COLUMN: Where are the farmers in those markets?

By John Freivalds

Guest Columnist

It has become a rite of passage for every community to have a farmers market; the perception is that the food is fresher and better for you. Every community has to have its own police, fire department, schools, zip code, warm weather city festivals (even though the carnival vendor for the Wayzata festival offers less than healthy deep fried Oreos on a stick) and, yes, a farmers market. The number of farmers markets has exploded in the U.S. In 1994, there were 1,700 and now over 9,000. By comparison, there are 14,000 McDonald’s. In Minnesota, there are 183 farmers markets and every lakeshore community has one. Okay, not Minnetonka Beach, which just begins a half a block from my house, but they are strange to begin with.

The markets provide a place where local farmers can sell food directly to consumers, and the implication is that it helps sustain the environment and provides needed competition to mainline grocers. I went to every market around the Lake Minnetonka area and found the results vary. You can say there are too many markets for sometimes it’s hard to find a farmer; there are always plenty peddlers of stuff, not a bad thing, but farmers they ain’t. And consumers only spend 0.2 percent of their food budgets at farmers markets and all mainline grocers have upped their organic offerings. And then we have Whole Foods!

So, here we go. The most picturesque market is the one in Wayzata. It is held on Thursday in the parking lot across from the fancy restaurants on Lake Street. But a recent visit revealed only a dozen vendors with just one harried farmer. Okay, there was a neat old guy straight from Appalachia playing the fiddle.

Excelsior also gave their farmers market (Tuesdays) a top spot by closing down several blocks of downtown Water Street. But again, there was only one farmer vendor (okay, an entire Hmong family). But on the day of my visit they had the best food truck I have encountered. Cèst très magnifique. The vendor (Crepe and Cake) who is from Paris makes these wonderful European thin pancakes like my mother made. Then you have your choice of toppings – I chose rhubarb.

Plymouth (Wednesdays) has got it right about having a farmers market. They have it across from Parkers Lake; there is a lot of parking and lots of farmer vendors. Okay, some were selling tomatoes out of a box labeled California tomatoes, but who’s counting. There I saw an attractive woman looking and smiling at me. Wow, I’m 73 and still getting those looks. I walked up to her and asked in deep baritone voice: “Do I know you?” Turns out she works fulltime at the UPS store where I go to get copies made. “Nice to see you” she said. Oh well. Then she told me of the hectic life of a vendor, for the next day her mini donut truck was off to Rochester.

The biggest disappointment was Minnetonka (Tuesdays). The market isn’t visible from Minnetonka Boulevard but is stuck way in the back on a huge parking lot that borders all the way back to Canada. With all that space Minnetonka has, why not put the market where it can be seen?

And if you are tired of the lack of farmers out here go to the main Minneapolis farmers market (every day but especially weekends) or the one at Mill City (Saturday) where vendors are scrutinized with a 50-page manual full of who can sell and who can’t. There you are told that most vegetables are grown to survive the shipping process but judge for yourself. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama and Colombia and world traveler, I loved being in the hustle and bustle of a real market, a veritable bazaar.

John Freivalds lives in Wayzata and is a writer, commodities broker, consultant and opinion columnist.