The Boulder Farmers' Market sees the first Colorado cherries on Saturday. The strawberries are gone for now, though we'll eventually get a second flush (and I discover some later that day at the new market in Louisville just down the road); we're unlikely to have any Colorado apricots this year; and we've also heard the cherry crop is sparse. But here they are, at the First Fruits stand, and farmer John Ellis also has some from his Orchard Durazno. The cherries are a little tart but fresh and sweet -- and they'll get sweeter as time passes and later varieties kick in. See also: Teri Rippeto shops for Potager at the Boulder Farmers' Market
I've bottled cherries before with brandy and spices like cardamom and star anise, but pretty much all I do with fresh ones is eat them out of hand or make pies or jam. I run into Teri Rippeto, owner of Potager and a chef who's so devoted to fresh, local food and working with farmers that she almost always comes to this market, and I ask what she plans to do with her cherries. She describes her version of a caprese salad -- you know, that ever-popular mini-tower of mozarella slices, basil leaves and fresh tomatoes.
Rippeto alternates slices of mozzarella or -- even better, if you get your hands on it -- burrata with pitted cherries and roughly torn basil leaves, then adds a drop -- "And I do mean a drop, or at least very, very little," she says -- of balsamic vinegar, followed by a dash of extra-virgin olive oil. She seasons with salt and pepper and tops with cracked toasted almonds.
I buy five pounds of cherries -- you really have to load up on the first picking -- from Kristen Kropp at First Fruits. Located in Paonia, First Fruits was founded by two brothers, Kris and Kevin Kropp, who grow several varieties of peaches, nectarines, pears and apples. Kristen is Kris's daughter; beside her at the stand is Kevin's son, Casey. I've been reading that agriculture is in trouble because so many young people are leaving family farms, so I'm curious about Kristen's feelings growing up in a farming family.
Kristen loved it, she tells me. The business was started in 1987; the brothers had been helping with a small orchard owned by her grandparents. "That's where we grew up, all my cousins," she says. "My mother home-schooled all of us -- there are five kids in my family, four in my uncle's. I don't remember ever being bored or lonely. It's a big, agricultural community and we had lots of friends. We ate tons of fruit. Our friends always wanted to come over so they could go into the orchards and pick fruit.
"My dad had us helping him when we were small -- though I don't know how much help we actually were. Mostly we were being kids. But we were surrounded by the seasonality and the cycles of farming, and you come to understand them. You understand that the time to get ready to go is the spring, summer and fall are crazy, winter is recuperation time." Keep reading for more on First Fruits. Members of the Kropp family share strong Christian beliefs. "The name First Fruit comes from a verse that talks about giving the first fruits of the land back to God," Kristen says. "The mentality is that we've been given so much and it's not responsible as stewards of the land and children of God to keep taking without giving back. We're called to love people and do it as best we can by taking care of the land and growing good food. It coincides well with the Bible and a lot of faith traditions."
In accordance with the concept of good stewardship, the fruit is grown organically. Their children were another reason why the brothers went organic: "My dad wanted us to be healthy and safe, and to be able to work with him without our bodies being damaged by what was being used in the field."
In all, First Fruits cultivates roughly two hundred acres, "land we outright own and land we're leasing or caretaking; it varies from year to year," Kristen says. "The orchards are scattered throughout the valley. My parents live on an orchard about thirty acres, there are more on the riverbed, our grandparents own another." This variety of microclimates ensures that there will always be some fruit to harvest, even when other parts of the crop succumb to insect infestation, frost or hail. And it's a textbook example, I'm thinking, of why only the skill, dedication and ingenuity of small growers can ensure our food supply in future times of uncertainty -- big agriculture, with its reliance on acres and acres of chemically encouraged monocropping, is acutely vulnerable to climate fluctuations.
But growing food the way the Kropps do is exhausting and financially uncertain. The apple crop has to be thinned by hand, while conventional growers can just use chemicals. A lot of damaged fruit never makes it to market or is used for apple juice and cider. "My dad says it's crazy to try and grow apples organically because it's so hard," says Kristen. "He uses organic solutions like oil -- you cover the leaves with oil and the coddling moth won't lay eggs there; he uses pheromone control to disrupt the insects' mating cycle. My dad's out there in the orchards all the time. We have tiny sticky traps; he checks them and he watches the temperature to see when the height of breeding season will be and then adjusts his control methods and timing -- and he's always careful to do just the minimal amount that he can do.
"They get tired. My mom does all the bookwork; the kitchen table's stacked with paper, and everyone's saying, 'Where can we eat?' and she says, 'Well, when my office is the kitchen, where do you expect us to eat?'"
But the family remains dedicated. Kristen has studied sustainable agriculture in college and plans a career in farming, though she's not sure what exact path she'll take. "My dad loves what he does even when it's hard and frustrating," she says. "He told me it's because he loves seeing things turn green in spring and knowing another season's coming."
The farmers' markets are crucial to the orchard's business. "I think we started with the Boulder market," Kristen recalls. "We had an old blue minivan -- I was about six and back then the five-hour trip to get there before 8 a.m. was totally adventurous. Now it's just kind of a long way to drive. The thing that's amazing about Boulder is that it's a true farmers' market. In some markets there are people buying produce and then re-selling it, sometimes produce from other states, and there isn't a great level of people being respectful of the food. We would probably not still be business were it not for the Boulder market. It pays the payroll every year and provides some cash flow. That market is just incredible, and the way it's managed is awesome, too.
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"The people are amazing. We joke that we try and take the best fruit to Boulder because the customers show up week after week. In more touristy markets, people come just once. There are people in Boulder that we see every year and that have become our friends. Even during tough years when prices go up, they may buy less but they do their best," she concludes. "We're hoping that it goes beyond a commercial transaction, that there's some kind of cooperation where we're all trying to work for something bigger and better than ourselves."