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They may not look it, but farmers markets are struggling in Minneapolis

Neighborhood farmers’ markets, with musicians strumming guitars and shoppers casually sniffing homemade soaps, may seem like a low-budget affair.

But low-budget doesn’t mean no-budget, and many of Minneapolis’s most beloved neighborhood farmers’ markets are at risk of closing — or have already closed — as the financial donations, needed to keep them running, dwindle.

“We should be done (the fundraiser) by now. We’re not even halfway there,” Northeast Farmer’s Market manager Sarah Knoss said earlier this month.

Jangly blues music, red stalks of rhubarb and parents pushing buggies beat the financial pressure of the market, which pops up every Saturday morning in the parking lot of Saint-Boniface Church near University Avenue NE and 7th Street.

Northeast Farmer’s Market is faltering, but isn’t the only one struggling with declining donations. There will be fewer markets this year in Minneapolis and surrounding communities. Some, like the Nokomis market, were unable to raise the funds needed to reopen.

Usually, in mid-May, the Northeast market raised $25,000. This year, they have not yet counted half of that amount.

“When the target isn’t that high, and we can’t even reach it, it’s really alarming,” said Julie Wong, North East Market board member and owner of a dried salmon business.

Organizers cite a myriad of causes. The market’s 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status does not allow donors to rescind donations. And the end of federal stimulus checks has left some small businesses in catch-up mode.

Almost everyone points to where society is at with the pandemic.

“I think there’s been a ‘bulletman’ attitude throughout the pandemic that has people saying, like, ‘Yeah, farmers’ markets are important,'” Ryan Pesch said, extension educator at the University of Minnesota in Otter Tail County. “Now there is an exit from the pandemic for everyone. Things are a little wonky right now.”

For some long-time Northeast Farmers Market sponsors, declining donations have motivated them to increase donations. Stinson Wine, Beer, and Spirits is a longtime sponsor that has experienced a “different side” of the pandemic than on-site restaurants, owner Daniel Mays said.

“We were very busy,” Mays said. “So we made it a point to build our support because we know there are places that couldn’t give as much.”

But organizers don’t expect a single company to make up for the drop in support.

Neighborhood Roots is a nonprofit organization that runs three small farmers’ markets across Minneapolis. Erin Swenson-Klatt, vice chair of the board, says her organization raised $50,000 in corporate sponsorships in 2018. Last year, they only raised $10,000.

“Many small businesses have been hit very hard by the pandemic and have had to pull out,” Swenson-Klatt said.

Last year, Neighborhood Roots downsized and closed the Nokomis market. They hope to reopen in 2023. Surprisingly, according to many organizers, the challenge of funding comes after two record years for some sellers.

Youri Jelves and his wife, Ivette, run Atacama Catering in the Northeast Market, selling spicy empanadas and pastries influenced by the flavors of Chile. During the pandemic, Yuri said, business was “super good”.

Many sellers are optimistic, even in soggy growing conditions.

“We are just starting to grow our plants,” said Kristy Yang, who translates into Hmong for her mother, Shelley. At the height of the season, their stand will feature a colorful array of beets, carrots, scallions, cilantro, cucumbers and tomatoes from their farm near Rosemount. “Our grandmother has been here for 10 years, and she kind of dragged us in.”

In the driveway, under a red sign that reads “Foley Farms,” ​​Tania Kostenko, a Ukrainian immigrant, stands proudly in front of a row of bunched asparagus.

“This is just the beginning,” Kostenko said, naming the fruits and vegetables she’ll be picking up soon: raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, sweet corn and cantaloupe. “It’s going to be like four tables.”

Minnesota has seen a boom in the number of farmers selling directly to customers, now numbering 3,500 farms, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

Ten years ago, at the Northeast market, you could park cars in the Saint-Boniface parking lot. Now, with over 100 vendors, the event draws up to 2,000 people to the neighborhood – and cars have to park on the street.

Buyer behavior has also changed since the early stages of the pandemic, when shoppers bought their wares and left quickly.

“Now there’s going to be more browsing, hanging out, just sort of being here,” Knoss said.

Vendors pay fees for market maintenance, electricity and a storage shed. But there are also invisible costs in the market, such as the payment of nurses and musicians. Rental of the church car park. Advertisement. Knoss’ own salary.

On the morning of Saturday May 14, the winds shattered a tent.

“This tent is $200,” Knoss said.

Most market promoters who spoke with the Star Tribune believe the city’s largest farmers’ market – like Mill City Farmers Market – will continue to thrive.

Even Martha Archer, executive director of Mill City Farmers Market, however, says the market has seen a recent drop in donations from major sponsors.

“We’ve stayed open during the pandemic. So people are seeing money changing hands,” Archer said. “There are so many things that need to be funded in this town.”

As the market’s big eyes pull back from food programming, some neighborhood markets are in danger of closing.

Tracy Roy and Ifrah Esse sitting on a bench near a glass statuette of the Virgin Mary, eating Indian food. Roy had a habanera pepper plant in a grocery bag at her feet.

“I’ve been to the other farmers’ markets, like the big one near Highway 94,” Esse said. “But I like the one that’s a bit smaller because you can see everyone and relax a bit more.”

Organizers believe that if more people understood the money needed to run neighborhood markets, they could donate.

“All farmers’ markets are in a precarious position right now compared to three years ago,” Swenson-Klatt said. “Even if you can’t see it.”

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