The farmers market land rush: Paris, or peril?

When Fulton neighbors approached Kingfield about starting a second market two years ago, most of our farmers were intrigued. One, however, was sour. She’d started at a big urban market that then opened several satellites.

“It’s great for shoppers, but people don’t think about farmers,” she told me. “If the customers get split among markets, you make less money where you’re at — or you work at more markets and make less for your time.”

That knocked me back a bit. I’m an American, hard-wired for growth. I see the delight our little nonprofit brought to one neighborhood and wanted to share it with as many as possible. Organizationally, we might even realize economies of scale that lighten volunteer loads.

But bringing communities together is only part of our mission; the other is supporting small farmers who grow healthful food in a way that’s good for the planet.

In the end, we decided since Fulton was a lake and 3-mile-drive from Kingfield, a second market would expand the pie, not shrink the slices. That’s what happened: Kingfield attendance went up, and Fulton posted first-year numbers that were 90 percent that. We also created a second half-time job!

But in America, you only get so long to enjoy best-laid plans. In a single off-season month, a new Linden Hills market announced its debut a mile from Fulton and on the same day as Kingfield … then a business asked us to start a market 2 miles from Fulton … then a neighborhood group requested the same 2 miles from Kingfield.

I’m writing this because I want the community to be a part of the conversation we’re having as an organization. Are these new markets inevitable — and if so, do we best serve our farmers and communities by coordinating the ones who want our help? Or is organizational expansion its own madness, risking volunteer and farmer happiness?

I certainly don’t blame neighborhoods — and increasingly, businesses — for wanting what Kingfield and Fulton have. It was a pleasure to serve our first SNAP (food support) cardholders in May, matching weekly purchases up to $5 dollar-for-dollar. I was verklempt when Southwest High student Annie Olson stopped by Fulton to read to kids. And our new “ATM” and on-site Fulton bathroom were greeted with enthusiastic relief!

I can tell you from our application process that there are still more good vendors than spaces. But — and this is the enormous but — none of us know what creative destruction may come from markets ever-closer together.

Will Southwest Minneapolis come to resemble Paris, with thriving farmers markets on every day and seemingly every corner? Or will market supply push beyond demand, with residents partying while farmers burn?

As we all pursue the right thing, please consider making farmers markets a bigger (or at least more regular) part of your lives. It’s a joy to connect wonderful neighbors and fantastic farmers — but the ties won’t bind if both sides don’t thrive.