The Rochester, MN Farmers Market was voted “Best in the State” last year in a poll by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. That’s impressive, as both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have numerous bustling farmers markets, as do many other Minnesota locations.
David Kotsonas, market manager, speculated about the reasons for the Rochester market’s success. “The market is well-established. It’s in its 29th year. We started the first market with four vendors, and a couple of those vendors are still here. The growers here are friendly, and open about their growing methods. They work at building relationships with their customers, and those relationships keep folks coming back week after week.
“We get a little turnover with growers, but mostly the same ones return every year. Our freshness is also a selling point. The produce sold on Saturday morning is picked on Friday. Customers also have the assurance that the produce is local, and is either certified organic or sustainably grown.”
For the Rochester Farmers Market, local means the produce is grown, or the meat is raised, within a 50 mile radius of Rochester.
Kotsonas also does farm inspections to be sure whatever is sold at the market is grown by the vendors on their own land.
“I look at copies of the farm’s seed orders, and they walk me through their fields to see what’s growing. The people are so proud and happy with what they’re doing that it’s more like a friendly visit. There’s no animosity about the inspections.”
One reason the market has so many vendors is that some growers are part-time. One spouse may have a job away from the farm, while the other spouse and perhaps the children work in the fields. A few of the growers have only one or two acres. Those with small acreages farm very intensively, succession planting another crop as soon as the previous one is harvested.
“More and more, our growers are investing in heated hoop houses to extend their growing season. Rochester market doesn’t restrict what meats or produce items a grower can sell. We let natural competition provide for innovation,” explained Kotsonas.
If there are too many vendors growing kohlrabi or carrots, for example, some will start looking for something different to grow. One stand began specializing in baby vegetables, with baby zucchini and patty pan squash, microgreens, baby okra, baby beets and many others. Their tiny vegetables have become popular items, and have drawn customers to their stand for other produce.
The winter market
Rochester Farmers Market also has something a lot of markets in other areas would like to set up: a winter market, started about 10 years ago.
Kotsonas has this advice for other would-be winter markets: “One thing you need for a successful winter market is an affordable building that vendors can drive into,” — at least in Minnesota.
According to Minnesota law, meat has to be kept under mechanical refrigeration, so the meat vendors need to have their trucks right in the building. “There are no other buildings in Rochester, besides the one we’re in, that would work for the winter market.”
Second, you need growers who are knowledgeable and grow roots and other vegetables specifically for their long-term storage properties. Over the years, several Rochester market growers have become very knowledgeable about growing and storing for the long term over the winter months.
These growers schedule their plantings of the following specifically for winter storage: beets, carrots, parsnips, watermelon radishes, celeriac, storage varieties of cabbage, black radishes, daikon, storage onions, shallots, garlic and more, and can have them available for many weeks.
Others offer their specialty salsas, soups and other local vegetables, as well as jellies and preserves, for winter sales. A few dried items, like eggplant medallions, dried hot peppers, dried specialty mushrooms and popcorn also interest customers during the winter months.
Some vendors with heated greenhouses bring in floral arrangements, wreaths and poinsettias between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the (organic) meat vendors bring product to sell every week during the winter market, including organic buffalo and lamb. Vendors sell organic eggs. Some greenhouses provide fresh greens all winter.
Charge per booth for the summer market (subject to change) is $256 for the season. Many vendors pay for more than one booth space. If a vendor is coming in just for a day, the charge is $35, with a cap of $300 for the season.
Vendors who start with the market at the beginning of May are also allowed to sell at any of the satellite markets at no extra cost. Satellite markets, two days a week this year, include sales of crafts and home-made furniture as well as produce and meats, but the wood for the furniture and the materials for the crafts must come from the vendor’s own farm.
The winter market is more expensive for vendors because of the cost of the building. The market is open 13 or 14 Saturdays over the winter, roughly every other week. A stall costs about $300 for the winter.