With so few people working in the offices in downtown Minneapolis, the farmers market that appears every Thursday on Nicollet Mall in summer months won’t start as scheduled on May 7.

A larger market on Lyndale Avenue, just west of downtown near International Market Center, opened its season as usual on Saturday. It will feature 100 or more vendors daily through October.

However, the downtown market, where 50 produce, flower and other food growers occupy several blocks on Thursdays, won’t open until their office customers return from coronavirus exile, said Mao Lee, manager of Minneapolis Farmers Markets.

“We have decided to postpone that market until the shelter-in-place order is lifted and business resumes,” Lee said. “I don’t want to prematurely send my vendors there until I know they’ll be able to sell their products.

“We’re working with the city and the Downtown Council on this. And most events have been canceled through June.”

Mayor Jacob Frey next week will meet with downtown business and civic leaders to start planning at least a partial return to activity that could begin in May if Gov. Tim Walz permits more businesses to reopen.

The outdoor downtown St. Paul market in Lowertown opened this weekend and neighborhood markets will open later in the spring or summer.

The virus-related interruption is difficult for the 100-plus small farmers of the Hmong American Farmers Association, or HAFA. They dominate Twin Cities farmers market and typically grow three crops of flowers and produce annually.

Janssen Hang, a co-founder of HAFA, is hopeful of salvaging the farmer-to-market season. Hang has been around Twin Cities farmers markets since boyhood, studied biology at St. Olaf College and is a veteran of community-food initiatives.

“I’ve spoken to many market managers and I’m confident that they are putting in place health and safety systems, such as social distancing, that meet the state standards,” Hang said.

Still growers such as Mee Hang and Jimwa Moua, who farm several acres at HAFA’s 160-acre farm in Vermillion Township in Dakota County, are concerned. They and other farmers last week were tending to radishes, onions, asparagus, beets and rhubarb, all of which will be harvested by late May.

Janssen Hang said one alternative he’s working on is HAFA’s “Community Supported Agriculture” (CSA), a subscription-style distribution system.

A few hundred customers last year paid HAFA $330 for a weekly box of vegetables for 18 weeks in the summer. The group also had a $285 offer for boxes over eight weeks in the fall and a $60 box at Thanksgiving. The program appeals to consumers who prefer local farmers and seek a connection to growers.

“Our farming community will produce enough healthy produce and we want to support our small farmers during this crisis,” Hang said.

CSA produce comes from community gardens in the city and vegetable farmers outside the Twin Cities who supply restaurants and farmers markets.

Nearly 30 farmers markets and mini-markets operate in the Twin Cities with food that traveled an average distance of only 39 miles from the farm to the market, according to a city of Minneapolis study last year.

Overall, Minneapolis markets grossed more than $13 million in sales from about 650 vendors in 2018 market vendors supported approximately 3,500 employees and served an estimated 1.5 million annual visitors to the markets in Minneapolis. An estimated 11,000 agricultural acres were owned, leased or managed by Farmers Markets of Minneapolis vendors.

Some of the farmers markets are mini-markets, special small markets that the city licenses to get more fresh and affordable produce on the table in low-income neighborhoods.

Lee, who is Hmong, is a Minneapolis Henry High grad from the North Side. She majored in biology with a focus on fish and wildlife science at the University of Minnesota. She grew up fishing and gardening with her dad, including produce for farmers markets.

Lee has advanced the Minneapolis markets on Lyndale and downtown, starting as assistant manager for several years. Her role spanned helping vendors unload to staging nutrition-education programs, a newsletter and website and advancing healthy foods in city neighborhoods beset by obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related chronic diseases.

Lee told a local writer, also one of her admiring teachers at Henry High last year, that she never thought when she was a girl that she would end up in agriculture after painful “memories of picking Thai chilies” in terribly hot weather.

But for her, the work has gone from being painful to becoming a passion.


Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. Reach him at nstanthony@startribune.com.