It’s peak summer, and there should be stalls of colorful produce lining the farmers’ markets of the southwest metro.
Instead, in late June and early July, there were just two farmers selling produce at both the Minnetonka and Excelsior markets. One hour into the Excelsior Farmers’ Market on July 2, Dan Moe had already sold out of peas, broccoli and strawberries.
“There are a lot of farmers who are supposed to be here whose fields were frozen,” Moe said, pointing out several empty spaces in the street. Moe is a certified organic farmer who’s on the board that runs the Excelsior Farmers’ Market. “It’s because of the cold frozen May we had,” he added.
Even at the Bloomington Farmers’ Market, where a dozen produce stalls were selling heaps of root vegetables and leafy greens on July 6, shoppers wanted to know where the usual tomatoes, cucumbers and corn were.
“They’re asking, ‘Why is everything so late this year?’” said Mai Lor, who sells her family’s produce grown on a farm near Rochester. “I think it’s due to the rain.”
“This spring it seemed like we had a low pressure drop stuck out west,” meteorologist Chris O’Brien of the National Weather Service in Chanhassen confirmed. “The center of the country kept getting rain after rain.”
The cold, heavy rains in April and May, which flooded roads and fields across the state, are still causing trouble for farmers. The resulting soggy fields set many Minnesota farmers back in their planting by several weeks, said Kathy Zeman, the executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association (MFMA). It’s not unusual, but it’s still an inconvenience.
“Every five to six years, we get a late, cold spring,” Zeman said. “Anything that needed that extra bit of heat or sunlight” isn’t doing well, she added.
If shoppers have seen ripe tomatoes, bell peppers or summer squashes at their local markets already, it’s likely produce that was grown out of state, according to Moe. “People don’t understand we’re growing in Minnesota,” he said.
The fields are behind schedule, Jeff Filipek agreed. He’s the president of the Southwest Chamber of Commerce, which runs the Chaska Farmers’ Market.
“It’s a slow start, there’s no question about it,” Filipek said.
Victoria Hoffman, who coordinates the Bloomington market, and Filipek both said attendance has been strong throughout the summer despite the crop delay. And vegetable lovers shouldn’t despair: Every farmer that spoke to Eden Prairie News said local tomatoes, cucumbers and corn will be at farmers’ markets in the next two or three weeks. In the meantime, the cooler weather has been great for leafy greens and strawberries, Zeman said.
Climate models predict the wet weather patterns this spring will become more common, Zeman added. The MFMA is already reacting to the wet spring and climate forecast by hosting a webinar for farmers from two University of Minnesota extension experts who explain how to compensate for the weather by planting more in hoop houses and selecting crops that will thrive in wetter conditions.
“We’re progressively getting rainier and rainier,” Zeman said. Farmers will need to adapt to the new conditions, but “it’s not catastrophic,” she added.
While cucumbers have been late, the cucumber beetle has made an early appearance this year, Zeman said, and she recommended that farmers put up netting to protect their plants sooner rather than later.
‘Cottage foods’ thriving
The wet spring has had no effect on many stalls at local markets who trade in cottage, or homemade, foods. A state cottage food law that went into effect in 2015 allows Minnesotans to make and sell food products with just a training module under their belt − no license required. It’s the law that allowed Melinda Norman to create the Chanhassen-based Burnt Sugar and sell her meringues and caramels at the Excelsior market.
“It’s really great and it’s really frustrating at the same time,” Norman said of the law.
The law requires that any food sold without a license be “non-potentially hazardous” and limits producers to $18,000 in sales annually − after that, they’d need a license to sell more. The law defines “non-potentially hazardous” as foods that are dry or acidic, which helps prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the food.
“There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do − I can’t use fresh dairy − and I understand why that’s the case,” Norman said. She was the pastry chef at the Old Log Theatre’s Cast and Crew restaurant before starting Burnt Sugar earlier this year. While she’s received extensive food safety training, others who produce homemade foods might not have that knowledge.
The markets are a place for entrepreneurs to plant the seeds of a larger business, too, like TeaQuinox kombucha. Owners Jennifer and Nathan Martine made their first appearance at the Minnetonka market this summer and already have repeat customers, they said. The couple is using the market to test and refine their products before opening a store later this year, Jennifer Martine said.
“We’d love to expand and have a store front, but we figured because it’s so new, it’s best to start small,” she said.
Besides prepared cottage foods, there’s plenty of other local products at farmers’ markets. Midwest Mushrooms owner Peter Ralston slings locally-grown gourmet mushrooms at three local markets, including Excelsior; LiBaan Warsame’s Excelsior stall sells Somali chai; Dale Plekkenpol’s fresh eggs can be found in Chaska; and Jeanne Athey’s organic, Clearwater-based Homeplace Beef has been a five-year staple of the Minnetonka market. All of them appreciate the markets not just for their sales, but for the opportunity to meet and educate the people buying their products.
“The thing that I think people are attracted to in going to farmers’ markets is getting to meet the farmer face-to-face,” said Karen Lanthier, who coordinates membership at local farming resource Minnesota Grown.
Even when buying local means shoppers can’t get the tomatoes they want, that up-close agricultural connection is part of what has driven the growth and popularity of farmers’ markets in the state, from 43 to 190 in just a few decades, Lanthier said.