David Nicholson was feeling bullish when I checked in with him late Tuesday afternoon. The Midtown Farmers Market, which he manages, had just squeaked into fifth place in national voting to crown the best farmers market in the country.

Not bad, considering nearly 5,000 markets are in the running.

Who cares if online voting (www.care2.com/farmersmarket) is mostly a clever gimmick to promote sustainable agriculture and bulk up e-mail lists? It's hard to not root for our spunky contender, which Star Tribune food writer Rick Nelson calls the Little Market That Could.

Now, it's the little market that just might.

"If we can hold our place, we'll be in good shape," Nicholson said of his current top-five status. "But we're still driving for first."

Voting ends in two weeks. The top spot carries a $5,000 prize (fifth place, $1,000). That's small potatoes if Powerball is your reference point, but a princely sum for a market of this scale, located in Minneapolis on a slab of concrete across from a strip mall off the Hiawatha light-rail line.

Needless to say, the setting isn't the selling point. People are. That would be people on both sides of nearly 75 booths overflowing with luscious home-grown produce, naturally raised meat, fresh-cut flowers, scones, baguettes and crepes, cheeses, coffee, nuts, herbs and pottery. The market also is one of the first in the nation to accept food stamps (EBT).

Located next to the Midtown YWCA at 2225 E. Lake St. in the parking lot of the former Anishinabe Academy School, the market opened in 2003 with other development around the Hiawatha line. Volunteers from seven south Minneapolis neighborhoods, led by the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization, came together to create a communal gathering place offering fresh food that has taken on a vibrant life of its own.

Stroll over on a Saturday (8 a.m. to 1 p.m.) or Tuesday (3:30 to 7:30 p.m.) and you'll run into bankers, chefs, a certain ubiquitous Minneapolis mayor, people straight out of central casting for "Woodstock," parents with strollers and front-packs, college students and Somali families sent over from Smiley's Clinic across the road for a fresh culinary experience.

"Some kids are trying fresh raspberries for the first time," Nicholson said.

Mike Mann, 60, and wife, Vicki, 58, have shopped the market all seven years. Its proximity to their Longfellow home got them there. Relationships keep them coming back.

"We go there to see our neighbors," said Mann, a local storyteller. "We spend all week with e-mail and iPhones, and then we humans need to spend some face-to-face time. This is a gathering place where we can do that."

Zachary Keilholz, 22, biked over on the Midtown Greenway on a recent Tuesday to buy pretty much everything he could stuff into his backpack: eggplant, cilantro, a dark-green, leafy vegetable ("not sure what it's called," he said), red bell peppers, tomatoes, squash, basil, chard. Total cost: $17.

"It's fantastic," said Keilholz, an architecture and urban studies major at the University of Minnesota. "I like the closeness. People have fun, like that guitar player."

Yes, the market has live music, too, story times, sheep-shearing, cooking demonstrations and informational booths on nutrition and bike safety. In the fall, shoppers throw a potluck for the vendors to thank them. No wonder sellers like Denny Havlicek of New Prague, Minn., come back year after year.

"I'm really appreciated at this one," he said, bagging a tray of his tiny sweet apples for a young woman as her husband bolted to the next booth to buy fresh basil.

Megan Easter, 25, is a new vendor this season. She and her fiance, Shawn Person, 30, sell "high-quality, sustainable coffee without the snobbery," under their Public Coffee House label. The market has grown a lot, she noted, "even in one season."

Nicholson hopes that growth continues. On everyone's mind, and no doubt driving the enthusiastic voting, is the possibility that the market will have to move. With Anishinabe relocating, Minneapolis Public Schools has signaled a desire to sell the property for possible housing and retail redevelopment. But Nicholson is confident that the market, which has brought more than $1 million to vendors since its inception, will return next year.

The smartest move, though, is to make the market a centerpiece of any developer's master plan. Fifth place or first, this is one of our city's gems.

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com