Can Minnetrista Farmers Market return to its pre-pandemic heyday? Can it even survive?
It's apparent that the market needs to “reboot,” “re-shuffle” or “refresh."
MUNCIE — In its heyday, customers would be lined up at the gates waiting to get into the Farmers Market at Minnetrista on Saturday mornings.
Then, a steady stream of dogs, strollers, wagons and shoppers zigzagged through the busy market. Some visited with each other. Some spent the morning. It was sometimes so crowded that you couldn’t move.
In the nearby courtyard, tables full of patrons drank coffee, socialized and ate pastries and freshly grilled sausage sandwiches during cooking demonstrations and other events.
But this past season, the venue — known as a community treasure — brought to mind more of an empty feeling, like a shopping trip to the Muncie Mall.
And the pandemic isn’t the only reason for the decline in the number of vendors and customers at the market. In fact, it is the other issues that are making people wonder whether the market is on its last legs.
"Anyone who has loved the Minnetrista market can see the writing on the wall,” one farm worker has said.
“For a number of years, we have all watched as the Minnetrista Farmers Market has become somewhat of a remnant of what it once was,” one veteran farmer told customers.
Minnetrista responds that the market is not in “nosedive” mode but adds that if it comes to that it would be closed.
Besides the pandemic, the market, now two decades old, is facing issues including turnover of market managers, aka market masters; perceived stricter/costlier health department regulations here; loss of longtime farmers to bigger markets in Cincinnati and Indianapolis; burnout/retirement of veteran vendors; not enough new farmers emerging; competition from Market Wagon and other online services; competition from other farmers markets; vendors moving from the market to their home bases; a lack of social media engagement; and more.
Three of the market’s longtime farmers/growers, all women, are among those who have departed, creating vacancies that aren’t being filled, like at the mall:
Diane Russell, doing business as Russell Sheep Co. (“bringing lamb to the table”), Eaton, left Minnetrista after a dozen years for the larger Broad Ripple Farmers Market, Indianapolis. Supported by a huge corps of volunteers, that market reportedly draws around 5,000 customers on a given day.
Wendy Carpenter, dba Christopher Farm, Modoc, quit Minnetrista, where she was a longtime anchor, for the Hyde Park Farmers Market in Cincinnati and the Richmond Farmers Market.
Sandy Burrell, dba Northern Tropics Greenhouse, exited Minnetrista after a decade to operate solely out of her Muncie greenhouses. Her husband plans to add a brewery to the business.
Burrell is not surprised that Christopher Farm and Russell Sheep moved on to bigger markets, where “prices are higher, they can make more money and people eat more lamb.”
Known for wearing goofy beachcomber hats at Minnetrista, Burrell grew tired of “getting up at 4:45 in the morning to go to market every Saturday, all summer, for ten or 12 years. That’s a long haul. With the market and the greenhouse, I was spreading myself too thin and just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
Her greenhouse plant inventory still includes heirloom tomatoes and peppers, though Burrell no longer harvests produce from those plants like she did when she had a stall at Minnetrista.
“I just figured when some of us quit going to Minnetrista that some new people on the wait list would jump in there,” Burrell told me. “For years they had a wait list and you couldn’t get in there. Where are all the people on the wait list? I guess they need some newer, younger people to come in.”
Burrell knew an Amish farmer who dropped out of Minnetrista because he could do just as well selling at produce auctions.
Allowing vendors to buy produce at an auction and then sell it at Minnetrista was a longtime sticking point for Carpenter, the owner of certified-organic Christopher Farm.
“This allows folks to buy cheap products at auction and resell them at prices that undercut actual producers,” Carpenter told me, citing a policy that only requires Minnetrista vendors to sell at least 51% of their own product. “If I were a hobbyist, it wouldn’t matter so much.”
Minnetrista “just doesn't seem to understand that the producers need to earn an income at the market, and the policies that are in place don't help to make it successful for us,” Carpenter said. “Because farming is it for me, and with Adrian moving back to eventually take over the farm, I need to make it not only environmentally sustainable, but economically sustainable as well.”
Minnetrista's top priority is Minnetrista, as it must be, she went on. “However, the world of farmers markets has changed tremendously in the past ten years and Minnetrista hasn't kept up. To maintain a real market well is a full time job, which Minnetrista doesn't hire.”
In announcing her decision to leave the market after the 2020 season, Carpenter told customers that “I have done everything I can to help it rebound, from encouraging new vendors to join, to serving on a liaison committee, to helping map out how it could open in the midst of a pandemic.”
However, that didn’t mean Carpenter abandoned Muncie, “which would have been heartbreaking.” During the 2021 season, she delivered fresh produce from her Randolph County farm — as well as eggs, baked goods and maple syrup from other farms — to Muncie customers in a Minnetrista parking lot on Friday afternoons.
Having spent two decades at the Minnetrista market, Carpenter is convinced that Muncie is fully capable of having a great farmers market.
But she suggests that a change in how it is operated is needed.
"We really like the way the Richmond Farmers Market is run,” said Carpenter, who started doing business there last year. “It is funded through the city of Richmond parks and rec department and includes a market advisory committee of vendors. This structure allows for a lot of very beneficial grant funding and input from the people who are most affected."
One longtime Minnetrista Farmers Market customer told me that the Minnetrista market still provides all of the fresh produce he needs, along with a better coffee vendor than in the past.
“Doubt if it will end. Even in its diminished state it’s pretty good and the only one around,” this customer wrote, adding that Minnetrista “sure seems very committed to it.”
But Minnetrista nowadays isn’t the only market around.
Yorktown Farmers Marketplace is ‘booming’
For example, there is the Friday afternoon Yorktown Farmers Marketplace, described by Burrell as “booming” this past outdoor season. Yorktown also has launched an indoor winter market. The outdoor marketplace generated a TV news story and is being applauded by a farmers market cooperative.
“The newest market master, Nanci Sears Perry, is doing a great job and the market has flourished under her leadership,” pork producer Susan Orebaugh, dba Grand Grilling to Go, told me, alluding to Yortkown. “She does a great job with social media and really gets the news out there.”
Orebaugh, who operates at both Minnetrista and Yorktown, said of the latter: “There are many new vendors and many, many new customers … The market now seems to be a farmers and artisan market with many different vendors than what you will find at Minnetrista. I'm not saying it's a good or bad thing — as Minnetrista is a ‘food only’ market, no crafts of any kind. I think they (Yorktown) pull a lot of vendors from Madison county and maybe further. There are few really true produce vendors, along with many other unique wares.”
The Yorktown market caught the attention of the Indianapolis-based, non-profit Indiana Cooperative Development Center, whose grant writer Christina Ferroli told me, “I like what they’re doing on Facebook. I really like their engagement.” So much so that she wanted Yorktown to share its expertise in a webinar.
(The Yorktown market later told me they’re not competing with Minnetrista, messaging me: “Many of the Delaware County and Madison County markets do our own collaborating, networking, and sharing. We try to partner and cross pollinate as much as possible. It’s nice to support each other and share vendors and ideas.”)
As for Minnetrista, it sounds to Ferroli like that market needs to “reboot,” “re-shuffle” or “refresh,” which she said isn’t a bad thing when an organization is experiencing difficult times.
The non-profit Minnetrista institution is home to beautiful gardens, a nature area, a modern museum, historic Ball family homes, children’s play areas, and a portion of the White River Greenway on its 40-acre campus. The farmers market, which features a free community herb garden, is just one of many community events, educational programs, workshops and exhibits held on the campus.
Attendance at the Minnetrista Farmers Market this year definitely was down compared to the years leading up to the pandemic, Minnetrista CEO and President Betty Brewer told me in an interview on Nov. 1.
“I know we’ve hit weekends of a thousand or a thousand plus this year,” she said. “The years you’re talking about, we had 2,000. You couldn’t move, especially with those wagons or baby carriages or people bringing their own wagons and people stopping in the middle of the market to chat.”
Because of COVID, there were no cooking, canning or other demonstrations at this year’s market, but live music returned in the form of a harp player, and there were other events, such as a COVID vaccine clinic.
That was a step up compared to the spartan 2020 market, when vendors were spaced far apart, attendance was limited to 50 shoppers at a time, and they were herded down one-way aisles.
“I’m not making a decision at this moment in time because I like to connect with others on my team and everything before I make a decision,” Brewer told me when I asked about the market’s future. “But I would think that should the market really take a nosedive, should we really start going down, we would probably close our market and encourage people to go to other area farmers markets.”
She noted that Minnetrista’s farmers market on Wednesdays was shut down several years back after the number of vendors dropped to three.
Minnetrista, which runs one of the oldest farmers markets, if not the oldest, in East Central Indiana, helped several other markets get established, like Yorktown’s. Other local markets include the Daleville Farmers Market, Spangler Farms, Landess Farm, and Albany Farmers Market.
“Might our Saturday market not exist some day?” Brewer asked. “Yeah, maybe. But I hope not. I find it extremely convenient and it offers great variety. And I love the fact that it’s a social market. It’s a community asset for a community to have a farmers market.”
The reason you don’t see arts and crafts vendors at the Minnetrista market is because that type of handmade and unique handicraft is sold at Minnetrista’s Orchard Shop.
“This is not necessarily hard and fast and is a topic of consideration but yes, we do take our own retail operations into account,” Brewer told me. “That said, we will have quite a few makers and artisans as part of the LuminArtists market at Enchanted Luminaria Walk” (Dec. 3-4).
(The Orchard Shop also sells cider, which is why you won’t see an apples-only vendor or a cider vendor at the farmers market).
Brewer also pointed out the example of one of the Minnetrista Farmers market vendors who sells soaps and lotions produced from the milk that comes from the vendor’s own goats. The vendor also sells eggs from their own chickens and, starting this year, sold home-made fudge labeled according to health department guidelines.
In a departure from past practice, the market now allows the sale of home-produced food products not inspected by the health department. The practice was allowed partly due to the decrease in the number of vendors.
Alluding to the concerns raised by Carpenter, Brewer acknowledged that the market has experienced market master turnover, and that the latest master is employed in that position only part-time.
One master left for health reasons, one took a job elsewhere, and the current master wants to be part-time. “Good for them,” Brewer said.
Regarding the market’s policy on how much of their produce growers must grow themselves, Brewer cited state health department regulations on the sale of fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income seniors, women, infants and children through federally funded programs.
“This guideline is actually provided by the state itself and, to paraphrase, notes that 51% of product sold by individual vendors over the course of the season must be produced/grown by that vendor,” Brewer said. “So, to Wendy’s point, yes: a vendor may purchase goods from anywhere in Indiana and out-of-state counties that touch Indiana’s borders.
“That helps to bring items that are not locally in season to our market. All of that said, when we last checked in with our vendors, about 80% of all products sold were produced by the vendors.”
Brewer also noted that many of the market’s vendors fall in the part-time/hobbyist category and would be hurt if they had to sell only what they grew.
Another concern voiced to me is that Minnetrista has started looking the other way if a vendor fails — even on more than one occasion — to show up on a Saturday morning. And to make matters worse, some vendors don’t even bother to call ahead of time to report that they will be absent. That wasn’t tolerated in the past. Brewer called that concern a misperception.
Minnetrista’s isn’t the only farmers market that has seen a drop in attendance this year. The same has happened, for example, at the Bloomington Community Farmers Market, considered one of the best in the state.
“Are we hurting for vendors? Absolutely not,” said Julie Ramey, community relations manager for the city of Bloomington’s parks and recreation department, which runs the market. “But we’re definitely not back up to the pre-pandemic numbers of 6,000 or 7,000 people attending on a Saturday.”
Part of the explanation for that is two other farmers markets opened in Bloomington in the last couple of years. But it’s also about taking time to return to normal.
“As the market programs — info(rmation) alley, tastings, entertainment, ‘A Fair of the Arts,’ et cetera — are slowly being re-instituted, we have witnessed lower threshold numbers from the days of 6,000 plus (attendees),” Clarence Boone, the Bloomington market’s program/facility coordinator, told me. “We are encouraged that the high attendance numbers above 2,500 this season will be the baseline for growth in the 2022 season.”
A case could be made that, if not for the presence of one of the younger, newer vendors, Shrock Family Farm, Selma, it might not have been even worth a trip to the Minnetrista market this year.
“A number of factors do play a role in the downturn of the market,” Shelly Shrock told me. “Yes, younger producers are not stepping up to replace those that have retired.”
She and her husband, Brandon, who moved to Selma in 2013 and started farming in 2015, plan to return to Minnetrista next year. The couple grow a variety of vegetables on one acre and also pasture-raise chickens for eggs and meat.
“It's my community and I want to invest in the community with our CSA (community supported agriculture), market booth and local produce,” Shrock said. “Also, farming is not a hobby but is a full time job. We and other vendors rely on the market for our income to support our families.”
It is hard for her to know whether the market’s best days are behind it. “It was a good year for us,” she said. “Sales were up for us and CSA membership has increased.”
Still, she says more growers are needed at Minnetrista.
“I believe the potential for the market to grow and expand is there, but it will take a collective effort of the vendors and the venue's efforts to try and boost it. More vendors and customers need to be drawn into the market. Advertising and educating the community of what the local market has to offer is key. Drawing more customers in and educating why buying locally matters, as it puts money back into the community through these local market vendors.”
Delaware County Health Department comment
A statement from Jammie Bane, administrator of the Delaware County Health Department:
Farmer's Markets are kind of tricky. Their creation brought about some somewhat gray areas when it comes to the standard food regulations. They technically operate under the same umbrella of rules in every county, but some counties have enacted varying degrees of additional regulations on them. The following link covers some of the "guidance docs" the state has issued related to Farmers Markets:
Many vendors are allowed to sell at Farmers Markets under the general "exemption" provided by the rules, without a permit and without any fees from us. Basically, this includes people selling whole, uncut produce and home-baked goods that fit within a certain set of parameters (Example: They cant sell home-produced cheesecake, because it requires refrigeration, which makes it a potentially hazardous food.) This may have been expanded, but I admit I have not personally been able to keep up with this stuff since probably 2019 and the onset of the pandemic.
We have a permit fee here of $70, but it doesn't apply to all vendors. Our Farmers Market permit was created to allow for some vendors to produce and/or sample food products on site that takes them outside of the realm of food items allowed to be sold without a permit. So for example: If Betty's Herbs wants to grow herbs to sell they can do so without a permit from us. No inspection required. However, if Betty wants to expand and add a marketing spin that her herbs are for use to make a dip, and she wants to combine the herbs with cream cheese or sour cream for example to offer free samples to people, then she has now transitioned into providing a potentially hazardous food and requires a permit to produce and provide it. Also, it must be done on-site or in an approved kitchen. There is no back and forth allowed. Either a vendor is a home-based vendor who produces and sells exempt food items, or they are a permitted vendor where the food must be produced in an inspected and permitted kitchen or on-site at the event.
This Farmers Market permit also allows for any vendor of potentially hazardous food to set up and sell at registered Farmers Markets only, assuming they meet all requirements of the retail food code. So an example here... if Minnetrista would allow Seth's Food Truck to set up and sell sno-cones there, it would be possible if you purchased a $70 Farmer's Market permit, which would allow you to operate at registered Farmers Markets only.
Farmers Markets exemptions and the ongoing changes to rules/interpretations by the state, coupled with varying levels of enforcement in different counties, combined with additional layers of regulations in different counties surely does make it difficult on vendors to keep up with everything.
In general, I would say we are not one of the stricter counties when it comes to regulating Farmers markets. We strive to regulate them according to the wording of the rules. Our creation of a Farmers Market permit was an attempt to provide some wiggle room for markets to operate with a broader set of vendors. I will acknowledge, some counties may not regulate their markets much if at all. If a vendor travels from that county to ours, I can fully understand where they may say we are strict.