted by exotic vegetables and low prices. Having grown out of this wholesale tradition, the market retains a few "secondary suppliers," wholesale trucks pushing Florida corn and California peaches. Today's mix of growers is nearly half Hmong, and the market has become a venue for local cheese, honey, and bread purveyors.
The Minneapolis market, for me, is an excuse to shop for bargains, bratwurst in one hand, fresh-squeezed lemonade in the other. I'm likely to buy Mexican pots and garden clogs along with homegrown raspberries. The market is governed by the Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association (a coalition vendors must join in order to lease a space) and run by Larry Cermak, who has seen and done just about everything there in his 20-plus years as manager. There are no geographic limits on where these vendors travel from, so strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, apple, and pear growers come from as far as the north shore. "Our asparagus grower comes in from St. Cloud," says Jorgensen. "No one nearby grows asparagus anymore." Just east of the market, the Annex, a privately owned operation, hosts Ecuadorian musicians, a roast-sweet-corn stand, and imported goods and crafts. Here George Martin of St. Martin's Table sells imported olives, extra-virgin olive oils, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese at great prices.
Nearly twice as big and much busier than St. Paul's, this market can be downright daunting. My strategy is this: First, go to Neon Coffee in the northwest corner for a latte; then hit Tolfson's for pork. The samples of their homemade brats are generous, unlimited, and set out at the eye level of my 7-year-old son. Besides home-smoked ham and tender pork loin, Tolfson's bratburgers are a summer staple--lightly seasoned, and with a not-too-coarse grind.
Just across the aisle, Mindy Kelly presides over an array of her fragrant Mrs. Kelly's teas--everything from young full-leaf green tea to aromatic fruit- and herb-infused black teas. Nearby find Trout Air selling delicate freshly smoked trout, and Curt's Kitchen Creations, where Betty and Curt Hollister of Frederic, Wisconsin, sell Curt's Salsa. "It's the best (unless you make it yourself) because we don't use any vinegar," says Curt.
Smack in the middle of this mayhem, don't miss Bonnie Dehn. A small, warm, blond woman of serene charm, she is president of the market's governing body, the growers' association. A third-generation farmer herself, Bonnie remembers riding to market as a child in the early-morning hours, asleep on sacks of potatoes. She has never thought of selling her lush fresh-cut or potted herbs anyplace else. Working with her two daughters and their families, she also sells packaged herbs to grocers but saves the best for her market customers. One of the busiest vendors, she'll stoop to soothe a weary child and take her time helping a befuddled senior find parsley. (Market tip for pesto lovers: Get your basil from Bonnie and then go to the Annex for George's olive oil, pine nuts, and Parmesan.)
Asked about the difference between the Minneapolis and St. Paul markets, about St. Paul's commitment to quality and Minneapolis's to quantity, Dehn says, "It's a struggle. We think the mix of vendors draws in more people than those who come just for vegetables. We're attracting more and more local growers, and we're providing them more customers. They'll do better if we draw in more people."
A devout shopper of both markets, my loyalties are split. As a cook looking for the freshest, best-tasting local produce, free-range meat and eggs, and intriguing artisan foods, I appreciate St. Paul's small size and clear guidelines. But I'm not willing to give up the hurly-burly charm of Minneapolis--the roasty aromas, the funky music, the surprising finds--or the dark purple blueberries from near Lake Superior.
Last Sunday in Minneapolis, I watched a guy in his mid-30s asking the Hmong lady about her pea shoots while fishing out pocket money for tiny potatoes, and snatching her sample peas as he talked.
She laughed, opened his bag, and threw in some extra peas and shoots, saying, "Eat, good."
Dara Moskowitz is on vacation. She'll return to Eaters' Digest August 1.
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