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Minnesota Farmers' Market Association 

Multi-Year Drought Showing Adverse Effects on Minnesota’s Local Foodshed

Customers visiting Minnesota’s early season farmers’ markets are getting concerned for their local produce farmers as produce is coming in late and slowly. “Back in April, we pushed the rollout of our Power of Produce for kids to July, because it was so wet. We’re glad we did, but now it’s for the opposite reason – it’s so dry and hot produce is coming in late,” said Lisa Krahn, chair of the Pine City Farmers’ Market. “We’re super excited we have over a dozen produce vendors this year, the early ones came to market with perennials like rhubarb and asparagus, some microgreens.” Pine City, located in Pine County, about an hour north of St. Paul on the Wisconsin border, is in ‘moderate to severe’ drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor for Minnesota

Data released June 22, 2023 from the U.S Drought Monitor showed 92.32% of Minnesota is now in ‘abnormally dry to exceptional drought’ conditions, up 15% from last week. Areas in ‘moderate to exceptional’ drought more than doubled since last week to 39.43%.

For Christina Traeger, beef farmer in Stearns County, who sells meat at the Maple Grove Farmers’ Market and the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market, 2023 unfortunately is looking just as bad as 2021, when she had to haul her beef herd to Kansas to graze, once her pastures dried up. “Our pastures are already brown, and the grasses are dormant, so even if we get rain now, we’ll still only be able to rotate through pastures once, making us buy expensive hay much sooner and for longer than we want,” Traeger said. “We really rely on our direct marketing meat sales at farmers’ markets – it’s how we’re staying in business.” Stearns County is also primarily in a ‘moderate to severe’ drought.

Maple Grove Farmers’ Market Manager Mao Lee noted, "This week marks the debut of many of our produce farmers at the market, a delay of approximately 4-5 weeks from the anticipated timeline. Unfortunately, this growing season has been exceptionally challenging and has progressively worsened."

Crops hit the worst by the drought and heat are those on land without irrigation. "The challenge lies with small-scale farms such as the Hmong farmers, who cultivate two to three acres without land ownership. It's reassuring to see efforts being made to seek solutions, but how can we assist seasonal renters in improving their irrigation systems and providing support?" said Lee. 

Farmer Sue Yang rents land in Coates, MN and battles drought conditions in his third challenging growing season, resorting to innovative methods. Pictured here, he constructed a deck on the back of his tractor to accommodate a water tank for irrigating his tomato fields. Determined to provide fresh produce at farmers' markets, Sue goes the extra mile, investing extra time, money, and effort to tend to his crops.

Produce farmer Erik Heimark of Aitkin, who also teaches farm business management through Central Lakes College, acknowledges it’s complicated. “Veggies, surprisingly, do very well in a drought- IF they are irrigated. That's why the majority of the U.S. supply is grown in Yuma Valley, Arizona and Salinas Valley, California. Almost everything I grow is on irrigation so I am set up to have a decent level of production. I will lose my sweet corn and dry beans this year to the drought; my garlic will be smaller; because that’s all not irrigated. And some of my lettuce is bolting.”  

“Many of my students are asking for irrigation help from me now.  It is definitely a necessary infrastructure for produce farmers with the changing climate. We need to push for more support for small veggie farmers to get support for digging wells, installing irrigation systems, etc.,” added Heimark.

Riverwalk Market Fair in Northfield pulls produce farmers from adjoining counties Dakota and Goodhue, both ‘abnormally dry.’ “We have three family farms at RMF who farm without access to water and irrigation - which means none of them have been able to make a market yet because their crops aren’t growing. It’s just heartbreaking,” noted Betsy Wentz, manager at RMF and a produce farmer by Cannon Falls. 

Manager Sara George from the Red Wing Farmers’ Market in Goodhue County (abnormally dry) reports the market has a “slew of fruit and vegetable vendors lined up for the 2023 season and yet, only a couple have been able to attend the market thus far this year.  The drought is AWFUL, there is little produce available unless you have excellent irrigation on your crops. The crops need rain so bad. Wabasha Farmers’ Market, a close neighboring market of ours has actually closed twice this season already due to lack of produce this season. We need rain.” 

Wililyn Dowell, manager of the Grand Rapids Farmers’ Market Food Hub, and produce farmer in Itasca County said her area farmers are stressed out. “We have outdoor gardens and 2 high tunnels. Our strawberries had so many blooms in the spring, and they looked very promising, but the blossoms dropped. The fruits are very small. The garlic and onion leaves are yellowing and drying out. The spinach, lettuce, and radish that were planted in the outdoor gardens and in the high tunnel bolted right away. I had to pull them out. The drought has been very tough on our farmers,” said Dowell. Itasca County is abnormally dry according to the drought monitor.

The weather whiplash in Minnesota started with heavy snows during the winter, bringing hope that it would solve the lingering dry conditions from 2021 and 2022. Then February and March rains added runoff to frozen ground, followed by early hot temps, and now hot and dry.

“We’re at a record-high 375 farmers’ markets in Minnesota and our Tribal Nations, growing food and feeding their communities on a weekly basis, many going year-round,” said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association (MFMA). “This multi-year weather pattern is so concerning because all that economic activity stays 100% local; and because it’s outside most state and federal ag data gathering efforts, the negative impact is rarely noted but profoundly felt.”

Possible Solutions

There are potential solutions for food farmers in Minnesota, albeit long term ones for future years. 

Although not as well known, produce farmers and food farmers qualify for the same irrigation and soil health grants that commodity farmers have received for decades. Both the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) and Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) have programs available, but the intake forms do not lend themselves easily to diversified and specialized operations like produce farms. Some of these programs also limit grant funding to just one time, as opposed to multiple-year funding for commodity crops. Additionally, staff are often unfamiliar with non-commodity farms, making it a steep and at times frustrating  learning curve for all involved. 

Renewing the Countryside is a statewide organization whose mission is “working for a more just, vibrant, and sustainable rural America.” Aided by grants, they developed Conservation Connections, a program that has trained individuals throughout Minnesota, many who are bilingual, who are ready to help farmers new to government programs to access them and meet their local office personnel. 

Crop insurance for this sector is not yet a viable option. MFMA partnered with 4 other groups on an Extension Risk Management Education grant to assess the effectiveness of the ‘new and improved’ Whole Farm / Micro Farm revenue-based insurance programs offered by the USDA. After gathering farm financials and providing insurance quotes to farm operators, project results clearly showed that both programs still need improvements to effectively help produce and smaller scale farmers to the same extent as other tax-supported programs assist commodity farmers “This is very new program targeting an audience that is simply not used to purchasing crop insurance,” said Ryan Pesch, Extension Educator, who collaborated with MFMA on the project. Pesch added, “Specialty crops and direct marketing can bring high value, but also high risk and it will take time and effort to bring this group into the practice of using insurance.”

“There were varied reasons why the farmers in our grant chose not to buy a policy,” Zeman said, “although one theme was that some are already mitigating risk through diversification.” In 2023, according to the Summary of Business reporter at the USDA Risk Management Agency, there were just 72 micro farm policies sold nationwide, with only seven in Minnesota. 

“In the short term, the best solution for Minnesota’s food farmers to be able to weather this year’s drought is for their communities to buy local food regardless of cost or quality: directly from their farmers, and at their farmers’ markets,” added Zeman. “With every purchase from their communities, consumers are not just acquiring fresh, nutritious food; they are actively contributing to the preservation of sustainable farming practices, the reduction of food miles, and the strengthening of their community's resilience. Their willingness to pay a premium, if needed, demonstrates their understanding of the challenges faced by food farmers and their determination to ensure their continued success. By valuing the connection between farmer and consumer, this community is not only nourishing themselves but also cultivating a sustainable future for generations to come.”

About the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association

The Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association (MFMA) provides services, programs, and leadership that support and promote farmers’ markets across Minnesota. The organization works to foster a community of vibrant, profitable, and professionally managed Minnesota farmers’ markets that cultivate, nourish, and inspire a vibrant local foods landscape. MFMA’s vision is to create greater accessibility to local, farm-fresh foods, and to allow opportunities for local food producers to thrive and grow. 

For more information, contact MFMA Communications Director Sina W.P.: or (612) 695-6587.

MFMA provides services, programs, and leadership that support and promote farmers' markets

across Minnesota and our Tribal Nations.

We envision a community of vibrant, profitable, and professionally managed Minnesota farmers’ markets that:

Cultivates, nourishes, and inspires a vibrant local foods community;

provides accessibility to all to local farm fresh foods;

allows local food producers to thrive and grow.

Engagement & Inclusion Director: Sina War /// /// (612) 695-6587 

Local Foodshed Database Manager: Maeve Mallozzi-Kelly /// /// (574) 310-5553

Executive Director: Kathy Zeman /// /// (507) 664-9446 

Minnesota Farmers' Market Association /// 9800 155th Street East, Nerstrand MN 55053 /// 


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