Urbavore's Dilemma: Separating the natives from the non-natives at local farmer's markets

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Urbavore's Dilemma is an ongoing web series detailing city dwellers' commitment to urban homesteading. From May through September, Westword writer Joel Warner will get his hands dirty, covering everything from backyard chickens to front-lawn gardens, from greenhouses to co-ops and food-sharing. Check out the full series here.

Nicole Jarman, president of the Denver company HobNob Events and Festivals, had a bold dream for her Highland Farmers Market, the new northwest Denver market that runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the 1600 block of Boulder Street every Saturday. She wanted to feature only Colorado produce and products -- most of which would hopefully come from within the metro area. "This is... a neighborhood that is incredibly supportive of their local environment -- eating local, buying local, supporting local businesses," she said in a March Westword interview.

That dream, it turns out, might have been a bit ambitious.

"Right now, I would say I don't really have many farmers," says Jarman, who also runs the Old South Pearl Street Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays. There's a table for Heirloom Gardens, a new enterprise growing vegetables in six northwest Denver yards, and a few other small, local vendors currently focusing on hanging plants and herbs. The one larger-scale vendor at the event has been bringing in produce from out of state, including strawberries packed in plastic containers, so Jarman's made them post signs noting where their products hail from and when they expect to have a more local selection.

Part of the dilemma is a lack of vendors, says Jarman. A December 2008 assessment of local food systems by the Metro Denver Health and Wellness Commission found that while the metro area included 10 percent of Colorado's farms, those farms sell only $5 million worth of food directly to consumers. or 0.1 percent of consumer demand. "So just simply finding farms that have the capacity to travel to Denver and have people there to manage the booth and sell is difficult," says Jarman.

And while many Denverites have been taking up the hoe as of late and turning their backyards into vegetable patches, most aren't interested in becoming full-scale vendors, adds Jarman: "Generally, the people participating in urban gardening are doing it as a hobby. Yeah, they love to garden, but all of a sudden you want them to sit outside on Saturdays from 9 to 1, and that's not their original mission."

Compounding the problem is the fact that consumers, schooled in the ever-bountiful selections they find in supermarkets, expect all kinds of produce all the time -- not an easy task for those in Colorado dealing with a short growing season. "For whatever reason, farmers markets have decided that June is the time to start," says Jarman. "But there is no local produce in June. And as more markets pop up, there is more competition -- everyone is trying to stay ahead of the eight ball."

So markets have had to turn to vendors willing to bring in produce from places with longer seasons, like California and Mexico -- though that poses an unfair advantage over the local folks, says Sundari Kraft, owner of Heirloom Gardens. "If the person next to me is selling eggplant from California, consumers want to know why I don't have any," she says.

The situation led Mary Brinig, owner of Generous Servings Cooking Classes and Café, at 3801 West 32nd Avenue, to recently start the Highland Mico-Market, or MiMa, an event on her operation's patio on Thursdays from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. that's devoted to products created within the neighborhood -- eggs, veggies and honey made in nearby yards. "We definitely noticed that some of the things at the farmers markets seem to be less than very local," she says.

MiMa's small collection of vendors have been doing well since it opened in May, says Brinig -- though she doesn't see the operation getting very big. "It can't sustain something like 10,000 customers. I think local, backyard farms don't produce very much food," she says, noting the idea is to encourage others to start similar micro markets.

In the meantime, Denver's farmers markets will likely continue to be knocked for poor selection and non-local provenance -- pale comparisons, in other words, to the Boulder County Farmers' Market on Saturdays and Wednesdays on the 1900 block of 13th Street in Boulder, which bills itself as Colorado's largest farmers market and features one of the longest operating seasons (from April to November). The operation's managed to thrive even with a strict policy on local-only produce. "To sell at the Boulder County Farmers' Market, you have to grow what you sell at the market," says Kip Nash, one of the vendors and member of the market's board of directors. "And the only way someone is going to be able to sell something at the Boulder Farmers' Market that is not from Boulder County is if they are selling a product that is not available locally."

Many Denverites schlep up Interstate 36 each week for that local selection -- including a few celebrated chefs. "The biggest organic farms and the biggest varieties of organic produce are at the Boulder Farmers' Market," says Patrick Dupays, chef and owner of Z Cuisine and Z Cuisine A Cote in Denver, who estimates he gets much of the 45 to 50 cases of produce his operation goes a week during the peak produce season from the market. "If you go to Cherry Creek Market, you will find maybe one or two farms that you know. But if you want the entire selection of Colorado produce, there is really only Boulder."

Cherry Creek Fresh Market, which operates at 1st Avenue and University Boulevard on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., is often derided for its supposed out-of-state selection. But the market gets a bad rap because it's the big player in Denver, say its owners, Michele and Chris Burke, who also run several other "Fresh Markets" in town. "Because we are so big, we are sometimes targeted unfairly. People say a lot of stuff, but here are the facts," says Michele, referring to her vender list that shows the vast majority of fruits and vegetables sold by the twenty-plus produce vendors at the operation are grown by the vendors themselves and in state.

Most of their non-local produce is sold in May and June, she says, before most Colorado produce is ready. She also notes that, "The smaller organic farmers tend not to do as well as the larger farmers. People tend to vote with their dollars. We've evolved with the consumers' demand."

To find out where the produce for sale is coming from, Mary says "We encourage our consumers to ask. And we encourage our producers to note what is local and what isn't."

That's a start, says Kraft at Heirloom Gardens -- though she'd like to see the signage mandatory. "Local is every bit as much a value added thing as organic. And you'd never sell non-organic food as organic. When you sell something at farmers markets without labeling it as out of state, you are selling it under the pretense that it is local. If people are buying the same produce they can buy at Safeway or Whole Foods, it should be labeled that way."

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