By Kirsten Zoellner
Shop local. Dine local. Buy local. The energy behind the movement of supporting what’s in our own backyards is massive and it doesn’t appear to be slowing any time soon. Americans are tired of not knowing what’s in a product or where it comes from, the high costs of transporting goods, and what they’re doing to our bodies, economy, and communities. Small farms, direct-marketing, craft and farmers’ markets have sprung up all over the country, filling the need. In southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa, the markets are wide open.
Tables and booths, tents and pickup trucks all filled with attractive displays now fill our towns, both big and small. Offering items such as vegetables, fruits, herbs, wild edibles, mushrooms, nuts, honey, maple syrup, grains, eggs, canned and baked, and availability to direct-market meats and dairy, these markets literally have something for everyone. Many have extended beyond food items and include crafts of all sorts, fine arts, jewelry, garden and home décor, personal care items, pet goods, fiber and yarn, knitted, crocheted, and sewn items, clothing, and more.
There are only a handful of communities within the area that don’t have their own market, but some communities have amazing markets that are just undiscovered by residents and tourists. The Houston Farmers’ Market has seen some growth over the last eight years since its founding. Market manager Twaila Thorson is thrilled and thinks small town markets like Houston’s are a great thing in the community, supporting local growers and keeping the economy thriving and the money right in our own towns.
“So many people come to,” enthuses Thorson. “It’s great! They don’t have to drive to the big towns to get great, fresh produce and they know they’re getting a good quality product.”
Markets can also be an opportunity for unique food and art items that might otherwise get missed. In Houston, Staven Family Farm gets the chance to offer up homegrown oats, wheat, rye, and buckwheat. The family, farming for over 30 years, used to grow the conventional corn, soybean, alfalfa rotation, along with operating a dairy farm, but downsized. Looking for a something different, the Staven’s opted to grow a variety of grains, sweet corn, and vegetables.
“My daughter sort of pushed me along,” says Mark Staven. “Now, we’re in our fourth year at the market. The area needs something like that.” Growing all of it naturally, the Stavens take their grains to Schechs’ Mill for grinding, but some is ground on-site, during the farmers’ market, an educational and entertaining draw for market customers. While one-of-a-kind products and abundant selection are key, largely, it’s the people that make a market great. The producer-consumer relationship sets the stage for more than just the exchange of product and cash, but rather the friendly neighborly banter between producers and customers and camaraderie between vendors.
The season for markets is at the mercy of the growing season, so the markets must have reliable, committed vendors. In years like 2013, with a dismal spring and less than stellar summer, the weather can dampen a market both in offerings and spirit. Still, some markets, and their loyal customers persevere
Virginia Karlsbroten, of the Simple Living Farmers’ Market in Mabel agrees. Now in its third year, the market is growing by leaps and bounds. “Last year was so uncooperative, but the vendors were there. People had a good attitude. They were on board and cooperative,” she notes. “We’re doing really well, working hard together.”
Sometimes though, it takes more than just great vendors and their products. Many local consumers are discovering that farmers’ markets have gone beyond hay bales, tents, and bushel baskets to truly community-wide events. “We try to have something extra every week; music, educational things, presentations,” says Karlsbroten. “We try to keep it up. Keep it as current as we can.”
This community-event thinking was the basis for the new Rushford Peterson Valley Farmers’ Market, held in Rushford. The market started halfway through the year in 2013, but quickly found there was a need for fun community events and no better way to help support the local growers and artisans. This year, the market is planning something for each day, including special themed days, live music and entertainment, demonstrations, and as many activities it can find to get the community outdoors and interacting.
“We have this phenomenal location in Creekside Park, along the Rush Creek Trail and the Root River, and a community who supported and encouraged us more than we could have imagined,” says market manager Kirsten Zoellner. “We want to make the market an event that people can’t wait to get to each week, an event that will get people into our downtown businesses and that encourages community involvement.”
Rushford Peterson Valley Farmers’ Market vendor Emily Hanson-Funke, of Crooked Pine Soap, knows markets offer distinct marketing and selling opportunities for small businesses and hobbyists, along with customer and community investment. “Customers benefit in a huge way from markets. It gives them the insight the work these vendors put into their product to get it here, rather than it coming off of a big truck and going on a shelf. The relationships you are able to build with your customers is what makes markets so unique.”
As these markets continue to grow, people are not only taking notice, but taking hold of the opportunity within their own towns. “The fact that small towns are jumping on the band wagon should say something to our society. We have become so detached on how and where things are grown and made. Farmers’ markets are now giving families an opportunity to get back to simple and wholesome.”