A Farmer’s Fight

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – the Fall Version

The second installment in a series about Minnesota’s role, now and in the past, in the local food movement. This week John writes of the history of farmers’ marketing in Minneapolis and one farmer’s fight against an unjust ordinance limiting his ability to sell to city customers.

“Melons for sale”
– Peter Jensen, 1903*

When Hennepin County farmer Peter Jensen called out “melons for sale” in the streets of Minneapolis, he likely had no idea it would lead to two major Supreme Court cases and a constitutional amendment. Certainly Farmer Jensen was not looking for trouble as he participated in the vibrant and time-honored market gardening business so critical to life in the booming City of Lakes in 1903. Prior to advances in food processing such as industrial canning operations, refrigeration and transportation of produce over long distances, the farmers market was the center of distribution for most foods in major cities. With the development of universal commodities and the industrialization of food marketing, these once vital farmers markets started to fade into obscurity by the 1920s and were all but gone by World War II.

The concept of farmers marketing directly to consumers was nothing unusual in 1903. It was a well-established commercial activity that most farmers participated in. It was as natural as the change in seasons for farmers. By the 1880s farmers marketing directly to consumers became a well-honed distribution system centered in very active farmers markets throughout most of Minnesota’s communities. Major cities would not have been able to survive without their farmers markets and the community of small farmers that sprang up just outside their borders. For Minneapolis, places like Brooklyn Center, Richfield and Bloomington were divided up into small farms dedicated to supplying Minneapolis with their needed fresh produce.

For example, in 1885 Henry Bachman and his bride Hattie purchased four acres near 61st and Lyndale to start their own market garden business. They were able to buy the lot with proceeds earned by Hattie as a seamstress. In their first spring on their small plot, they grew potatoes, lettuce, onions and squash to sell at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. As Minneapolis quadrupled in size over the next two decades, Bachman and his many neighboring market gardeners expanded with the demand.

These innovative food producers found creative ways to use greenhouses to grow their produce year-round. As Henry Bachman’s sons reached a certain age, he would get them started in the business by giving them a bench in a greenhouse to grow produce for the market. All of his sons started growing vegetables except for his son Albert. Albert knew his mother loved flowers, so he started growing carnations for his mother and sold them outside the Oak Hill Cemetery for a good profit. When the marketing gardening business started to decline in the 1920s, it was the flowers that kept the Bachman enterprise profitable, leading to their eventual dominance of the floral market in the Twin Cities.

By 1897, Minneapolis took the lead in supporting this distribution of fresh produce to its restaurants, grocery stores and citizens by building the most modern farmer’s market of its day on 2nd Street just two blocks west of Hennepin Avenue and Bridge Square. The Minneapolis Farmer’s Market featured a covered distribution center and had a sprawling platform for gardeners to unload and display their produce. The city redesigned all the approaching streets to allow for greater efficiency as farmers brought their horse-drawn wagons to sell their produce in the early morning. The farmer would deliver his wagon into his assigned spot where he would unhitch his horses and bring them to their assigned hitching posts to be fed and watered for the return trip home.

It was on one of these return trips in 1903 from the sprawling Farmer’s Market on 2nd Street that Peter Jensen walked in history. Unable to sell all of his melons at the market that day, he hitched up the wagon with one of his boys driving and they slowly worked the streets on their way back to their farm, hoping to divest themselves of their extra melons. Peter was calling from the street “melons for sale” and, according to the history of the case, was fairly successful in selling five baskets within just one block for a fair bargain — no use in letting the melons go to waste. Unfortunately for Jensen, he was approached by a Minneapolis police officer who requested him to present his peddler’s license. To be referred to as a lowly peddler would have been a significant indignity to an established market gardener. Nonetheless, Minneapolis had a clear city ordinance that anyone selling anything on the streets, including a “wagon peddler,” had to pay a $125 annual license fee, a prince’s ransom in 1903.

Suffering the indignity of being considered a peddler, Mr. Jensen challenged the Minneapolis ordinance. One of his primary arguments was that a market gardener should not be considered a peddler when offering for sale door-to-door produce that had been grown on his own farm. On December 4, 1903, the Minneapolis Municipal Court Judge did not buy the argument and fined Mr. Jensen $10 and “imprisonment in the workhouse until fine was paid, not to exceed 10 days.” Probably with the encouragement of his fellow market gardeners and the sting of being considered a lowly peddler, Mr. Jensen appealed the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

On July 22, 1904, in a short four-page decision, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Start wrote the opinion affirming the decision of the Minneapolis Municipal Court. Start wrote, “the fact that the articles sold from house to house are the products of the seller’s own farm or garden affords no just reason why it should not be placed on the same basis as parties who purchased their stock from others.” The decision was not widely reported in the state’s newspapers in 1904 when it was rendered, but it likely would have been on the lips of the many proud market gardeners as they gathered each morning to provide their produce for sale in the summer of 1904.

Certainly the decision would not have gone unnoticed by Alwin Rowe, a German immigrant market gardener from St. Paul. Like Minneapolis, St. Paul too had a well-established farmer’s market to supply its restaurants, groceries and citizens with fresh produce directly from the farmer. Interestingly, Mr. Rowe was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives on November 8, 1904. There is no indication whether Peter Jensen’s Supreme Court case was the reason Rowe ran for office, but he would soon become the champion of the market gardener’s cause in the Minnesota Legislature. More on that story next week.

*State v. Jensen, 93 Minn 88, 100 N.W. 644 (1904).

The history of Minneapolis market gardening and the beginning of Bachman’s came from the Richfield city web site.

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