Appetites: Twin Cities home to numerous vibrant farmers markets

Vendors sell vegetables at the Minneapolis Farmers Market on Lyndale Avenue on Oct, 1, 2011.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

It's time to talk farmers markets with Beth Dooley here on Appetites. She is the author of "Minnesota's Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook."

Tom Crann: I was actually surprised to learn that we have the oldest farmers market, retail market, in continuous operation right here in St. Paul.

Beth Dooley: That's exactly right, and I was astounded when I found out how visionary the founders of St. Paul really were because they wrote a market into the founding documents for the city. They recognized the importance of a farmers market to a community.

Tom Crann: In St. Paul, it goes back to 1852. Minneapolis is not far behind, is it?

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Beth Dooley: They're not far behind, but theirs was a wholesale market, not open to retail customers. That's why we see such a difference between the two markets.


Asparagus, Cheddar and Potato Fritatta
Meringue Shell

Tom Crann: In the Twin Cities, we have more farmers markets. Is there a tipping point? Is there a danger of too many?

Beth Dooley: That's the big discussion in the farmers market industry, if you want to call it that. Is when are too many markets "too many markets," or is this good for the farmers? I think what we'll see happening, is the farmers' markets beginning to work together so they can come up with a schedule that works for everyone. We may end up like some of the cities in Europe where you could shop every single day at a farmers market but in a different location.

Tom Crann: Tell us about the farmers market scene outside the Twin Cities. It's not like city dwellers have discovered this -- this has been going on outside the Twin Cities for a long time. But how's that changing?

Beth Dooley: It's great. Because a lot of the really good, small specialized farmers are way out of the Twin Cities area, and so now that there are really good markets in places like Winona and up past Duluth and Grand Marais, the growers that are growing small amounts of food, but really interesting food are able to find a market for them.

We are seeing fresh ginger coming out of Winona, for instance, which is a real surprise. We're seeing really interesting specialty apples coming out of that northern tier that don't grow anyplace else. It's pretty exciting.

Tom Crann: Give me an example of something that's just so much better, or just something unique at farmers' markets than even in the fancier grocery stores or the co-ops?

Beth Dooley: Yeah, can you find anything better than a really, really good tomato?

St. Paul Farmers Market
Produce at the downtown St. Paul Farmers Market on Sept., 1, 2012. St. Paul Farmers Market is the oldest farmers retail market in continuous operation.
MPR photo/Julie Siple

Tom Crann: No, not much.

Beth Dooley: You really can't. Or corn that was picked that day. I mean there are some foods that are so good when they're really, really fresh.

Tom Crann: And it won't be long now -- asparagus. One of the first things, right? Lettuces?

Beth Dooley: Yes. We'll see lettuces and asparagus. We'll see morel mushrooms. Fiddlehead ferns, which people are always afraid of but they're so good, they're actually "poor man's asparagus," and they come up before asparagus. Those are delicious. We'll see rhubarb. I mean, it's so fun to work with rhubarb again.

Tom Crann: A lot of people think of the farmers' markets, especially in summer time, for fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. But what about meat? Give us some tips on what to look for if you're looking for meat.

Beth Dooley: What I really love about the markets is that all of the meat that you find there is grass-fed, sustainably raised, small animals and a lot of heritage breeds that you won't find in the supermarket. You know when you go to get pork from someone like Bar Five Pork and Poultry for instance, or if you get Tollefson's sausages, that those are all responsibly raised and that their flavors are wonderful. Oftentimes, I find the meat, especially the pork, surprisingly tender and just delicious. You can also find duck, which is difficult to find in the grocery store; different cuts of lamb; goat sometimes, which is difficult to get a hold of.

There's a whole array of different meats, as well as very fresh fish.

Tom Crann: How practical are farmers' markets for families on a budget, because sometimes it's hard to beat the prices in the big supermarkets?

Beth Dooley: It is sometimes hard to beat the prices in the supermarkets. But I find when you buy what you really need and you pay attention to flavor and freshness, the little bit of difference in the price is made up for by the quality of the food and by the fact that you're not throwing a lot of things away.

Because when you buy things at the farmers market, they are really, really fresh. A head of lettuce that might only last three or four days from the supermarket is not good value, whereas the head of lettuce from the farmers' market might last even two weeks in the refrigerator, is a really good deal. The prices really aren't that much more expensive, by any means, and what we often pay too much for are processed foods and convenience foods. For a little bit of effort at the farmers' market, you get great value.

Tom Crann: What's your absolute favorite time of year for the farmers markets?

Beth Dooley: Of course, I love harvest weekend. Who doesn't? But it's almost overwhelming. You have to be prepared to take several loads to the car. I love the early markets because I think we're so hungry right now. We're just so hungry for things that are green and fresh and snappy and refreshing. And you walk into the market and all of sudden you realize it is spring, and things are coming up again. It's very hopeful, I think.

Tom Crann: Beth Dooley is the author of "Minnesota's Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook." The book will launch Saturday, May 11, with events all day at the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis.