Salsa Fest adds spice to Central Minnesota agritourism
More than 450 people came to Long Prairie this past September to enjoy salsa, music, dancing and food at the 2018 Salsa Fest. Organized by the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (SFA) and supported by the University of Minnesota Extension Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Central RSDP), the event celebrated salsa and locally grown produce. According to event director Zachary Paige, the salsa contest, in particular, showcased the “diversity in food we grow.”
There has been growing consumer interest in agricultural experiences that provide closer connections to how our food is grown. This interest has contributed to a growth in agritourism offerings in Minnesota. Events like Salsa Fest provide consumers the opportunity to connect with growers and makers of value-added, locally sourced products such as salsa. For farmers and vendors, the event provides an opportunity to sell their produce and products directly to consumers.
“Salsa Fest celebrates the fall harvest of fresh locally grown produce with the spicy taste of salsa – in all its wonderful variations of flavors and ingredients. At that time of year you have tomatoes and peppers and garlic and cilantro all going into salsa,” said Joseph Luetmer, Central SFA board treasurer. “The event is an opportunity to bring people of all ethnicities together to share cultural traditions in food, music and dance.”
In the words of Stephanie Heringlake, a vendor at both the 2017 and 2018 Salsa Fest, “You don’t really see an event that pulls us all together and helps to support small businesses. The event certainly gives you that.”
According to Heringlake, the event provided her the opportunity to have people taste her salsa products and build awareness of her small, local business. “It’s all about sharing your food with others and letting them taste your culture and having them love it,” she said.
The family friendly event featured a wide variety of engaging experiences for salsa enthusiasts of all ages. "We've got kids’ events, farmers market vendors, salsa dancing [and a] salsa contest with really great prizes,” Paige said. The event also featured a band, the Stearns County Pachanga Society, and a variety of food including salsa ice cream.
Celebrating regional diversity
SFA reached out to Central RSDP for partnership support for Salsa Fest. According to Central RSDP Executive Director Molly Zins, work group and board members were particularly interested in event organizers’ commitment to actively engage Latino community members in the event planning. Central RSDP spent the last year developing a plan to build partnerships and advance leadership to address equity, diversity and inclusion in the Central region. A recommendation that emerged from the plan was for Central RSDP to play a creative role in partnering with organizations to celebrate regional diversity. “Salsa Fest is very much in line with Central RSDP’s commitment to support partnerships that celebrate diversity in the region,” Zins said.
In addition to Latino community members serving on the event planning committee, vendor applications were available in both English and Spanish. Bilingual marketing materials were also used to promote the event. According to Paige, organizers “were able to get more people involved because of the translations.” Even the event’s location – the Todd County Fairgrounds in Long Prairie – was identified to support engagement of the area’s large Latino population and local growers with limited access to markets.
Supported by Central RSDP project partnership funding, Maureen LaMarche, a student in the Carlson School of Management, led event marketing and evaluation efforts. According to LaMarche, working with a diverse group of people to plan Salsa Fest and seeing the event develop over time was a valuable experience.
Brenna Cook, SFA’s West Chapter Coordinator, also helped with event outreach. Both Cook and Paige met with individuals in the Latino community and engaged the community in planning the event. Cook described her role as listening and helping to facilitate conversations about the event. It was important to be “linguistically accessible and culturally appropriate,” she said, which involved translating event materials and having members of the Latino community review materials to ensure they resonated with the community.
“I think by and large the people who attended Salsa Fest had a really good time,” said Jim Chamberlin, a Central RSDP board member liaison to the project and chair of SFA’s Central chapter. “We thought that from a standpoint of engaging salsa makers and vendors, they were all excited and happy for the event. They enjoyed it and thought it was worth their time.”
Planning team members are now considering options for a 2019 event. According to Paige, the original hope was to make Salsa Fest an annual event along the lines of the Minnesota Garlic Festival, ultimately drawing a few thousand. Although 2018 attendance was impressive for a small community, growing the event might require moving it to a larger population center such as St. Cloud. Another option under consideration is to keep the event in Long Prairie as a smaller celebration of local agriculture and community.
“We have to look at what we’re trying to get out of this event,” Chamberlin said. Salsa Fest is powered by passionate community members, and he encouraged those who are interested in supporting or helping to plan future events to reach out to SFA’s Central chapter.
“In its first two years, Salsa Fest has been remarkably successful and a tremendous example of celebrating the local and diverse harvest, communities and cultures that make up the region,” Zins said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the project team and community as they explore opportunities to expand their reach and engagement.”
To learn more about agritourism, read Agritourism: Toward a Conceptual Framework for Industry Analysis (April 2018).
Additional agritourism resources available can be found at the RSDP Tourism Resources site.
All photos included in this story were taken by Zachary Paige. Salsa pictured in the top banner is by Long Prairie resident Maria Ruiz (Ruiz is pictured top center, along with Natalie Keane).