On a summer Saturday, the St. Paul Farmers Market buzzed with customers loading up on fresh fruits and vegetables or discussing the merits of buffalo meat.
“It feels like a family here, like a big family with all the growers, and feels like a big family with all the customers. And you see people over years and years and years and years,” said Jim Golden, director of the St. Paul Growers Association, which runs the market. “It works here.”
Mike Gerten, who brings the produce from his vegetable farm to the market, is virtually family. His ancestors were selling at the market in downtown St. Paul when it started more than 150 years ago, four years before Minnesota became a state.
“I was born into the truck gardening business,” said Gerten, whose family immigrated from Germany and Denmark. “I took over from my father, and we go back for at least four generations. We started when it started.”
The market in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, now has a valet car parking service. But the basics — farmers selling their goods and produce to cityfolk — are pretty much the same as in 1854.
At that time, a two-story brick building was constructed in the frontier town and became the Minnesota capitol’s first public market, offering produce in season, and dairy products and baked goods year round.
The duration and success of the St. Paul market is notable because somewhere between 1854 and about 1980, Americans largely stopped going to farmers markets, preferring to shop in big supermarkets.
In the last 40 years, farmers markets have been rediscovered, growing nationwide from about 1,755 in 1999 to over 8,600 now, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
“I love that I get to talk with the people who are growing my food,” said shopper Alyssa Erding. “I feel really good knowing that I know where it came from, and it came from somewhere close and somewhere that I consider to be home.”
Only produce grown within 80 kilometers of the market is offered for sale here and sold directly by the grower.
Immigrant fueled resurgence
In St. Paul, an influx of Hmong refugees in the 1970s and '80s is credited with giving the market a second life. Immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, the Hmong are from cultures where nearly everyone shops in open-air markets.
Hmong farmer Der Thao is second generation. Her father came from Laos, but she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.
“We’ve been at the farmers market for over 30 years,” she said. “So, this is pretty much our second home here.”
Hmong growers account for 50 percent of the market’s vendors now. “The business is really good,” said Thao.
Recently, other immigrant farmers have joined the market.
“Now, there is a Somalian family grower here,” Golden said. “There is a Russian family that just started this year. There’s a woman from India. It's really the entire world.”
Susan Dahl is a farmer from Nepal who came to the market four years ago.
“I sell raw honey. We have hives,” she said. “I enjoy being in the market. Feels like home.”
Somali vendor Hibo Egeh joined the market last May.
“I make some different hot sauces. Some of them are from my country flavors and background. And the rest is something that I created for my family.”
The new vendors have attracted new buyers.
Ryan Rapazza purchased a Hibo hot sauce. “In addition to wanting to buy it because it's an absolute excellent hot sauce, we come here to support local farmers and local vendors from the immigrant community," he said.
The U.S. government has also contributed to the growth of farmers markets through a grant program. Since 2006, the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) has aimed “to increase domestic consumption of, and access to, locally and regionally produced agricultural products, and to develop new market opportunities for farm and ranch operations serving local markets.”
Funding for the program has not been included in the 2019 budget, which may test Americans’ enthusiasm for farmers markets.