The farmers’ fight

A&E presents the highs and lows of the Twin Cities’ most prominent farmer’s markets.

Samuel Linder

 

The popularity of urban farmers’ markets has skyrocketed recently with the burgeoning trend in local foods. What was once a fringe outlet for nearby growers is now many Minnesotans’ primary produce supplier during the summer months — people everywhere are discovering the unrivaled joy of a truly fresh tomato.

The Twin Cities’ metro area is peppered with these weekend bazaars, but standing at the two poles of our little world are the biggest and best: the primary downtown markets.

This weekend was the grand opening of the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtown farmer’s markets, and A&E wandered through the stalls to get a feel for their pros and cons. Here is the rundown:

Downtown Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, 312 E. Lyndale Ave.

The main Minneapolis Farmer’s Market is tucked away in the Northwest corner of downtown, a land of freeway overpasses and abandoned-looking warehouses. The stalls of vendors stretch out under dark metal roofs, and the contrast between bright veggies and dull concrete is striking.

The Minneapolis market is filled to bursting with items of every shape and variety, from smoked trout to lace underwear. We recommend the mesquite-smoked fillet and leopard print thong, respectively.

Besides fish and panties, there are also stalls for jewelry, popcorn, cheese and even faux-designer sunglasses — besides the vegetables, of course. Indeed, one thing that sets this market apart is the insane variety of “farmers’” offerings (I didn’t know you could grow fake Ray-Bans in the harsh Minnesota climate), which lend it a sort of carnival atmosphere.

The men and women tending the stalls occasionally play into this circus vibe as well. Ask the kettle corn master to make a batch, and he will don his leather gauntlets and lava-proof welding mask, solemnly requesting that you keep your distance “once the kernels start to fly hot.”

The knife vendor bangs his handles on the table to show how strong they are, and the pickle guy waxes poetic about the intricacies of vinegar. Even the vegetable stands are a little comic, since every row or two “licensed resellers” pack their tables with Dole mangos and Chiquita bananas — not exactly local produce.

The prices here for actual local produce are excellent, much lower by quality than you would find at a grocery store and comparable to those in St. Paul.

The Minneapolis market certainly has some good food at good prices, but the heart of this place lies in the experience of an old-fashioned outdoor fête.

Downtown St. Paul Farmer’s Market, 290 Fifth St. E.

Easily accessible (after a little walking) via the 3 through Como or the 16 or 50 down University, the St. Paul market stands in an eerily similar context to its Minneapolis cousin. Corrugated roofs cover concrete stalls surrounded by a sprinkling of urban decay, yet all of this drab depression cannot muzzle the colors shouting inside.

In content, however, the two markets could not be more different. There are no trinket stands here, only food brought fresh from the farm. The selection isn’t incredible this first weekend, but that is a testament in some ways to the market’s legitimacy — there hasn’t been much time to grow crops yet this season. Still, the spring onions and spinach look crisp and plump in their baskets, the little herb gardens thick and hale.

One of the main draws of this market is the specialty items available, the bison meat and cave-aged cheese and cheddarwurst that would be hard to find anywhere else. Catering as it does to a more middle-aged St. Paul set, this market brings in some of the finest craft food the area has to offer.

Again, the prices here are better than a store, thanks to a reduced need for middlemen and markups.

The St. Paul Farmer’s Market is smaller and quieter than its Minneapolis counterpart, a fair differentiation given the nature of the two cities. If you want a fun street market filled with young folk and the occasional local food stand, then Minneapolis is the way to go. If you are looking for uncompromisingly excellent produce and rare foodie treats, on the other hand, then the trip to St. Paul may  be well worth it. Either way, it sure beats another walk down the aisles at Rainbow!