I will be among the hungry faithful, reusable shopping bags in tow, when the downtown Minneapolis farmers market reopens on June 3 on Nicollet Mall. Just not at sunrise, as scheduled.
After a year shaped by the pandemic, the market will be a symbol of the slowly ripening street food, art and activities that makes summer special in downtown Minneapolis.
Flowers and vegetables, fresh-baked breads, fruit, cheese, ethnic foods and more are returning, including daily this month at the farmers market on Lyndale Avenue N. near International Market Square.
"With the Nicollet Mall farmers market closed last year, our sales were down 25 or 30 percent," said Mao Lee, general manager of the two Minneapolis farmers markets. "Vendors had to change the way they sold and set up products. They had to get creative and innovative.
"It was probably the most challenging market and time. Farming is not a 9-to-5 business. No PTO. If you miss sales, you miss sales. The public was afraid to be at the markets because of COVID. That decreased revenue."
The flower and vegetable growers are disproportionately Southeast Asian immigrants and their descendants, including Hmong-American farmers who work their acres on weekends.
Some survived last year thanks to the Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund, which raised several hundred thousand dollars from the likes of Lakewinds Food Co-op, Good Acre, Latino Economic Development Center, the Food Group and the Bush Foundation. They bought excess produce for distribution to food banks.
"We need local, small-scale farmers to thrive," Dale Woodbeck, general manager of Lakewinds Food Co-ops told me last fall. "The history of Lakewinds … was to create markets for these small organic farms. We buy as much meat and produce locally as we can. In addition, we invested [$500,000-plus since 2011] to help small farmers with infrastructure and the organic-certification process.''
Here's hoping that farmers markets this year will enjoy more customers and sales, in addition to featuring the music, art and other activities that help drive millions in annual consumer spending. There are about 400 small farmers within 90 minutes of the Twin Cities providing food directly to consumer buying groups, retailers and farmers markets.
Three dozen or so farmers markets operate in the Twin Cities, with food grown within an hour away, according to a city of Minneapolis 2018 study. Minneapolis markets grossed more than $13 million in sales from 650 vendors. An estimated 11,000 acres were owned, leased or managed by Minneapolis farmers market vendors.
The more than 20 locations of the Farmers Markets of Minneapolis Collaborative open their spring markets this month. They range from the 100-vendor Municipal Minneapolis Farmers Market, open daily from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 31 at 312 Lyndale Av. N., to the smaller Camden Farmers Market at Salem Lutheran Evangelical Church, 4150 Dupont Av. N. It operates on Saturdays starting June 5. Take a look at farmersmarketsofmpls.org.
The Fulton Farmers Market at 49th and Chowen Av. S. opens on Saturdays, May 15 through Oct. 23. The Kingfield Farmers Market, at 40th and Nicollet Avenue, will operate Sundays from May 16 through Oct. 24.
These markets have helped drive the eat-local-and-healthy trend that now includes urban community gardens and "Minnesota Grown" labeling at Cub Foods and other retailers. About three-quarters of farmers market vendors are women and most give leftover produce to hunger-relief programs.
Some of the farmers markets are mini-markets, special small markets that Minneapolis licenses to get more fresh, affordable produce on the table in low-income neighborhoods.
Lee, who is Hmong, is a Minneapolis Henry High graduate 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 in town with her dad, including selling produce for farmers markets.
Lee has advanced the Minneapolis markets on Lyndale and downtown for years. Her work ranges from helping vendors unload to staging nutrition-education programs, a newsletter and website, to advancing healthy foods in city neighborhoods beset by obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases.
Lee is an employee of Central Minnesota Vegetable Growers Association, which pays 20% of vendor-stall fees to the city to use the land and buildings.
"We hope in 2021 that we start getting back to normal, where customers and vendors can engage in conversation, pick their own products … without fear of COVID," Lee said. "I want to get back to where customers can grab a brat and lemonade and get ketchup on their shirts. And we want to bring back the music and the entertainment side of the market."
Just bring your mask and keep your distance until we get the all-clear sign.