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Five years old and all grown up


The U of M Farmers Market: Green from the ground up

By Susan Wiese

Farmers Market 2009
photos by Patrick O'Leary

July 8, 2009

When the University of Minnesota's Farmers Market launched in 2005, its success wasn't guaranteed. But as it opens on July 8 for its fifth season along Church Street on the east bank of the Twin Cities campus, it seems its longevity may be perennial. Every Wednesday through October 7, from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., rain or shine, visitors can again this year buy locally grown berries, produce, fresh flowers, and more.

Budding beginnings

“When we launched the University of Minnesota Farmers Market in 2005, there really was no way to know if anyone would show up on opening day,” says Jill Thielen, coordinator for the farmers market and the Wellness Program. In developing the market, Thielen turned to Larry Lev to devise a measurement tool to evaluate buying patterns and gauge customer satisfaction. Lev, an extension economist with the Oregon State University Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, had tracked the failures and successes of farmers markets in Oregon for seven years. His research showed that "for every two markets that opened, one market closed after a single year of operation."

"It’s not a slam dunk,” Lev reports in Farmers' Markets Today. "You can’t just decide you’re going to start a market and assume it’s going to be successful."

In full bloom
Lev's research also indicated that established markets—those more than four years old--almost never failed. "For us, this season represents a mini-milestone," says Thielen. And while the market isn't moving anywhere, it's most definitely growing. "As we open for our fifth year, we have expanded from 14 original vendors to 18 sellers," says Thielen. And with more vendors have come more colorful, crunchy, succulent, and downright sticky offerings, including fresh berries, melons, plums, apples, and honey and maple syrup. What's more, the farmers market isn't just about fresh food. The Wellness Program-sponsored event has formed partnerships with the Rec Center, UDS, Campus Club, Boynton Health Service, and Northrop to bring added value and health-related activities to visitors and the market's main clientele--U employees.

And though it's not always the color you want to see in your vegetables (young, picky eaters often don't particularly care for green), each year the Farmers Market is becoming noticeably more green.

"From the paper our promotional materials are printed on to an onsite composting demo by the UDS Green Team to offering organic produce, the U's market is a green business," says Thielen. This year, visitors are being asked to reuse or recycle tote bags they already own.

The rise of the locavore
Farmers Market 2009 (2)Hungry yet?

The development and success of the farmers market on the East Bank (and on the Duluth and St. Paul campuses as well) parallels a measureable shift in taste. Increasingly faculty, staff, and students, whether dining on campus or preparing meals for themselves, are seeking out foods to eat that are grown or sourced close to home. 

"People care where their food comes from," says Jeff Nistler, a grower from Maple Plain, Minnesota, who sells sweet corn, watermelon, squash, and honey at the farmers market. The owner of Nistler Farms says the shoppers he serves at the U’s market "would rather buy locally grown fruits and veggies than organic produce that comes all the way from California."

"In the time I've been at the U's market, I have developed some 'real regulars,' says Nistler. Customers are eager to know more about his operations and learn from his  experience as they begin to tackle their own gardens. "It's a nice connection that works both ways because the seller can build a relationship with buyers that is based on more than a financial transaction," he says.

The relationship helps also saves fuel, protects the environment, and supports the regional economy. Vendors who sell berries or veggies at the U's market are located within a two-hour drive of the Twin Cities. In comparison, a forkful of food in the average American meal can travel an average of 1,500 miles and contain ingredients from five countries.

Market partners too have climbed on the "green and locally grown" wagon. In response to customer demand, University Dining Services (UDS) is increasingly sourcing local foods for its summertime grill at the market. The UDS menu this season features locally grown items for people who want to make healthier food choices. Also at the market, the University's Campus Club will invite visitors to taste free organic mint iced tea--mint grown just 4.2 miles away on the U’s student organic farm, Cornercopia, located on the St. Paul campus. And during the summer, the Campus Club in Coffman Union is open to everyone (no membership fee required) who wants to experience eating fresh, nutritious food that has been locally grown.

Campus Club executive chef Beth Jones says as early as March she was able to purchase Minnesota-grown spinach for her diners. "Buying locally grown food is a great way to stretch your food dollars," she insists. "You can find locally grown items at a farmers market, such as shallots and fresh, savory herbs, and they are much more economically priced."

Fertile ground
Now that the farmers market on the East Bank has put down roots and is off the ground for the summer, people within the University community are encouraged to vote with their feet and their food dollars to taste locally grown foods. On any given Wednesday, Thielen says, "we know that over 1,800 visitors purchase something at our market." She’d like to see attendance climb this summer. In addition to buying fresh, flavorful food, during a walk down Church Street market-goers can also get fitness tips, try a chair massage, or amble over to the Northrop Mall to listen to a free outdoor concert at lunchtime. The sights and sounds, the color, the character, and the conversations of an open-air market are ripe and ready for picking again this season.



Get hungry to get healthy at the Farmers Market!

For a market near you, see these locations:

Duluth campus

Twin Cities campus

St. Paul

Morris campus

your own neighborhood


Additional links:

Local foods U experts

Nutrition advice

Student organic farm


Why buy local?