no. 42: the farmers market commute

Lo, it's the first Hexagon blog post of 2019! This February is proving to be remarkably similar to last February, which made the prospect of setting up our first year infrastructure pretty challenging, but with more snow. Fortunately, with a year under our belts there is less to do, in a way, because some things, like a wash station and cooler, are set up already; because of this, I think, the emotional distress I feel about the whole situation is considerably less intense! We also have better tools and more knowledge.

I'd like to focus in this post on something that surprised me throughout our first farmers market season (2018), which is the continual surprise on the part of many customers about our distance from the market. On a recent trip to Minneapolis meeting with various farmers marketers, several folks were similarly surprised. I initially felt a good deal of defensiveness, in part because my interaction with customers ended up focusing on what I felt was a negative attribute: being 'far away' might mean that lots of fossil fuels are burned to get our produce to the market; the distance also indicates a separation between the community we are serving in Minneapolis and our farm in Wisconsin.

Getting past my negative perception of this situation, I am excited to share my thoughts surrounding these reactions, as I think they are rooted in misconceptions regarding the realities of food and small family farms. I am not hoping to rise to our particular defense, but rather to explore the topic of local/regional food and the options one has at a market like Midtown. Also, as a note, if any readers of this have shared this surprise with me, do not feel bad! It is understandable, and has motivated me to write this and to respond in a constructive way in the future!

the details (I will be using our farm as a familiar example and NOT to elevate it in any way)

  • Our farm is 8 miles south of Menomonie, Wisconsin

  • Each Saturday morning during market season, I drive 1.5 hours to Minneapolis

  • Departure time is ideally 5:20 AM

  • I mostly drive south of I-94 because the roads are quiet and the country there is gorgeous

  • The round trip, during which I am able to pick up farm supplies we need, is 150 miles

checking the tiny first garlic crop, 2018

checking the tiny first garlic crop, 2018

other observations

  • Many farm vendors at Midtown (as an example market) are 30 to 50 miles from the market

  • Several others are 60 to 80 miles away, with some over 100 miles away

  • Not all farms are easily searchable online, so this is nothing more than a rough sketch

  • Several small, sustainable farms in our part of Wisconsin sell at Minneapolis farmers markets

  • In larger urban markets (New York City and Chicago I am familiar with), farmers are known to travel 2 to 5 hours to farmers markets

distance oversimplified

The Twin Cities market (this applies to most large urban areas) is attractive to farmers because of the people there and the health of the local food economy there. In our search for a farm, we intended to sell at market(s) in Minneapolis, ideally Midtown (yay!), and we thus wanted to be close to that market.

In 2017/2018, the Twin Cities real estate market was not an easy one for a farmer to enter, and that is even truer today. Realistically, if we had been lucky enough to have found a farm nearer Minneapolis that we could afford, it would have been very small (5 acres or less) and likely would have included a crumbling old house or no house at all. Additionally, it is likely that it would be very close to conventional corn and/or soy crops, which means chemical sprays could infiltrate our crops or our drinking/irrigation water.

Instead, we drive our minivan a bit longer to get to market, with benefits: our neighbor is a certified organic grain grower; we still have a small parcel (9 acres) but it is enough to produce all of our firewood for heating and lots of straw mulch and leaves for compost and direct mulching of soil; there are barns that house our cooler, wash station, and residency/studio space (eventually!); and, because it is affordable, we are not forced to abuse our amazing soil in order to make a larger profit.

very small farms

I sometimes classify our farm as very small, which I think is accurate: with almost no presence of engines of any kind in our field, we are gradually working up to 1 acre in cultivation and eventually more. Especially last year, our first, our market presence was relatively small, and some folks assumed we were located in the city or possibly the suburbs.

If this were a valid assumption, then why don't we see mostly urban farms at farmers markets? On the surface, I agree that if food can come from the actual city, it does not make sense to be acquiring it from outside. Why is it unrealistic to expect urban farms to feed substantial numbers of city residents?

  • City land is simply not all appropriate for food production, and not just from an agricultural viewpoint

    • Park areas are extremely important for mental/physical/spiritual health and should not be turned over to farming

    • Vacant lots are appealing and are also far more common in more economically distressed parts of the city; funneling food from these lots to farmers markets in other areas is unethical (my opinion)

  • City land is sometimes polluted and often with challenging substances like heavy metals

    • This can be dealt with by bringing in plastic barriers and importing soil, a questionable practice

  • Limits on available land area often translate to farming shortcuts

    • Shortcuts include increased need for inputs (fertilizers) and inability to let the soil rest and build itself, e.g. with use of cover crops

    • Not all soil is healthy enough for farming! Food production should not be forced in these places.

don't get the wrong idea

I am NOT suggesting that urban farming is unhealthy or inappropriate. Both urban and rural farming are key elements in sustaining the health of an urban community. My aim is to point out why one could and should expect to see small, sustainable growers at city markets, even if their farms are 50 to 100 miles away.

Hexagon Projects & Farm in winter

Hexagon Projects & Farm in winter

idealizing small farms

I challenge the notion that driving 75 miles to sell fresh vegetables and fruit is at all excessive. It is not hard to imagine an individual who commutes to their office job that is 25 miles from home; plenty of people do this in the Twin Cities every weekday. With a comfortable 5 weeks off each year for vacation, this amounts to 11,750 miles just to move their body to the place where their office, computer, and coworkers are located. While not ideal, most people find this situation normal and acceptable.

At Hexagon Projects & Farm, we pack the minivan full of produce and sell it 75 miles from our farm, which over 26 weeks amounts to only 3,900 miles driven. Is this not a more substantial and worthwhile activity than moving 1 human from house to office? I encourage everyone to idealize small farms and farmers markets less, and to enjoy them more.

We love selling at our farmers market, even if it means going to be very early every Friday and workin' it all day Saturday. The customers, music, vendors, and the environment are energizing, and the sales allow us to keep doing what we love to do, though admittedly not much more. I sincerely hope that folks read this and get a little something out of it, and if one has additional insights or problems with any of it, please get in touch!

Thank you for reading.

-ppppppp

additional note: there is so much more to say on these topics, and indeed so much more potential when it comes to urban and suburban farming. If we as a society could get past our rigid view of land use and ownership, there is a serious amount of food production that could be done, sustainably, very close to areas with large population densities.

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