FEAST! Festival brings together more than 100 food producers from the region profiling their locally-grown products. The event is traditionally held each November at Mayo Civic Center in Rochester. (Photos courtesy of FEAST!)
FEAST! Marketplace, Celebrating Local Foods for 10 years
ROCHESTER — Autumn gets people thinking about food. Maybe it’s the bounty of colorful fruits and vegetables ripe for the picking, the seasonal rhythms of harvest time, or the happy anticipation of Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the reason, fall is a great time to think about food and our daily eating choices.
Eating locally-grown food and sourced products is the best way to go, many say. This year’s 2023 FEAST! Local Foods Marketplace took place at Rochester’s Mayo Civic Center on November 4th. It’s an annual event designed to help people learn more about locally grown foods in fun, educational, and family-friendly ways.
Who attends? “Nearly 100 vendors, local food producers and food-related business owners,” says Elena Gutierrez Byrne, the Festival’s lead coordinator. “They tell their stories, share samples and promote the benefits of locally-grown and locally-sourced products. Local chefs give cooking demonstrations, too.”
Regional Vendors Take Center Stage
Southeast Minnesota is well represented at FEAST! A wide variety of producers specializing in everything from berries to beverages is featured.
Among those representing the greater Root River valley area are: Blue Fruit Farm (south of Winona, northeast of Rushford); Fiddlehead Knob (south of Spring Valley); Garvin Heights Vineyards (Winona); Harmony Spirits (Harmony); RedC Farms (near Dakota); and Sno Pac Foods (Caledonia).
This one-day festival is part of a larger network of like-minded folks who connect year-round to support and strengthen local food businesses. “We’re excited about our 10th annual FEAST! Marketplace,” says Elena. “It all started with a group of local food producers and business owners from Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin who banded together to launch the FEAST! Local Foods Network. It’s been growing ever since!”
That growth was fueled early on by a study conducted by Jan Joannides of nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, commissioned by the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), that showed how local food production could be an important economic driver in a community, creating a win-win for everybody involved, from consumers to veteran food-producers to entrepreneurs brand-new to the field.
Showcasing Local Food Businesses
“We want to help local food-related businesses stay in business, grow and thrive,” Elena says. “It is part of recognizing and rewarding so many people who are working hard to steward the soil in responsible ways. New businesses get practical help from the Network, too, with technical tips, and introductions to professionals who can help with accounting and finance options, packaging, and brand development.”
All of that gets showcased and celebrated at the Feast! Marketplace. The Cannon Belles Cheese entrepreneurs are a great example of that. This locally-owned and operated artisan cheese business in Cannon Falls specializes in its award-winning Queso Fresco cheese, gouda and cheddars (including Tuscan and Painted Desert), as well as eight varieties of cheese curds. All of its ingredients are locally-sourced.
“The folks who eventually started Cannon Belles Cheese first visited the Festival! Marketplace nine years ago,” says Elena. “They walked around, visited booths, asked questions, made connections, and returned the following year as a start-up business. By 2018 they were in their own cheese-making facility. In 2019 they won the festival’s ‘People’s Choice Award’. Their exponential rise has been fun to watch!”
All of the vendors (who are required to apply for acceptance as FEAST! participants) have stories and experiences to share, based on their love and support of local and locally-sourced products, from cheese, to meat, to honey, to berry-based goodies, and dozens more. All of that—plus special drawings for food-and-product prizes, live music, kids’ activities like face painting and more—makes FEAST! a fun day all around.
Is FEAST! an acronym? “We put it in all caps–so it may seem that way,” Elena explains, “but it isn’t officially an acronym. A few years ago we asked visitors to choose possibilities. Out of many good suggestions we chose two winners: ‘Farmers, Eaters and Artisans Stand Together!’ and ‘Farmers, Entrepreneurs, Artists, Successful Together!’”
Among its favorites are the FEAST! craft beer, wine, cider and spirits vendors. A wrist-band system , with photo-ID (and an adjusted ticket-price), allows visitors to enjoy tastes of craft alcohol, all locally-produced. Special this year, in recognition of FEAST!’s 10th anniversary year, many of the attendees received a commemorative sampling glass.
Elena Gutierrez Byrne knows FEAST! as well as anyone; she’s been coming to the event since day one. What does she enjoy best about it? “I love the shopping!” she says with a laugh. “I move through the exhibits looking for food-items that become holiday gifts for my family members. They now expect them and love them!
Some 1500 people were expected to attend the 2023 FEAST! Festival, the first 1000 receiving a commemorative 10th anniversary shopping bag. More importantly, FEAST! is a day of fun learning about food and about the healthy difference that using locally-produced and sourced food can make in the lives of so many people.
“The very best part of FEAST! is getting all these people in a room full of food entrepreneurs who are passionate about what they’re doing and who are working hard to run sustainable, socially-responsible businesses that bring value to their local communities. We want people to be in awe of all that—we know they will be!”
More Information: Visit FEAST! Festival 2023 to learn more about this year’s event; see pictures from the 2023 gathering on the FEAST! Facebook page. Check the FEAST! Local Foods Network website for announcements about the 2024 FEAST! Festival–and plan to attend!
FEAST! Local Foods Network programs are sponsored by its premier partners: Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, Renewing the Countryside, Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Compeer Financial.
Steve Harris, with his wife, Sue, is a former Lanesboro innkeeper, and is a freelance writer and the author of Lanesboro, Minnesota.