An Interesting Problem at the Farmer’s Market…

By Mary Jane Smetanka, Star Tribune

Has the Twin Cities finally reached the saturation point for farmers markets?
The problem isn’t that there aren’t customers. Bloomington, the latest city to jump on the market bandwagon, drew so many shoppers on its first Saturday earlier this month that many vendors sold out by 8:30 a.m., just 90 minutes after the market opened.

The issue is with vendors. Drawn by that first day’s success, almost twice as many sellers — about 20 — came the second Saturday. But after the morning rush, it was the flower vendors, the jam guy and the bread seller who were doing gangbuster business. Many farmers who were selling potatoes and zucchini and cucumbers had a lot of produce left at the end of the morning.

“Last week was a good week; we sold out,” said Chao Her of Brooklyn Park, whose table was full of potatoes and cucumbers late in the morning. “Today, it’s different.”

With about 45 farmers market sites operating each week in the Twin Cities area, there are many places to buy peppers, lettuce and tomatoes. But for new, unproven markets, it’s difficult to draw specialty vendors who sell things such as meat and cheese that help lure shoppers back week after week.

While Bloomington had people selling candy, jams, coffee, flowers, smoothies and bread on its second market day, it didn’t have anyone selling meat or dairy, or even sweet corn — a crop that tends to come from larger growers who often skip new markets until they’re proven successes.

“We have the names of several meat people, but we haven’t had a lot of luck getting them,” said Jim Urie, manager of Bloomington’s Center for the Arts who is supervising development of the market, which has space for 23 vendors. “Some of them don’t have refrigerator trucks, and the ones that do have a full schedule.

Hard-to-get dealers

Among the meat dealers Bloomington contacted were Jill and Jeff Marckel, who own Chase Brook Natural. They raise cattle, hogs, chickens and lambs in Milaca and Princeton and keep a dizzying schedule selling meat at 15 markets each week. Using two freezer trucks, they sometimes hit three markets a day.

Jill Marckel said that, this year, at least five more markets came calling.

“I had to say no,” she said. “Between the two of us, we do darn well. But we’re pretty close to capacity.”

When Bob Leis of Bob’s Bluebird Orchard in Webster was invited to join the Bloomington market, he came the first weekend to check it out and was impressed to see goods “flying off the shelf.”

He was happy he came out to sell the next week. An hour before the market closed, he’d sold all of his 250 doughnuts and had just 11 of 120 jars of jam left. “I had a lot of people today say they were glad I was here,” Leis said. He said he’ll be back.

Sisters Chia and Youa Xiong had a near-empty table, too. Though they sold a few vegetables — something their family has done for 16 years at local markets — their niche is bouquets. By 10:30 a.m., they’d sold 150 bunches of lilies and other flowers. They called their dad, who delivered 50 more. Forty-five minutes later, those were gone too.

“This is one of our better markets,” Chia said.

Though they have other lives — Chia is in college, and Youa is married and has a full-time hospital job — they like selling at markets so much that they help their father out on weekends. Chia tries to catch customers’ eyes by making lily bouquets distinctive, and emphasizes their freshness. “They’ll take our bouquets home and see how they last, and they’ll come back,” she said.

Finding the right balance

Setting up a market is an art and a science, said Jack Gerten, manager of the St. Paul Farmers Market. Shoppers want variety and an ample supply of goods as well as a fun atmosphere, but they don’t want a circus. Markets have to find a balance for vendors, too, who need to sell enough to want to come back. That can be a challenge if you want what’s sold to be Minnesota-grown, as the St. Paul and Bloomington markets do.

“There’s only so much grown in Minnesota,” Gerten said. “You’re probably better off keeping the market small and having a larger volume of choice.”

Eventually, he said, an aging cadre of growers may force a drop in the number of markets. But for now, he said, “I think there’s room for quite a few markets.”

Bloomington is still adjusting the mix in its market. Urie said he would like music every Saturday. And he hopes to attract a berry vendor.

Toting a bulging bag of produce, shopper Myrt Kime cast a practiced eye on the booths and pronounced it pretty good for a new market. She lives in Bloomington and had come straight from the Richfield Farmers Market to check out the competition in her hometown.

“The prices in Richfield were the same, but I think the quality is better there. At least it looks better.” But she added, “I would come back here.”