There’s always a sense of festivity to the first day of the Boulder County Farmers’ Market. People chat with their favorite farmers, catching up on what’s been happening over the winter; returning customers recognize and greet each other. Not that there’s a whole lot of food to savor. The peaches and plums, corn and tomatoes come later in the year; in early spring, you won’t find much more than overwintered onions, carrots and potatoes — not even plant starts just yet, though almost everyone is impatient to get back to the garden.
But this is a celebration that goes deeper than what’s available for the table. It’s a joyous recognition of the coming of spring, the green shoots that persist in pushing up through the dark earth, the lengthening days, the bond between farmers and the communities they feed. The market serves as a kind of church for those who believe that food is far more than the collections of calories, carbs, fats, things you should avoid and things to choke down for your own good that some nutritionists insist on reducing edibles to. Food is comfort, nourishment and communion. Sharing food, many anthropologists believe, is at the heart of civilization, which began when the first hominids gathered around fires to eat together and swap stories — stories from which myth, religion and the entire twisting complex narrative of humanity’s time on Earth arose.
But the market did not open on April 4 as scheduled, and no one is exactly sure when the weekly gathering can resume. Before Governor Jared Polis issued stay-at-home orders for all of Colorado, BCFM Executive Director Brian Coppom had already moved the opening to May 2, but now that looks too optimistic. “We’re updating,” he says. “At this point, I don’t know when we can open the markets and know that they’re safe for customers, vendors and staff.”
That news is distressing to customers, around 6,000 of whom usually flock to opening day in Boulder while some 1,300 head to the BCFM-run Denver Union Station Market that traditionally starts a month later. But Coppom has other plans. “The week of April 18, we will be watching an online ordering platform, planning essentially an online farmers’ market,” he explains. “We will take the orders, communicate to the vendors what’s been ordered in aggregate, and they’ll bring it to a central location. Staff will pick and pack each order; people will schedule thirty-minute windows to pick up.”
There are also plans in place for weekly Saturday pick-ups at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, where 900 twenty-pound bags of produce will be available for WIC and SNAP recipients; almost two dozen staffers will handle this operation. Coppom hopes that by April 25, this service can be available to the general public. “You would go onto the platform, a link will show all the produce available, you can filter by product or farmer and order online,” he suggests. The project will begin with weekly pick-ups, but Coppom wants to expand it to twice a week, and also to site pick-up operations in Denver, Lafayette and Boulder.
One of the primary benefits of the markets, though, has always been bringing consumers and farmers together, heightening public understanding of the changing seasons and the rigors of farming, allowing farmers to chat with customers about how their food is grown. You might see rancher Frank Silva of All Natural Homestead Beef, for instance, recoiling in horror at the idea of an elaborate red-wine mushroom sauce muddying the taste of his superlative steaks, or a customer discussing with Mark Guttridge of Ollin Farms a recipe for baked zucchini with lemon and feta cheese once the summer glut of squash arrives. Tim Brod of Highland Honey would be offering tastes of his delicious product to everyone passing his stand, explaining that the bees foraged on local wildflowers, and also talking about the life of the honeybee and its huge ecological importance. Skip a week, and you could expect a gentle reproach: “Hey, we missed you.”
Coppom is well aware that nothing can stand in for these exchanges. “The opening of the market represents so many things,” he says, “To me, it’s the beginning of the summer season, kind of like coming out of hibernation and seeing friends again, and re-engaging with the community. That will be sorely missed. If you think about the market as a mechanism to deliver food and a set of values, we’ll have the opportunity with curbside pick-up to communicate with customers from a safe distance. It won’t be the full experience, but we’re hoping to re-create some of it. Given what other people are going through, I’m grateful we’re able to do this and that staff and vendors are healthy.
“In the same way that video-conferencing has exploded, we are exploring ways that we might be able to keep those connections up,” he adds. “Would it be possible at some point to have people leave cards for other customers, like a bulletin board to keep that spirit of conviviality alive? We’re all anxious to get back to where we can feel safe with one another and resume our social interactions.”
The farmers themselves haven’t been standing still during this crisis. They have been staffing roadside stands and promoting community-supported agriculture. Some report that requests to join these CSAs are up this year, as concerns about the food supply rise. Producers of lamb, beef and pork are taking orders via email and arranging pick-ups in parking lots. In addition to their usual CSA, which begins in June, Miller Farms in Platteville has added home delivery of bags of mixed vegetables, tomatoes and eggs.
Frank Silva reports that he misses seeing his customers at the market, but with online ordering, Boulder drop-off deliveries and buyers visiting the farm, his sales are doing well. “Things went crazy as far as people looking for food,” he says, then adds, “I know this crisis will pass. Farm people are used to dealing with all kinds of things. I know what it’s like to work and not make a dollar in two years, so this little scare doesn’t even faze me.”
Starting in midsummer, Ela Family Farms brings peaches, plums, pears and apples to the markets. In early spring, their sales consist of jams and dried fruits. “We’re running ourselves in circles at this point,” says Steve Ela. “The early markets are a pretty small percentage of our sales, but it does help with our cash flow. We’re primarily worried about early to mid-July, when we get into the fresh-fruit season. Farmers’ markets on the whole are about 40 to 50 percent of our income.
“It’s spring, there’s a lot of farm work, and I’m trying to balance all the what-ifs with what needs to be done,” he continues. “September and October are big market months. We want to do our best to be prepared, and that’s hard when you don’t know what to be prepared for. It will be a travesty to the state if the markets aren’t functioning somehow. I wrestle with this a lot. I think we’re all highly committed to making the markets as safe as possible, but I guess we also don’t want to be so ultra-safe that we drive people to grocery stores.”
The BCFM has a longer season than most markets and year-round staff, so it’s in a better position to navigate uncertainty and think outside the box. “Kudos to them for jumping into the fray. It’d be a huge task if you had six months or a year to implement it instead of weeks,” says Ela.
But smaller markets, many run by volunteers, may not survive.
While farmers’ markets, along with grocery stores, have been deemed “essential” businesses by the state, new systems of hygiene and regulation could become too onerous for some. And if many markets close, Ela explains, “You could see a number of farms just be done. Farmers are already over-busy. It’s hard to add more to an already stressed system. I know very few farms that have deep reserves. Losing markets would put a lot of farms in a deep hole that it would take years to recover from.”
The Boulder market has a rare emphasis on local growers. Most of the produce and products sold there are grown in Boulder County, and farmers have a lot of say in how the organization is run. There are a couple of exceptions to the local rule. Fruit comes in from the Western Slope, for example. And Karl Burgart of Healthy Harvest sells olives and olive oils from small growers in Italy and Spain whose ethics are in tune with his. He also offers amazing concoctions he makes himself: garlic- or lemon-infused olive oil, a handcrafted balsamic vinegar that you want to eat with a spoon.
Many, though not all, of the fruits and vegetables sold through BCFM are organic, and a focus on healthy eating runs through that market. Still, there’s nothing preachy or overtly political about the organization. It just provides a silent reminder of the sheer joy of tasting an ear of corn that was picked early the same morning, a tomato fresh off the vine or an apricot allowed to ripen on the tree. Which perhaps means that you don’t need an overt discussion of the lack of nourishment in most industrial foods, the cruelty of mass cattle and chicken husbandry, the numerous lawsuits about the connection between cancer and glyphosate won by plaintiffs. No one here is going to bring up the fact that one of the strongest arguments against Brexit came from Britishers afraid that if trade shifted from Europe to the United States, they’d have to eat our chlorinated chicken.
But concerns about industrially produced food and an interest in alternatives were on the minds of the two men who created the Boulder Farmers’ Market back in 1973: David Bolduc, who founded his long-lived Boulder Book Store that year, and Richard Foy, co-founder of Communication Arts, the local outfit that designed the elegant Pearl Street Mall, which opened in 1977.
According to Bolduc, pre-mall downtown Boulder was a scruffy and unpleasant place, and many customers were being drawn away from its shops by the now-defunct Crossroads Mall. The idea for the market started, Bolduc recalls, when he and Foy were trying to figure out how to vitalize the area. But they were also riding the wave of the locavore food movement just beginning to sweep through the United States. The concept of locally grown food was already familiar to Bolduc: He’d grown up in western Michigan, where there were a number of active farmers’ markets, and that was where his parents and grandparents shopped.
“Richard and I were the young guys back then,” he remembers, “and we talked to the older folk about a market at the downtown businessmen’s meeting — it was all men then, smoking cigars. And there were Richard and I trying to stay alive in business. One of these guys fell over dead of a heart attack during a meeting. This was not a healthy group of people.”
They faced another challenge: There weren’t many farms in the county. There was, however, a farmers’ market in Colorado Springs, and Bolduc went there to consult an agricultural agent. “I was just reaching out to understand what was possible,” he recalls, and received some good advice. The agent in Boulder County was less helpful: “The idea was too weird for her.”
Still, Foy and Bolduc persevered, calling around and visiting the local farmers they could find. And after the discouraging agent retired, later agents were more open and interested. Farmers began working with the county, which now leases open-space agricultural land to them.
For some years — Bolduc doesn’t remember exactly how many — the market was held in front of the Boulder County Courthouse on Pearl Street. Even after it moved to its current location, on 13th Street between Arapahoe and Canyon, many of the vendors were people with fruit trees and vegetable gardens in their back yards. “But gradually, over time, the farmers got more involved and bigger, and started to see they could have a livelihood selling at the market, and there were stands with trucks behind them instead of card tables,” says Bolduc. “It was just these gradual steps as more and more people started to rent or buy farms, and slowly the farmers took the market over.”
Today the Boulder County Farmers’ Market is one of the top farmers’ markets in the country. Bolduc and Foy still shop there. “I’m just buying stuff like everyone else,” says Bolduc. “That was always the intention. We weren’t expecting to do this as a career. Occasionally I’ll be at the market, slightly know someone, and say, ‘We started this.’ People just look at us like, ‘Yeah, sure.’”
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One of the things that initially motivated Bolduc was the fires and floods he’d experienced in Boulder. “I started seeing how we weren’t prepared for much,” he says. “You go into third-world countries, who are closer to the earth and understand how things can happen very quickly. These unexpected things like plagues are normal in world history. We always think we can control all these aspects of our lives, and people are starting to see that we don’t.
“Given what’s happening right now, I think it points out even more importantly the need for a local system,” he continues. Perhaps that might lead us to develop a more simple diet, a regional diet. When I was a little boy, my mother shopped at the local grocery store — there were no supermarkets then. I’d go with my wagon; the store was two or three blocks away, and I must have been five. I had a note pinned to my shorts. Someone would take the note off, put the food in the wagon, put the change in there, and I’d go back to my house. Somehow, the whole scale of things was so different.”
Coppom is hopeful that by next year, things will be back to “where we don’t have to stand six feet apart and have the booths roped off,” he says.
“One of the bright sides of this current situation is that it’s helping illuminate the role of a good local food system,” he concludes. “It’s a huge effort, changing from a traditional farmers’-market model to a food-hub model in a few weeks. There’s a lot we don’t know, and a lot we’re learning very quickly. I expect the process to be challenging but also rewarding, because it’ll feel so good to be distributing food again.”