Cyclical produce production

Marvin Baker
Local Columnist

It’s amazing how our eating habits have changed over the course of the last 50 years and even more so if you go back 130 years.

A recent North Dakota Farmers Market & Growers Association report indicates that good and smart eating has been, well, sort of cyclical in this state.

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Back in the 1890s, just after statehood, there were a lot of people consuming fresh produce, mostly vegetables, primarily because they grew their own.

That trend faded out, but by the early 1920s, there were a lot more farms growing produce, which would indicate a growing demand for garden produce.

By the 1930s, the statistics tapered off, but in this case, nothing grew because of the Dust Bowl drought and people didn’t have that fresh bounty.

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Gardening in North Dakota faded again right after the World War II years. Maybe people wanted to modernize and have those delicious TV dinners loaded with fat and sodium that first became available in 1953?

Whatever it was, there weren’t a lot of farms growing produce and there certainly weren’t any farmers markets, at least not organized markets operating at that time.

But since 2004, there’s been another resurgence of farmers growing fruits and vegetables across the state.

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In 2004 and 2005, there were 14 farmers markets in the state, and in some cases, such as Fargo, there were more than one in the community.

That meant a lot of what we call food deserts all over the state. Those are communities that don’t have grocery stores and don’t have farmers markets.

Thus, if they don’t grow their own, they’re out of luck.

After 2005, that all began to change and for the better. Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson wanted to increase the number of farmers markets across the state and used Iowa as the textbook example of how farmers markets can thrive in small towns.

Suddenly a lot of small-town farmers markets began popping up across the state. Some of it had to do with people getting grant money to start a market, some of it was the need of people to grow their own food and sell the excess and some people saw the monetary opportunity in it.

By 2016, there were approximately 73 farmers markets across North Dakota. Not all of them were affiliated with the North Dakota Farmers Market & Growers Association, but the farmers market movement was bustling across the state.

There were several of those markets that ceased operations by 2019 and it came down to two reasons: No. 1, the market managers couldn’t find enough vendors to keep a market going and No. 2, there weren’t enough customers to keep the markets going.

Regardless, North Dakota settled into between 52 and 56 bona fide markets that are now operating and three of the major cities in the state; Fargo, Bismarck and Minot, have more than one market. There are actually three in Fargo and one in West Fargo.

In the past 100 years, the need and desire to grow garden produce was to keep family fed and healthy first, and sell excess. Today, it seems to be the other way around.

Today, it’s more of a business atmosphere. Vendors know they can make money so they create business plans and go out and do great things.

But too often you’ll see farmers market vendors munching on pizza or a Big Mac, or some other junk food loaded with empty calories. It isn’t setting the best example.

Back in college at UND, there used to be a saying at the student newspaper. The four basic food groups of a journalist are fat, sodium, caffeine and chocolate.

Can you just see medical professionals cringing at that? It’s a lifestyle. reporters are always on the run and don’t have time to sit down and have a decent meal. And when they do, they’re like a young calf at an alfalfa bale, they don’t know when to stop.

If only that fat, sodium, caffeine and chocolate could be replaced with cellulose, pectin, fiber and protein, our doctors would be happier, our bodies would be happier and farmers market vendors would be happier.

Remember the Popeye the Sailor cartoon? Every time he got into trouble, he’d inhale a can of spinach and suddenly he was the toughest guy this side of Dusseldorf.

There is some truth in that. Spinach and other vegetables obviously are better for you than that Big Mac or Whopper. And many customers are catching on to that healthy eating initiative.

Still, getting the masses to change those kinds of habits is like herding kittens