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Farmers' Market confidential

At 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, a horn's quick blare jolts the block awake for just a moment. Ladies and gentlemen: start your shopping.

The sound is a quirky, official start to every Linden Hills Farmers Market, a just-launched event aimed at bringing residents and visitors together during a four-hour stretch. All the usual elements that make a market successful are present--kids' activities, live music, food trucks, and of course, plenty of farmers--and there's plenty of heart in the organizers as well.

"It really feels like we're bringing the community together here," says Kate Ostheimer, the market manager. She looks across the way at the stand for Blackbrook Farm, which just started this year as well. There, farmers Ayla Mia Graden and James Dodge greet customers with salad turnips, garlic scapes, arugula, and other bounty from their fields. From her vantage point, Ostheimer seems like she's watching the realization of a dream.

"We feel like this was meant to be," she says. "We talked about it for so long, that it's hard to believe it's finally happening. Now that it is, we're really looking forward to meeting our goal of creating a sustainable, supportive place for local farmers."
Filling a Vacuum

Held in the parking lot of Settergren Ace Hardware near 43rd St. and Upton Ave. in South Minneapolis, the market is the creation of Ostheimer, Mark Settergren, Jay Botton, and Tilia partner Steven Brown.

The lot was once owned by the Linden Hills Co-op, which moved only about a mile west a few years ago but is missed by local residents. The ghostly outline of the store's lettering still remains on an awning behind the hardware store.

"When the co-op left, there was a big vacuum," says Brown. "Even though many people go to the new location, it felt like there was a need to bring that local connection to food back."

The founders spent nearly two years working on a plan to get the market going, and this year, all the elements came together, according to Ostheimer.

"We were shooting for last year, but it seemed like we were fighting to make it happen," she says. "This year, it felt like the pieces finally fell into place."

Because there had been so much discussion about a potential market, vendors weren't difficult to find, she notes. Some even applied a year ago. Most of the vendors approached the organizers, and recommended other farms that would fit with the Linden Hills vision of a sustainability-focused market.

Obeying the Sixty-Percent Rule

Developing a market like Linden Hills in Minneapolis is no simple feat, especially since new city regulations dictate that farmers markets must have produce vendors for at least 60 percent of their stalls.

Although that might sound odd--why wouldn't farmers be at farmers markets?--the city was responding to complaints that some markets were starting to lean more heavily toward prepared food and crafts, at the expense of farmer inclusion.

But making sure that 60 percent gets reached is more challenging than some people may think, Ostheimer notes. Farmers, more than any other type of vendor, can be thwarted by bad weather conditions, transportation issues, storage problems, and many other difficulties.

Ostheimer points to a vendor selling only pints of strawberries, and notes that if there was any flooding (a real possibility with all the rain lately), they wouldn't be able to make the market. The soap vendor next to them, however, wouldn't have that problem.

That makes every market a balancing act. On this particular Sunday morning, a few farmers had to bow out because of crop loss, and the organizers had to work hard to find fill-ins and still meet the city's percentage. But it's all part of the adventure, it seems.

"It's all a learning process," Ostheimer says, then laughs. "That's an understatement, really. But we're loving it."

Solidarity or Saturation?

As the farmers and shoppers at Linden Hills get connected to each other, the formation of a market like Linden is causing some ripples of concern as well.

For example, Linden is located just a few miles west from the venerable and well-attended Kingfield Farmers Market, held on Sunday mornings as well, and is only a mile and a half from the Fulton Farmers Market, now in its second year and held on Saturday mornings.

The main concern with another market opening up near more established markets is that individual vendor sales fall, and that results in fewer vendors coming back, notes David Brauer, a board member for the Kingfield and Fulton markets. "If that happens, fewer customers come back as things they grew to love disappear," he says. "Ultimately, the market becomes a lot less enticing experience. In the extreme, it could disappear and the community would lose a valued gathering place."

Another significant worry, he adds, is that farmers will end up working harder for fewer dollars, and be forced to work at multiple markets for less revenue per market.

Brown believes that as long as everyone works to bolster the markets, there's room for everyone: "My personal vision is that we can have lots and lots of markets. It will all be dependent on education. Hopefully, people will come to realize that they don't have to do all their produce shopping at the grocery store and then come here for a single pint of strawberries."

Most likely, the answer will come with markets working together, believes Jesse Davis, spokesperson for the Minnesota Farmers' Market Association. He notes that it's important for markets to differentiate from each other, but that cooperation is key. That's a tricky balance, but it's worked in other areas where multiple markets are held, he says: "You have to increase convenience for customers, but not compete in a way that will hurt farmers."

From the Other Side of the Table

This might be a good time for a belated note of disclosure, as well as a complementary view.

My partner, Karla Pankow, and I operate an organic farm and CSA; for this season, we're regulars at Fulton Farmers Market as well as Linden Hills Farmers Market, and act as fill-ins at Mill City Farmers Market and Kingfield Farmers Market.

In other words, we often get to watch the action from the other side of the table. We're very familiar with the swirl of issues articulated by Brauer, and like many farmers, we wouldn't be thrilled about doing more markets for a dwindling return.

Those of us selling fruits and vegetables--not to mention honey, eggs, meat, and other farm products--face tremendous challenges when it comes to dividing up our time during the season. Do we weed our cabbage rows, or revamp the website to promote a new market lineup? On a rainy day, should we run the errands that pile up throughout the week or spend time in the greenhouse planting the next round of seeds? More importantly: how much sleep do we need from May to October, really?  

Like the market managers, we're waiting to see how the economics of multiple farmers' markets play out, and hoping that there truly is enough of a share for everyone, without adding even more selling time to an already overloaded schedule.

In the meantime, we're just enjoying the reason we do markets in the first place: to connect with the people who make an effort to buy organic, sustainable food from us directly because they want to see the farmers who grew that cabbage and planted those seeds.

When that happens, no matter what the market's size, there's a small-town feel. And that's exactly what Brown and many other market founders in the Twin Cities hope to spark.

"People are becoming more and more aware of the food movement," says Brown. "A community can come together around food in a way that's meaningful and powerful. That's what you want to feel at a neighborhood farmers' market, and that's what we're trying to provide--that connection to each other and what we eat."

Elizabeth Millard is Innovation and Jobs Editor of The Line.

Photos, top to bottom:

The Blackbrook Farm setup at the Linden Hills Farmers Market

Kate Ostheimer, Linden Hills' market manager, sells teeshirts with the market's logo.

Prepared food: Red Wagon Pizza's Peter Campbell with his niece, Quinn

Courtnay Peifer with delicacies from Gai Gai Thai

Turnips on parade in Linden Hills

All photos by Bill Kelley

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