Welcome To Our Blog 2020!
With COVID keeping many of us inside for months, we are ready to get out! We are establishing this blog to share stories of farmers' markets across the state of Minnesota. Our intent is to regularly provide posts highlighting stories we think you will find interesting. Our interns and staff are traveling the state to showcase our amazing farmers' markets, producers, and customers. Cheers to Minnesota Markets in 2020!
Up North by Sarah and Madison Hilligoss
Hi all, it’s Sarah. Today I’m writing about Madison’s and my first official Farmers’ Market visit as MFMA interns.
My sister Madison and I drive Up North every summer to stay in the Boundary Waters. Our family rents a remote cabin on Triangle Lake that is only accessible by canoe. I love the stillness of the lakes and the loons that pop up next to our canoes as we glide through the water. I love how the lack of light pollution seems to unlock the night sky, showing us stars that I couldn’t have imagined seeing at my home in Eden Prairie, let alone in New York City where I go to school. I also love that we drive through Ely, stopping year after year at Organic Roots, at Zups, and at Piragis.
This year, my sister and I also stopped at Ely’s Farmers' Market. Driving up to the park where it was held, Madison and I were a little skeptical and very nervous. This was our first farmers’ market stop as MFMA interns, and our previous exposure to farmers’ markets were city markets in Minneapolis. A portion of the park was taped off, enveloping twelve tents spaced far away from each other like little islands that the market goers moved through. From our car, we saw vendors selling very homemade-looking jams, cookies, and popcorn balls in sweltering heat. We didn’t see a single produce tent among the art, the wooden cooking utensils, and the jewelry. I hadn’t known what to expect, but this wasn’t it. So we put on brave smiles, even though they were hidden behind our masks, and we entered the taped off rectangle.
We stopped first at a woman’s art table. She looked a few years older than me and she smiled when we approached. She sold small intricate drawings of birds and fish; each is hand painted, she later told me. She introduced herself as Abbey, and this is her hobby. She’s otherwise an art teacher at Vermillion Community College. When we told her our roles at MFMA, she smiled again and congratulated us for taking initiative. She seemed impressed with our mission, though we have hardly done anything impressive yet. I was glad we talked to her first. She affirmed what had been a vague concept of an internship into a moment in which we both shared a bit about ourselves, and in doing so, made a connection, which felt really special at that point. In my many months of self-isolation, I have begun to crave human interaction. So, a job going to farmers’ markets might fill a bit of that emptiness I’ve been feeling. When I asked Abbey why she liked to sell at markets, she said it was the people. Talking to people about what you do and what you love has become a luxury in the time of coronavirus.
We soon discovered that Abbey’s enthusiastic spirit permeated the hot early-summer air. As I introduced myself to Linnea, a wooden utensil and homemade reusable bag vendor, she immediately reached for a wooden wand looking thing and handed it to me. “This is an Ely Twiddle,” she told me. She thrust a piece of paper into my hands saying, “and this is it’s story. It took me nearly four months to write it.” The utensil in my hand was smooth and two toned wood, about as thin as my pinky finger and as long as my forearm, with a flattened rectangle at the end. As I examined it, she explained that “as each cook twiddles in the kitchen in their own way, so to each Twiddle is different.” She leaned over and told me that the NOTE at the bottom of the page was added by her daughter, a young girl sitting next to Leonna on a blanket, selling pastel, shell-shaped soaps that I could smell even through my mask. The NOTE read : “This Story is NOT True.” Linnea’s eyes crinkled into a smile, and as I thanked her and turned away to leave, she called out, “now write a story about the Twiddle!”
We meandered over to a tent covering a couple selling syrups and jams. The man wore a baseball cap and a shirt that said “I’D TAP THAT” in big yellow letters above a maple leaf. He introduced himself as Bill and asked, “have you ever tried birch syrup?” Madison and I next experienced a taste test of six different types of syrup, each with their own mouth watering, salivation inducing notes. This was accompanied by a detailed explanation of the tapping and heating process, the ratios, and the pitfalls of working with birch. When we asked Bill how he felt that Covid-19 had impacted the market, Mary, his wife, popped in and said, “we disagree on this, but I can tell you what I think afterwards.” He rested his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and explained that because of the lack of international travel to the Boundary Waters, they don’t see some of their most interesting and faithful customers. People come from Australia, Austria, and the UK to visit the Boundary Waters, but they stay in contact with Bill to see if there’s any way he can send his syrup halfway across the world when they leave. The new restrictions also “turn off” some customers from coming to the markets. When we asked Mary what she thought, she answered that “people are ready to get out and support local businesses.” She feels as though, in retaliation to Covid-19, people in Ely have gone out of their ways to support the local businesses around them, and the people who own these businesses.
Covid-19 and global pandemics are scary and world altering for many reasons, but I was struck by how this virus has affected even the most remote corners of my world. Ely, a town that I think of as unchanging, has changed dramatically, and its residents have as well. Perhaps this is due to my privilege of being a tourist and my expectation for the places I visit to remain the same just for me. But because of this change, I, and many others at this market, are cherishing the conversations we have and connections we make. These human interactions make up the very purpose of a farmers’ market, from what I’ve seen. Perhaps I’ve gotten too deep here, but I am so happy to have visited Ely’s market.
Saying goodbye for now, ~Sarah
It’s Madison, Sarah’s younger sister--the other intern who runs the Instagram (give us a follow @mfmaorg!). If you’ve read Sarah’s post this far, you’ll have heard all about our family trip to the BWCA and the Ely Market by now… you’ll probably also have heard her deep thinking and beautiful writing.
I’ll admit, as a somewhat regular shopper of the Minneapolis city markets and NYC markets, I’m used to seeing what feels like 75 tents lined up on busy streets with vendors selling anything from pizza, soaps, art, and kombucha to huge bundles of leafy greens and some vegetables I can’t name. So, when we drove up to the Ely market, I realized my expectation was very much formed out of my limited city experience... I was kind of nervous upon entry. But, like most new things in life, I ended up really enjoying the experience even though it looked and felt different than I thought it would. Speaking with a veteran about the wild rice he picks out of his canoe, the man who sells countless flavors of infused syrups (including a northern birch), and a woman who makes wood crafts with her sister and daughter, truly felt like “Ely” to me, as cliché as it sounds; it was small, natural, personal, and the “up north” vibe I didn’t know I was missing. I’m quickly learning that MN farmers’ markets are deeply based in community, so no two markets are alike, and each market offers something unique to that community.
At the end of our trip on Thursday, June 18th, on the way back to the twin cities, Sarah and I (and our little brother, Anthony, and dog, Jules) headed to the Virginia Market Square. Lucky for us, it was opening day at the Virginia Market! And a successful opening day it was. Driving up to the market, we saw cars lined up for a few blocks and many signs pointing us to the market on the way in. The market was situated in a park near Silver Lake that looked out onto the water where a huge loon statue floated, marking the city with its familiar shape. It was beautiful. For the amount of people flocking to the market, I was surprised to see only a handful of tents. I’m assuming this has to do with COVID-19, the new location of the market, and the fact that part of their market is inside.
As we walked across the grass to where the vendors were selling, we were greeted by some kind volunteers who were encouraging us to use a warm hand washing station they had set up, pointing us in the direction of a few popular vendors, and offering handmade masks to those who had not come prepared. We were also greeted with informational signs that detailed their use of the SNAP-EBT program, their pandemic policies, and where shoppers could put used masks.
The first vendor I spoke with was selling some beautiful produce from Bear River Farm. Missy spoke about her produce, her proud membership of the MN Farmers Union, and about how COVID-19 has challenged her farming and her life in ways that have felt inspiring. She told my sister and I about how the pandemic has unexpectedly forced her to reconsider old practices and to constantly be working to keep herself and her customers safe. This interaction reminded me of how these vendors simply are humans with lives, goals, and interests; unlike your grocery store or co-op visit, when you go to a market and hear people like Missy speak about the work that went into the food they’re selling, their process, and their mindset, it makes you shop, consume, and eat much more mindfully. Their food doesn’t magically appear on your plate, and it shows. Your local vendors, like Missy, have stories, passions, and hearts that you can’t find shopping at a large food corporation.
After visiting a few more vendors and browsing the indoor space at Virginia Market Square, we spoke with Calli from Hometown Homestead. She is a first-time vendor at this market, and greeted us with the biggest smile and wave (under her mask of course). Her stand was full of the cutest, colorful, crocheted items: little hats, bags, scarves, infant toys, as well as a few jams and some herbs. She exuded happiness and light and seemed so eager and grateful to be selling at this market (which apparently had one of the greatest customer turnouts it’s had!). Hearing her story made me think a lot about how during the pandemic, many people at home have come face-to-face with the hobbies that truly make them the happiest--the things they turn to and become obsessed with when they’re at a low. For my sister, Sarah, it’s making sourdough bread. For others, it’s making art, making music, or gardening. For Calli, it’s crocheting. She’s turned her passion into a business and is supplying the people of Virginia with the sweetest goods. Seeing vendors so passionate about what they do is part of the magic of a local market. It was special to be there on the opening day. As a theater performer myself, I felt like I could identify the butterflies and excitement of the “opening day” energy.
Walking away from Virginia was much like walking away from Ely; I felt like I had a little glimpse (and a taste!) into a northern Minnesotan city that I otherwise would not have known much about. Although both Virginia and Ely didn’t look or feel like the city markets I frequent, they were tasty, interesting, friendly, beautiful, and very representative of their communities.
For a glimpse into the Virginia opening day, check out the video I made on our Instagram!
Until next time, ~Madison