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Season's eatings: The Boulder Farmers' Market opens for 2010

The Boulder Farmers' Market kicked off Colorado's market season on Saturday.

Every year, the weather provides some kind of drama on the first day of the Boulder Farmers' Market: a rainy deluge that pounds on awnings, trickles down shivering necks and sends customers scuttling back to their cars, or snow and sleet that keep buyers and most vendors home, with the exception of the die-hard fanatics. This year's opening on Saturday saw a windstorm that at one point caused the "Street Closed" sign at the end of 13th to racket noisily and threateningly — on first one foot and then the other, like something out of a techno horror movie — at the Windsor Dairy cheese display before it was stopped. Up and down the street, farmers raced from behind stalls to rescue flying signs, peat-potted plant starts and plastic bags, or held on to awnings with one hand while weighing out produce or making change with the other. References to Mary Poppins abounded, and it wouldn't have particularly surprised anyone to see the entire kit and caboodle — customers, vendors, vegetables, price signs, seed packages, tables and stools, flats of eggs, jars of honey — flying crazily off into the ether. But if anything, the wind only heightened the buoyant mood as farmers and customers rediscovered each other and celebrated the passing of the long, cold winter.

We talk a lot in this country about how disconnected we've become from our food, and the fact that as a result, America has no real cuisine. We've been hammered by industrialization, the insane glut of taxpayer-subsidized corn (most of it genetically modified) that makes its way into almost everything we eat, the fact that so many family farmers have been driven from their land, and a culture that says that talking and thinking too much about food is, well, sort of greedy and maybe even sinful. So Jamie Oliver, the chef who helped transform kids' lunches in England, comes to the fattest place in America — Huntington, West Virginia — to create Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and finds that the children can't identify a clutch of tomatoes, though they can readily name ketchup, and while they're familiar with french fries, they don't quite realize that they're made of potatoes. Jamie cooks a lunch, and is told by the woman heading the kitchen — an angry, sullen little creature — that his food won't work because it can't be eaten with fingers or a spoon. When he expresses surprise, she says incredulously, You can't tell me that in England you give kindergartners knives and forks? Well, yes, says Jamie. We think learning to eat is part of education.

Many of those who realized something was missing swung wildly to the opposite extreme, kitting out kitchens with ultra-expensive appliances, sending away for exotic ingredients, and breathlessly following whatever trends food writers dreamed up for them. Molecular gastronomy, they pondered: Is it dead or alive? Is sous vide still a meaningful mark of foodie status now that you can purchase an appliance through Williams-Sonoma that does it? How do we square Michael Tomasky's comment in the Guardian that the food he recently ate in Paris — at regular rather than upscale restaurants — was uniformly bad with Adam Gopnik's bemused thoughts in the New Yorker about Le Fooding, a trend invented by young French intellectuals that sneers at classic French cuisine and elevates an approach definable by no one but the intellectuals themselves? (Counterintuitive, but true: By all accounts, English cooking is now better than French. The Brits have better restaurants; they cook more at home; they're paying homage to traditional British cookery and ingredients.)

But then there's the thing itself, food, and the bond between people who love to eat and people who farm. In many other farmers' markets around the country, vendors buy in bulk and resell, and what you get isn't very different from what you'd find in a supermarket. But Boulder has strict rules, so that almost everything here is grown locally, or at least in Colorado. The person handing you a bag of mushrooms, a bunch of carrots or a head of lettuce is probably the person who grew it, and when you buy corn later in summer, it's likely to have been picked that very morning. You can discuss recipes with these folks or ask advice about your own garden. What everyone's doing right now, up and down 13th Street, is catching up, talking grandchildren and restaurants and weather.

Sue and Mark Parsons live and farm in Berthoud, and have been selling here since the market began 24 years ago, when buyers didn't know what Japanese eggplants were or what to do with them, Sue says, and they were lucky to take home $100 for the entire summer. (Total sales that first year were $72,000. Last year, between farmers and vendors in the food court, the market brought in $3.2 million.) At the time they started selling, both the Parsonses had full-time jobs with IBM, but they were passionate gardeners. On this Saturday, their table features onions and Sue's handmade brooms. "Over the years, you could see the quality and professionalism change as we all figured out what we were doing," she explains. "My husband says a lot of the growers forget the last five minutes. You have to cure lettuce and put it on ice overnight. If you touch it too much, the next day it's mush. Every little step is important." You can see her meticulousness in the strongly woven ropes of shallots she creates every summer, each shallot plump and shining. Buy two of these and hang them in your kitchen, and you're good for the entire year, until you catch her again. Then there are the tomato plants that Sue and Mark will bring early in May — dozens of varieties, including the prolific and delicious Favorita. Many avid gardeners in the metro area swear they'd rather buy these plants than start their own from seed; the Parsonses have done their homework, tested greenhouse temperatures and soil mixtures. "We try them all out in the garden and use the ones that do well in this area — which are not always the big-name tomatoes — and we spend a lot of time hardening them off, a little extra time every day, to make sure they're ready to go in the ground," Sue says.

Those who grumble that farmers' market produce costs too much (often while cradling an expensive sparkling drink that consists of nothing but a few pennies' worth of water and chemical flavoring) fail to consider the labor an organic farmer puts into his products — not to mention the huge difference in taste. Sue says that she and Mark work far harder than they ever did at IBM, for 10 percent of the salary: "You have to do it because you love it. There's a difference between the big grower in California who never gets closer to his crop than the top of the tractor, and those of us who are down on our knees planting every little onion plant."

Wind-whipped farmers stand smiling behind their tables. Amy Tisdale and Wyatt Barnes of Red Wagon Farm display bags of fresh spinach and bear-shaped jars of honey. Further down, Mao Xiong has dried hot peppers and Jerusalem artichokes. At the Ela Family Farms table, customers spread jam on crackers and nibble on dried apples, fantasizing about the baskets filled with so many kinds of apples that will crowd the stand in fall. John Ellis, who's wanted to be a farmer since he was seven and cadging rides on neighbors' tractors, is one of the market's founding fathers. Ask him anything about its history and goals, and he'll have an answer. Today he's brought bags of hand-ground flour, along with an addictively delicious sweet-tart plum jam.

Gayle Harbison, whose Gayle Grows It specializes in xeriscape plants and small fruits, hands out a flier advertising the raspberry, blackberry, grape and rhubarb plants she will bring later in the season. This year — after intense e-mail consultation with a nurseryman in Delaware — Gayle has found a source for Mara des Bois strawberries, a domestic variety with the intense perfume of its wild cousins that's hugely popular in France but very hard to find here. Regan Waddle of Two R's Farm weighs out greenhouse tomatoes, bright and perfectly shaped, warm in the cup of your palm. Abbondanza displays a rack of seeds harvested from last year's crop.

The Pachamama table is piled with last fall's root-cellar-stored onions and potatoes. Lauren Culbertson and her husband, Ewell, left the security of his full-time job and a middle-class Boulder life fourteen years ago, moving to forty acres near Longmont, where they created a field and irrigation system from scratch, and farm intensively on twelve acres. Between the farm and the market, the Culbertsons employ roughly a dozen people, not all of them full-time. Though they sell to some restaurants, particularly Potager in Denver, their livelihood comes primarily from a devoted cadre of Community Supported Agriculture members and their regular market buyers.

As year follows year, the range of offerings at the market expands. In the early days, there was only produce and some cut flowers. Now you can do almost all your grocery shopping on this crammed and bustling block, finding live crayfish and smoked salmon, several kinds of cheese, bread and flour, condiments, chocolate, Colorado wines and meat: lamb, beef, chicken. Jay Wisdom, who comes almost every Saturday with his wife, Cindy, sells eggs, whole chickens, cut parts both boneless and bone-in, and backs and feet for stock, along with the occasional molted peacock feather. He is the son and grandson of Haxtun farmers and has two daughters whom he always hoped to raise on the farm. But the agricultural convulsions of the 1990s hit the Wisdoms hard, and they had to sell most of their land. Once they'd decided to raise chickens, the state's farmers' markets, and particularly the market in Boulder, became their salvation. Chefs — a hugely important part of the agricultural economy — began noticing their stand, and word spread. Now Wisdom poultry graces a lot of local menus. The Wisdoms also sell a couple thousand turkeys during the holiday season.

Naturally, Boulder being Boulder, the couple is questioned often about their husbandry practices. The birds are fed a custom blend of all local products, with no antibiotics, hormones, preservatives or animal products, and during the day, they have access to the outside. Getting to Boulder every Saturday is hard: The family has to wake up at 3 a.m. to complete their chores before hitting the road. But Jay enjoys meeting his customers and is delighted that people have begun connecting more with their food.

You can hear the affection in Frank Silva's voice when he talks about the Highland cattle he both shows and raises for meat. This is a Scottish breed that has persisted virtually unchanged for the last 200 years, "the only bovine that has a heavy hide, long hair like an elk and buffalo," he says. As for their temperament, "they're just different in a lot of ways. They're smarter. You can hardly herd a Highland; you're better off calling or luring them." All the cows in his registered herd have names.

Frank was born on a dairy farm and has been a rancher all his life, but his business dropped off so drastically after 9/11 that he had trouble paying for feed. Four years ago he got into the Boulder market, and the change was dramatic. He was meeting more and more people, getting more and more orders, and — though he still works as a hoof trimmer three days a week to get by — making enough to pay the feed bill and take care of his cows.

He offers a browser a sample of sizzling beef sausage and smiles at the enthusiastic response. He's proud of the meat. His cows never see a commercial feedlot; he mixes their feed — grass and alfalfa hay, sunflower seeds, corn silage, flax seed — himself and will provide pure, grass-fed meat if customers want it. "I learned a lot from the guy who owned the Fort," he explains. "He was a meat connoisseur, and he always said the thicker the hide, the better the meat; the slower the growing time, the better the meat." The animals are two years old at the time they're slaughtered, and they're taken to a local, family-run processor where "they play a radio because music calms animals, and a fan blows lightly on them; it's a real relaxed environment," he says. "The animals do not see the one in front in the knocking box go down. The place is right in town; there's a house next to it, it's that clean." And where inspection in big slaughterhouses is random, in this place every animal is individually inspected. "If the USDA man is not on the floor, they're not open," Frank says. "I've brought my family up showing these cattle; it's in my blood. I like being with animals. But it doesn't always pay so good. And the Boulder farmers' market gave me life."

For a list of area farmers' markets, go to the Cafe Society blog at westword.com.


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