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Austin Ashlock, Forum News Service, Published June 14 2013

Farmers markets face weather struggle

GRAND FORKS – Warm weather and an early spring kept the produce growing and business flowing in farmers markets around the Red River Valley last summer, but vendors and market organizers may tell a different story this year.

For some markets around the area, a late spring and prolonged rains could mean the late arrival of produce, the staple product in most farmers markets.

Grafton, N.D., Farmers Market vendor and organizer Heather Szklarski said the lack of production has forced the market to push its start date to July 9.

“I had almost nothing growing at the time we decided to push the opening back,” Szklarski said. “It’s going to be a slow start to the season, but that seems to be an issue all around.”

The story is no different for Debbie Korsmo, owner of Wild Rose Berry Farm in Northwood, N.D. In previous years, Korsmo has taken batches of raspberries and juneberries to farmers markets in Northwood and nearby Hatton, N.D.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it out to markets this year. It all depends on when I can pick and how much I end up having,” Korsmo said. “I usually harvest in late June, but it’s going to be much later this year.”

Still, the Town Square Farmer’s Market in downtown Grand Forks will open today.

Market board member Cheri Reitmeier said there’s no reason to break the 12-year tradition of opening on the third Saturday in June. “We have a lot of crafters and artisans coming in and they provide another whole layer to the market,” she said. “Plus produce doesn’t normally come in until later in the season.”

Fresh demand

With about 20 farmers markets operating throughout northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, the demand for fresh and local goods is on the rise.

Reitmeier said the influx of new farmers markets in surrounding communities is no coincidence.

“This is all a part of a nationwide trend,” Reitmeier said. “More and more people are trying to eat healthy, and why would they want to buy something like a tomato from California when they could get the same product grown locally?”

However, as new markets sprout up, gaining a presence in their respective communities can be a challenge.

The Grafton market is entering its second season, and Szklarski said attendance could be better.

“Getting the word out that we were here was, and still is, a work in progress,” she said. “A lot of people still don’t know we are here.”

To help boost attendance, Szklarski said the market is relocating to a more convenient location in 2013.

“Last year we were in the park, but we are relocating along (North Dakota) Highway 17, the main street in Grafton,” Szklarski said. “We expect that will help gain the customers we might not have in the park.”

In addition to changing locations, Szklarski said the market has created a grassroots marketing campaign, placing signs around Grafton, buying ads and using social media and different websites.

Reitmeier said she encourages more communities to set up farmers markets.

“As a proponent of eating fresh grown produce, it doesn’t matter what markets customers go to,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in Cooperstown (N.D.) or Grafton, I am just thrilled that there are markets.”

Creating a brand

For newly formed farmers markets in northwest Minnesota, reaching out to their communities is no longer an issue thanks to student Rachel Lundbohm’s integrated marketing communications class at the University of Minnesota, Crookston.

Sought out by Linda Kingery, executive director of the Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, the class spent the majority of the fall 2011 semester creating a universal marketing campaign to be used by as many as 10 farmers markets in the region.

“These markets were sprouting up rapidly and trying to create an identity for themselves,” Kingery said. “They needed help getting established in their communities. The consumers were out there, they just needed to be reached.”

Students conducted research to determine target demographics and worked in pairs to create campaigns, which were presented to Kingery and members of local farmers markets.

Following individual presentations Lundbohm combined ideas from each group’s projects into one campaign.

The resulting material has been on display in communities throughout northwest Minnesota since summer 2012, and Kingery said the results speak for themselves.

“The popularity of the markets in promoted areas is up,” Kingery said. “With the help of a boost in production, last summer was a very successful year for these markets.”

The promotional plan will stay in effect during this summer.

“With all the rain we have had this spring, vendors are going to be late to the game this season,” she said. “So, maybe with the help of all this marketing we can make up for that loss.”