Farmers and floods: Boulder market cancelled Saturday, back tomorrow

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It felt strange waking up Saturday and remembering that the Boulder County Farmers' Market had been cancelled because of the flood. Wondering how the loss of revenue -- not to mention the flooding itself -- was affecting the farmers I see and talk to every week, I called a few of them this past weekend to find out. See also: Best Farmers' Market 2012 -- Boulder Farmers' Market

"This is our peak season," Amy Tisdale of Red Wagon Farm told me, "and these are our biggest markets. It did mean we didn't have to pay our employees to harvest the food, but then it also means they aren't getting the pay they count on, either."

Tisdale and her husband, Wyatt Barnes, are always mindful of their workers. I remembered that earlier in the season, they had asked customers to donate baby things for an employee who was pregnant.

As we spoke, Tisdale was still assessing flood damage. She and Barnes cultivate two plots of land, a farm at 63rd and Oxford, where they also live and operate their farmstand, and another on Valmont Road between 75th and 95th.

"We had a lot of standing water and running water through our fields and we were really worried about the plants dying, being underwater for so long," Tisdale said. "Amazingly, it looks like stuff has dried out some. We don't have potable water at our farm now. We normally rinse off all our crops before selling them, but we have to go with dirty crops for a little while." She laughed. Red Wagon is also known for the pristine condition of every item of food they sell.

At the time of our conversation, however, they couldn't harvest: "At the farm on Valmont Road right now, we're able to walk across but we can't get vehicles in and out," Tisdale explained. "Our employees in mountain towns are stranded. There's a CSA pickup on Monday, and we're trying to figure out what we're going to be able to accomplish with that. We're in a wait-and-see phase right now.

"We were without power for 24 hours, but we have a few walk-in coolers, cool enough that the produce held up fine and then the refrigeration came back on. We have peaches coming out our ears here from Ela and First Fruit. We have good traffic at the farmstand today. We're happy to be open and able to connect with people, and everybody who comes in has a story and wants to ask us questions."

The summer markets account for roughly a third of Red Wagon's revenue. "We often have a thousand customers come to our booth on Saturday," Tisdale said. "Those people aren't getting food. It's odd not being at the market. It's like a weekly ritual. I keep thinking it's Sunday. A farm is so different from any another business. Wyatt and I are super-invested in the market: It's a huge part of our livelihood and we're very attached to our market community.

"I'm walking on a farm road about three inches deep right now but I think we'll recover okay," she said on Saturday. "Did this completely spoil our season? It may have. It's hard to tell."

A couple of days later, Tisdale posted a detailed blog, complete with videos and photos, on the farm website. She and Barnes had been able to hold the CSA pick-up she'd mentioned on the phone earlier, and her blog entry concluded: "Wyatt and I have had some inconveniences and minor damage, but consider ourselves very lucky. There are many people who are trapped, or who are without water or power, or who have had their homes flooded or washed away. Boulder County has a list of roads that are currently closed due to flood damage. The list is so long I can't even read it. Where do you even start to try to repair things? My mind is a jumble of all the things I've seen over the past few days. In some ways I feel like things are starting to get back to normal. In other ways I know it will be a very long time before our community reaches 'normal' and the new 'normal' will probably be a 'post-flood normal.'"

For Eva Teague of Plowshares Community Farm in Longmont, which currently specializes in pork, the damage was minimal. "My biggest issue is I need to get the pigs off pasture so it can dry out without them ruining it," she said on Saturday. "We're on high ground and were spared a lot of the runoff. The pork in the freezer is okay; it's frozen solid. If it starts to thaw, I'll plug it into the generator."

And later on Facebook, she posted this: "Piggies are fine and less grumpy now that the sun's out. The sump pumps rocked it, but the electricity did not. Now the power is back on but we are about to lose water. Some have lost much more..."

"It's all so random," she'd told me earlier.

An institution at the market is Cure Organic Farm, situated on Valmont Road in Boulder. "Our fields are draining today," Anne Cure told me on Saturday/ "In some places, we've had as little as six inches, in others eighteen to twenty. We continued harvesting all the way through Wednesday. Now we're just letting it be and grateful that the rain has stopped.

"We have essentially six or seven months to make our yearly income, and the produce has no shelf life. Greens are the same way. You harvest them and they have to go. So missing a market definitely has an impact on it. The market is about 30 percent of our total sales. The rest come from restaurants and our CSA. The farm stand will be open on the weekend: We try to move the produce any way we can. We're pretty diversified and we try to stay resilient. You can't control nature, you have to work with what it gives you."

John Ellis, aka Farmer John, has worked with the farmers' market since its inception; he currently sells peaches, jams and fresh-ground flour there every week. He farms 76 acres in Niwot and also owns a portion of Rancho Durazno orchards in Palisade on the Western Slope. This year Durazno's entire plum and apricot harvest was knocked out by the cold spring weather.

Although the market closure definitely affects his income, "we can't do much about the weather," Ellis said. "A lot of people don't have anything to sell; they can't get to the produce because of all the mud and water." Some of his land is flooded, and a foot of water surrounds his grain bin: "I suspect it leaked in and made the wheat worthless. I haven't been back there; I can't get back there from here. I can drive a tractor to my farm if the state patrol's not there. There's still a lot of water going over the road. I'll figure out by next week how much I've lost."

Farming's tough, he concluded, but "it still beats getting a real job." The Boulder Farmers' Market will be open for its regular Wednesday evening hours; find more information here.

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