Success never rests on its laurels

Want something done? Ask a busy person to do it. Say, Clara Sue Price—one of the hardworking volunteers behind the Minot, N.D., Farmers’ Market. Price has served 18 years in the state’s House of Representatives, still works as secretary in the family-run cabinetmaking business, raised a family, keeps grandchildren occupied and—oh, yes—runs her own business, Dakota Gardens and Herbs. On top of that, since 1992, Price has managed a booth at the Minot Farmers’ Market.

The Minot Farmers’ Market does “a great deal of repeat business,” according to Clara Sue Price, who has been a produce vendor since 1992.
Photos by Melissa Maasjo

“The market was founded in the early ’70s, from what I’ve been able to piece together,” Price, not one of the original founders, said. “There were probably a half dozen [vendors] at the beginning; we only have a couple of the original members, and we’re up to 23 now,” she added.

The market is located in Minot’s Oak Park, in the center of this city of approximately 37,000, with the Minot Air Force Base just 12 miles to the north adding a population of more than 10,000.

The park’s rules at the current location limit them to 23 vendor spaces, Price said. Oak Park also offers a collection of play and recreational facilities, from a swimming pool and trails to a sand volleyball court. A band shell on the grounds hosts a number of outdoor concerts during the spring and summer. “We tried a downtown afternoon market one time,” Price said, “and we’re going to try an additional location down by the mall this year, along with the three mornings (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays) in Oak Park.”

The market offers not only produce: “There are German-style breads, cakes and pies and quick breads and yeast breads and cookies,” according to Price. “We don’t allow anything that’s custard or cream pies or kugel. We allow jams and jellies and pickles and syrups and honey and relishes—things that we consider safe.

“We don’t allow salsa or canned vegetables, and the fresh vegetables have to be things that the vendors grew; you can’t buy peaches from somebody in Oregon [and re-sell them]. It is all local. You can sell a basket of gourds, if they’re gourds that you raised. We would like to sell quilts and other crafts, but we only have booth space for food vendors,” she says.

The market is looking around for a larger space, Price pointed out, “but we need shade and a fair amount of parking. Electricity is also an issue.” She said there are no vendors of sandwiches or coffee: “I sell caramel rolls and cinnamon rolls, and people eat them on-site. We’d really like to make it more of a social type of gathering. Some people come and stay a couple of hours at the market on Saturdays.”

“We get a great deal of repeat local business. It’s to the point that we look for some customers and we ask each other, ‘Did so-and-so die?’ We’ve watched them progress from being big customers to not so big, to nursing homes, to death. We watch babies grow up; it’s a social thing.

“We do see tourists, during the season. We also see some of the guys that are in the oil trade. They’re looking for baked goods—they’re away from home, and they like the cookies and things like that.”

Marketing the market

North Dakota’s tourism site lists the market as one of the state’s attractions, but the market itself has no website. Price has posted notices for the market on the Local Harvest website, but said, “We could definitely do a better job of marketing, but it’s all volunteer. We do newspaper [advertising], we do a little bit of radio. We’ve done flyers, we do some signs and one year—with a grant—we did a billboard.

“We make brochures that are distributed in all the mailboxes at the university. (Minot State University has a student enrollment of more than 3,600.) We have them up on the air base, where our brochures go in the welcome packets from the chamber of commerce. We have a sign on the road, too, but a lot of it is really word of mouth. Could we do more? Yes. We do things like a gift basket that we give away a few of each season. We’re thinking of expanding by asking for e-mail addresses, as well.”

Price said that there are more than 10,000 people on the air base. “They’re talking about bringing in a couple thousand more,” she added. The market advertises in the base newspaper, as well. “It’s very reasonable advertising,” she noted, “and our brochure is in their welcome packet for new people.”

It’s tempting to say that Minot produce can’t be beat … it’s all grown within 60 miles of the city.

Organic, or not?

“We have a couple of vendors who are interested in [organic growing],” Price said, “but we have more vendors that are chemical-free, versus certified organic. Part of that is because of the process, the cost. We haven’t had a whole lot of demand for it yet, but there’s quite a few of us that are very limited, or chemical-free.”

Price added a very practical question: “How can you be organic if you’ve got [another farmer’s] field right across the road? If customers want to know,” she said, “we’re very open with them. The one thing that we have used, we grow a lot of garlic, and we have used ammonium nitrate on it. About six years ago, I had potato bugs, and I used a compound that we mixed up, a tea that was red pepper, black pepper and ground-up garlic. It worked great. I haven’t had potato bugs for five or six years! It doesn’t kill ’em,” she added, “but they don’t like it.

“My husband started a garlic festival through his [local] Lions Club. We grow about 12,000 or more plants a year, and we can sell everything we grow,” she added. The market has two or three vendors that grow herbs, according to Price, but not the same herbs, so there’s little duplication. “We don’t have a huge market for herbs. Tomatoes and sweet corn are the most popular products. They cause a scene like at a bargain-basement sale,” she said. “We have some customers who get pretty aggressive.” According to the market’s rules, customers can’t pick up the produce “before the whistle blows—we’re pretty strict,” she said. Some customers will pre-order (things like pies) and she’ll set them aside for those buyers.

“Potato sales, and beets, onions, carrots and stuff are pretty consistent through the market. We have some chokecherries, raspberries, apples, not a whole lot of strawberries, and some varieties of eggplant—I’m trying sweet potatoes this year,” Price added. “We don’t have a particularly diverse market, but there are a number of foreign doctors, and the people at the airbase are from all over. I do vinegars, flavored vinegars: a lemon and chive, an Italian, garlic, hot garlic; I’ve done pickled garlic, a couple different kinds of mustards, I do jellies and relishes, too.”

Minot’s farmers’ market sells not only corn, tomatoes and other produce, but jams, jellies, pies—and flowers like these.

Can they sell all they bring to the market? “We discourage any carryover,” Price said. “We want everything to be the best and the freshest. There is a group that donates [unsold produce] to the soup kitchen, which runs in different locations every day of the week in Minot. Sometimes I take it to the YW (North Dakota Association of Extension 4-H Youth Workers), because they have a program for women in need there. We have another vendor who takes [unsold produce] to the Community Action program. Hundreds of pounds of produce get donated from our market every year.”

Although it is a time-consuming job, Price loves it. “Last night, my 11-year-old granddaughter and I were picking beans,” she says. “She asked me if it made my back hurt. We piled the buckets in the truck, took them to the wash site, bagged them, etc. After we were done, I thought about why I keep doing the market … it is the people,” she says. “The customers are fun, the other sellers have become friends, and it gives me the perfect time with the grandchildren. No pressure, no phones, just working our way down the rows and talking about all kinds of things. Plus, they are learning about nature and work and a sense of accomplishment. All that and I can make a little money doing it,” she concludes.

Although more marketing could be done, and more vendors would like to participate, the Minot market serves as an example of what can be done when communityspirited growers get together.

Ron Stevens is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a frequent contributor.