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Sheila Stanton got into the farmers market business because the Hmong farmers renting her land needed an outlet.
She looked around and Shakopee was one place without a market. So she marched into City Hall and was told, in her words: "Go for it!"
"People in Shakopee were so happy," Stanton recalls. "They'd never had anything like that before. It started out awesome. Word got out right away from Hmong to Hmong to Hmong to Hmong, so we had plenty to sell."
A few years on, Stanton is feeling grumpy. More and more markets have been starting up within minutes of her little spot, one of them backed by the marketing muscle of the Mystic Lake Casino folks. She hears that another is about to spring up just down the road, again with the backing of a major local institution.
"That might hurt us a lot," she said. "I started this thing and never asked anyone for a penny and I took care of the town, and now City Hall is starting to let everyone have farmers markets!"
She worries about the livelihoods of the Hmong she sees toiling under the sun outside her window. "Lord, are they hard workers. Ten, 15 acres with tillers and hoes, and it's so clean [of weeds] it's unbelievable!"
A decade after the farmers market movement began invading the suburbs in serious numbers, the tempo is picking up again. But it's not without its tensions.
Growth and income
On the plus side, Eagan, which once drew hundreds, now draws thousands weekly and is getting national attention. Big companies are offering noontime options for their workers -- Best Buy in Richfield ,for instance, with a hand from Stanton herself, and Boston Scientific in Arden Hills may be next. The Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley just became the latest major institution to join in. Cities such as Lakeville are festival-izing their markets, adding music and storytelling.
A market as modest as Northfield's reports that $200 is changing hands per minute, on average, providing vital support to small farmers and artists.
Little guys like Steve Perry of Three Rivers Farm in rural Scott County race around the metro attending farmers markets as a low-cost link to hordes of buyers, each side reenacting a ritual centuries old. Perry hits 15 a week during the season, peddling honey and maple syrup.
"It's not just the food," said Kerry Phillips, Market Fest coordinator for Eagan's parks department. "Ours has become a family event. People run into neighbors they haven't seen in a while, or meet up with friends and family. It's lovely to see."
'The true farmers market'
As the movement has grown, however, distinct differences have arisen from one city to the next. Some have signed on as branches of the St. Paul Farmers Market; others are independent. Some have strict rules around local-ness; others do not. Some are about food; in others, food seems almost an afterthought.
"To me," said Savage Mayor Janet Williams, "ours is the true farmers market: fruit, vegetables, no crafts. Yes there's honey and some meat, and bedding plants at times, but mostly it's fruit and veggies. I was there the first day of the season this year and they ran out of strawberries within the first two hours."
One market lists on its website a cheese firm that supplies goods to others as far away as Chicago. In Eagan, by contrast, Phillips says, "Vendors attending must grow it themselves, locally, or produce that product, if it's a specialty food. We don't allow resale of products, so more often than not you're talking to the vendor who picked that in the field, often that very morning."
Lakeville casts a glance at Eagan's mega-numbers, its 3,000-plus per week, and thinks, "Must be nice!"
"Eagan is huge," said Judy Tschumper, director of the Downtown Lakeville Business Association. "They do entertainment, all kinds of things. But that's run by the city itself, and they probably have more funding. Ours is sponsored by our downtown business association, which is just this little nonprofit.
"Although we are sprucing it up, adding more things -- a guitarist is coming down, and artists, and we've talked to the library about storytelling time. On midsummer days we are seeing 1,000 to 1,500 people, so that's pretty good for our small area."
Lakeville also benefitted from a pricey, government-supported upgrade of the paving and landscaping of its civic plaza, aimed in part at the market. So cities do get involved, and do see benefits, both in communal feeling and in terms of healthy produce.
Let the market decide
"It is great for Shakopee and the surrounding area," said Shakopee Mayor Brad Tabke. "More access to healthy, fresh food grown in our area, and good for residents who can ride bikes or walk to one. It's extremely important, and the more we have, the more people are close to one."
He admires what Stanton has done for her Hmong contacts, but is also a free-market guy who is not impressed by any attempt to keep a lid on numbers.
"There's no such thing as 'too many,'" he said. "That's for the market to decide."
David Peterson • 952-746-3285