Jennifer Brooks
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Mornings begin well before sunrise at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. Farmers’ mornings always do, pandemic or no pandemic.

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“We’re normally here by 4:30 a.m.,” said Mai Yang, smiling behind her mask at her family’s stand under the red-roofed market stalls. Her family has been here for the past 24 years, since Yang was barely tall enough to peek over the tables heaped with cucumbers, peppers and the first ripe tomatoes of the season. Her little nieces and nephew, masked and giggling, help out behind the stand now.

The Yang family was out in the fields of their 5-acre farm outside Rosemount until 8 p.m., picking the day’s produce. If this were a normal summer, they might have worked until midnight.

“Because of the pandemic, [we’re] just picking a little bit of everything,” Yang said. “If we pick too much, it’s just going to go down to waste.”

She glanced down the wide, empty aisles of the open-air market. A few shoppers browsed stalls selling more fruits and vegetables than anyone was buying.

Minnesotans have lost lives and livelihoods to COVID-19. Families have missed out on vacations, graduations and summer camps.

Farmers are hoping a trip to the market is one sweet summer treat Minnesotans can still savor.

“We still want to make this their happy place,” said Sina Pleggenkuhle, assistant manager of the Minneapolis Farmers Market.

The market looks different this year, she said. There are masks and hand-washing stations and directional arrows to keep crowds moving at a safe social distance.

Or what passes for a crowd in 2020.

A good weekend used to draw 10,000 to 15,000 shoppers to the farmer-run market, tucked under the highway overpass on Lyndale Avenue. Thousands of people, jostling shoulder to shoulder, swirling from booth to booth in search of deals, drinking iced coffee and trying free samples.

These days, a big weekend might mean 3,000 people, spaced a safe social distance apart as they serpentine between flower stalls, cheese stands and bushel baskets of cucumbers heralding the start of canning season. A fraction of the crowd, a fraction of the income for the families who have done business here for generations.

Mai Yang was looking forward to the weekend, when her father, Tong Pao Yang, sets up his stall next to hers to dazzle the larger crowds with a wider produce selection.

“This is only half of it,” she said. “There’s the second harvest of the cucumbers, fingerling potatoes are coming, green and yellow beans are still coming. There’s still a lot of things that are coming.”

Farmers just hope their customers are coming back too.

“The vegetables didn’t stop growing because of COVID,” said Pleggenkuhle, who worked with market manager Mao Lee on pandemic precautions to keep the market in business through this strange summer. “The market will look different this year when you come, but we’ve prepared it.”

This is one of the few farmers markets that’s not only open, but open every day. On weekdays, when the sparse crowds are even sparser, you can park free inside the market and follow the arrows from booth to booth.

You can’t grab a drink or a brat and wander at will like the Before Times, but there’s a designated eating area, if you want to sit down.

Everything is hands-off. You can’t paw through the produce looking for the ripest tomatoes, but if anyone can find the ripe tomatoes for you, it’s the people who grew them.

Bob Dehn has been selling produce and plants at this market for 42 years. This year has been the hardest.

“This has been a really trying year,” said Dehn, surrounded by fragrant piles of basil and mint, so fresh you can smell them through a mask. He and his wife, Bonnie, operate Dehn’s Garden in Andover and, like many vendors, will bundle up orders and have them waiting — at the market or at their greenhouses — for customers who need to avoid crowds.

There’s been a Minneapolis Farmers Market almost as long as there’s been a Minnesota, starting with the first Fruit and Vegetable Market stalls at the corner of First and Hennepin in 1876. The market moved to its current home, under the same red-roofed sheds, in 1937.

The market just relaxed the rules to allow vendors to offer samples again — one of the best treats of market day. Slabs of sheep cheese on toothpicks. Just-picked berries. Little bites of summer you can pop under your mask.

“Would you like a taste?”

An elderly vendor nodded to a basket heaped with bright sugar snap peas. One sweet crunch is enough to persuade you to bring home $4 worth.

If that’s as sweet as Summer 2020 gets, that’s still pretty sweet.

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008 Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks