Brian Coppom, director of the Boulder County Farmers’ Markets, which operates markets in Boulder and Longmont, has been named CEO of the year by ColoradoBiz — the first leader of a nonprofit to be recognized by the magazine. Coppom’s background is corporate, in telecommunications and technology, but his passion — discovered when his wife, Nancy, signed up for a community supported agriculture program and the couple began picking up regular boxes of fresh produce from the farm — lies in supporting small farmers and transforming the food scene.
The market had seen two executive directors leave in two years by the time Coppom was hired in 2013. It stayed afloat through the hard work of the farmers involved and the support of Boulder’s passionate foodie community, but things were essentially static and sales trending downward. Coppom’s arrival sent a jolt of energy through the organization. Things got organized. Documentation became precise.
Communications were clear. A strong emphasis on outreach and education developed, and Coppom’s hand was seen in small details (he saw to it that the row of booths at the Boulder market on 13th Street was set slightly back to improve walkability, for example) and in larger ones, as well as innovative new events.
There were creative ideas. The market began coordinating with the Boulder Valley School District — itself at the forefront of the national food movement under chef Ann Cooper, director of food services — and, among other things, produced farmers’ cards, a take off on baseball cards. Each featured a local farmer, a quote, information about the farm, and a vegetable, along with information about that vegetable’s provenance and nutritious qualities. Once a month a chef would come into a school to prepare the vegetable of the month; the kids would sample it and receive a sticker. They could trade those cards, and if they brought them to school on specific days, the farmer would be there to sign them. “I like the idea of farmers being treated like athletes,” Coppom says, and adds, “Little things like that go a long way toward building awareness.”
A program with the Farmers Alliance for Integrated Resources, developed with both the alliance and Colorado State University Extension, brought together both small and commodity farmers for meetings on agricultural issues around the county, some held at local pubs. These covered topics like cropping systems, farming in an urban interface, and why some farmers choose organic and others conventional methods; each attracted some fifty or sixty people.
Labor is always a difficult issue for farmers, and the Farmers Market has worked with CSU and Bridge House, an organization that feeds and helps homeless people. “They have a residency,” Coppom says. “It used to be for six people or so who were really motivated to transition out of homelessness and were given counseling and a place to live. Bridge House also used to contract with various outside groups — traditionally Boulder’s Parks and Open Space — to employ these individuals on trash pickup and trail repair. They already had this nice structure about people who were not necessarily mainstream employable. Farm labor often comes from a marginalized aspect of the culture, migrant workers, people who are outsiders. So we wondered, is that a resource we can tap into? ... We’ve had up to five people over the last fourteen weeks go out on three different farms, pulling weeds, harvesting, and the farmers want to do it again next year. The jobs bring a paycheck, not big, but over minimum wage. And there’s also the value of horticultural therapy, community building, that sense of belonging and that you’re harvesting or growing people’s food. The idea was that if people could connect with the earth, that makes it easier to connect with other people and integrate into society.”
Then there’s Seeds, the coffee shop Coppom helped establish within Boulder’s Main Library downtown, and that opened in April boasting a local, seasonal menu. “It’s really working,” Coppom says, and goes on to list a mouth-watering array of baked goods prepared with local fruits and offered over the past year: “Peach scones. Cherry muffins. Plum tarts. Savory scones with goat cheese. Apple muffins. ... We had the goal of 70 percent local sourcing; by now it’s around 85 percent. We buy our milk locally. Everything except for flour, and we’re working on that. Even our corn chips are local. We’ve had some success expanding via catering, and we also ran a staff appreciation lunch for Boulder Community Health that served about 1,600 people."
But the biggest success story for an organization that exists primarily to support local farmers — and the fact that may have caught the attention of ColoradoBiz — is the steady increase in producer sales: a 12 percent increase last year and, as of the end of October, nine percent for 2015.
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“What I saw when I got here is how highly regarded the Market is in the community, and a desire by people outside the organization to collaborate,” Coppom says. “The willingness of everyone to say yes made a difference. The staff is the same way—they are all about wanting to explore. This is not only the most enjoyable job I’ve had, but I’m feeling a guilty pleasure that it’s one of the easiest because everyone wants to participate and it’s fun.
“I’m grateful for ColoradoBiz to have the courage to award a nonprofit, and I think it does signal a trend—that is the valuing of attributes in business that are not strictly financial. It’s nice if we run the markets profitably and efficiently, but it’s more about acting in the spirit of service: How do we serve our farmers better and the community better? I really do think the award is a signal that business has to deliver more than just profits to shareholders. We’ve become so disconnected from one another as people and that’s one of the reasons the market and local agriculture are so important.”
Coppom sounds like a dedicated soldier in the food revolution, but he laughs at the idea. “I was never active,” he says. “I’ve been to one protest in my life because my girlfriend in college dragged me there. But what I love about this movement is that it’s not taking a stand, it’s just making a different choice about what to eat — a choice you get an immediate benefit from in texture, flavor and learning what the food means and where it comes from. It’s as easy as falling off a bike.” He laughs. “And you’re never going to be in an FBI file for shopping at a farmers’ market.”
The Winter Market, the last of the season and featuring local foods and crafts, will be held this weekend (December 5 and 6) at the Exhibit Building at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.