Q: How do you like to describe what you do?
A: I'm an employee of the city of Maple Grove, a parks and recreation department specialist. But I mostly answer to "market manager." Market organizers wear a lot of hats and have skill sets that are a mile wide and an inch thick. I recruit and support vendors. A huge component is logistics and event planning, and there's a lot of marketing and social media work, and finding partnerships on behalf of the market community. I went to a virtual national farmers market conference this winter. They sent a swag bag ahead of time, and one of the items was a button that said, "Our jobs are weird."
Q: How large is the Maple Grove Farmers Market?
A: From here on in we'll have 45 to 50 vendors, and then we'll start shrinking again in the fall after the first frost. Attendance is also seasonal, it's a bell curve. Right now it's about 1,300 to 1,400 adult shoppers, and that grows to 2,500 in July and August.
Q: Produce-wise, what will shoppers encounter in the coming weeks?
A: We had a dry, cool spring, so the produce might be a week or two behind. There's a nice selection of salad greens, microgreens and salad toppings, things like radishes and green onions. A couple of vendors offer lovely, beautiful mushrooms, and of course there's asparagus and rhubarb. But June changes fast. By mid-June we'll have strawberries, and then all heck breaks loose. We'll have hothouse tomatoes in a few weeks.
Q: What are some misperceptions about farmers markets?
A: That they're only for hipsters, or for people who have a lot of money. That's very much not the case. I'm proud to say that we serve all kinds of people at our market, and I hope everyone feels welcome. Another misperception is that things are expensive. It's much more helpful to think in terms of value rather than cost. I'd much rather buy a head of lettuce that's perfectly green and crisp all the way through than a head of lettuce that was harvested a week ago in California and is partly brown halfway through.
Q: How should first-timers navigate the market?
A: If they have the time and they're able to do so, I always advise people to first take a lap, to orient yourself. Bring cash. Don't go home empty-handed, buy something that looks really appealing. If it's something you've never tried before, chances are it will waste away and you won't have good feelings about the market. And if our Thursday market isn't right for you, try a Saturday market. Or if a big one isn't right, try a smaller one. In the Twin Cities, we have the luxury of having so many markets, on every day of the week.
Q: Are cashless transactions becoming more common?
A: They are, and that's a silver lining of the pandemic, because it pushed all of us to become more accommodating to shoppers. Along with accepting preorders, a lot of our vendors are making contactless transactions through credit cards, or through Venmo and PayPal.
Q: How has the market evolved during your tenure?
A: We're smaller now than we were in 2008, and that's partly by design. We needed to right-size the market — and have less overlap in produce — and we did that through attrition. For people selling food products, the farmers market is a great place to get one-on-one feedback. Every year I'm amazed by the creativity of the food entrepreneurs who join us.
Q: What's new at the market this year?
A: Pure Ginger for You is making fresh-squeezed ginger juices; they're drawing on their Liberian traditions and using a very mild baby ginger. MiMi Kimchi is making the most wonderful kimchi — I didn't even know that I liked kimchi and now I'm eating it right out of the jar. For the first time we have a shepherd, Get Bentz Farm in Northfield. We only do food and consumable farm products — there are no artisans or crafters at our market — but it's exciting to expand into other farmstead products, starting with wool.
Q: Have farmers markets addressed the racial reckoning that's rippling through the country?
A: Like many other institutions and organizations that have been predominantly organized by white people, it's definitely been a time of learning for farmers markets. We have a diverse group of growers and vendors, and we could have a much more diverse group of growers and vendors. We have a lot of work to do. We need to push ourselves to meet people where they are, and expand our outreach.
Q: What role do farmers markets play on the issue of sustainability?
A: Sometimes we hear criticism that because our growers are operating at such small scales, it's actually less environmentally friendly to shop locally than to purchase items shipped in at scale from Florida, Arizona or California. Many of our farmers — especially farmers of color — do not have long-term ownership or guaranteed access to the land they farm. Renting year-to-year makes organic certification almost impossible. Much of the labor on these farms is done by hand, instead of by tractors fueled by gasoline and oil. Our livestock farms are more likely to incorporate permaculture or pasture-based systems, and the small scale of the herds and flocks involved means that both the humans and the farm animals are healthier. By shopping the farmers market, eaters can actually preserve what's left of our diversified farm economy, and we'll continue to have a backup plan when international hackers attack the meatpacking sector, or policymakers restrict the labor pool for industrial farms.
Q: What's the future of farmers markets?
A: It's going to get more difficult to recruit farmers. We're facing a wave of retirements of our Hmong farmers, who have been the backbone of the Twin Cities farmers market community for decades. Markets are managed better every year, but we're still hitting just a tiny portion of the overall community food budget. Only 3 to 5 percent of people living in Minnesota will attend a farmers market this year. We need to help people realize that this is a great way to shop.
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib