Farmers markets play an essential role in providing farmers with direct access to consumers while allowing them to earn retail prices for what they produce.
With seasonal markets now brimming with produce, it's an ideal time to celebrate Colorado Farmers Market Week, which was designated by Governor Jared Polis to coincide with National Farmers Market Week during the first full week in August.
"We're very excited to have the support of the governor's office to highlight farmers markets across Colorado," said Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association.
Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture introduced the snappy catchphrase "Know Your Food, Know Your Farmer" back in 2012, weekly visits to seasonal outdoor markets have become a routine part of life for many shoppers.
"Farmers markets serve as small business incubators for farmers and value-added producers," May said. "We're at a time when people really want to know where their food comes from. People are really looking for that connection."
The markets also play an important public health role by creating access to fresh, local food in their communities. Many of them accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers and use double-up food bucks to stretch those funds even further.
"We can provide better access to fresh fruits and vegetables for recipients while supporting local farmers at same time," May said.
Countless farms have used the markets to get started, expand, diversify or bring the next generation into their operations.
Jeni Nagle, sales director for Ela Family Farms of Poania, has been bringing fresh fruit and prepared items like applesauce, jams and fruit butters to the Boulder Farmers Market since 2006.
"We are actually able to grow new farmers because of this market," she said on a recent Saturday morning as shoppers streamed by.
In addition to being among the largest in the state, the Boulder market consistently ranks among the top ten farmers markets nationwide, attracting an estimated 70,000 visitors a year. It is so popular that getting a space to sell there can take years on a waiting list.
Nagle said a number of factors contribute to the success of the market, starting with the fact that it is organized as a nonprofit run by the farmer vendors.
"They keep the fees low," she said.
Farmers markets do best when they prioritize the needs of the growers, May confirmed, adding that many of the markets charge lower fees to farmers than to other vendors and give them more stall space.
They also rally around them when crops are lost to hail or other natural disasters, making it a point to educate customers about the risks inherent in farming.
In short, community support is vital.
"Support from cities and local businesses adds to the strength of the markets and makes them vastly easier for the market managers to run," she said. "Some of the markets are even run by the cities, and that can make a huge difference."
As an example, she cited the Greeley market, which is run by a city employee and housed under a special shade structure the city built.
The surrounding farms are what give many Colorado communities their character, but loss of water rights, lack of labor and cheaper foreign imports are chipping away at that legacy.
Nagle said small orchards are dying out all over Colorado simply because it's just not economically feasible to sustain them.
"The only way we can keep going is with direct marketing," she said. "Without being able to charge retail prices, all of the Ela apple trees would be gone. That's why our direct customers are so important to us."
Ela Family Farms is an organic operation that relies on 11 farmers markets in the Denver area to help pay the bills.
Ironically, it was here in Boulder where Steve Ela's family first got into fruit production. Ela's grandfather planted his first orchard in the Boulder area before the family eventually migrated west to Paonia, where their farm is located now.
As old family orchards die out, a renewed interest in old apple varieties is being rekindled. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, researchers started the Boulder Apple Tree Project in 2017 to seek out and map old orchards and graft heirloom varieties onto hardier rootstock so they wouldn't be lost for good.
"I'm in awe that those might be the same apples my grandfather tended," Ela said during a cider-tasting workshop held in Denver in mid-July.
Ela grows 32 different apple varieties, including some that are considered worthy of protecting due to their rarity and unique flavor.
Farmers markets have helped rejuvenate demand for novelty products, enhancing biodiversity and keeping things interesting for growers as well as shoppers.
At the Boulder market, fourth generation Kersey farmer Kyle Monroe was beaming about a recent interview he did with National Public Road in which he shared the story of what he calls the "Greeley wonder cantaloupe."
"My great grandfather saved the seeds from it, and now we are bringing it back out of extinction," he said with obvious satisfaction. "We even sent some of the seed to Svalbard, in Norway, to be put in the seed vault there."
Monroe said the one-of-a-kind melons can weigh almost 20 pounds by harvest.
Despite his enthusiasm, Monroe was also candid about the challenges market growers face.
That morning he and three other workers scrambled to pick 250 bushels of produce before heading out to the markets.
Labor shortages and water skirmishes are taking a toll, he said.
He credited the burgeoning hemp movement as a factor making it more difficult than ever to hire and retain good help.
In fact, Monroe is planning to try the government's H-2A program for the first time next year, even though many growers complain that it's expensive, inflexible and often unreliable.
The program is costly because it requires employers to provide transportation and housing for foreign workers and sets a pay level based on salaries in the area. But a big positive in Monroe's mind is that it also limits foreign workers to working only for the farm that brings them in.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced that it is proposing some changes to the H-2A program, evoking praise from the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, Western Growers and other industry groups.
The proposed rules are intended to streamline and simplify the process. Suggested provisions include electronic filing of job orders and applications, some flexibility for post-certification modifications, staggered entry of H-2A workers, updates to how the "adverse effect wage rate" is calculated and other changes intended to add flexibility and make the paperwork less burdensome.
Back in May, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue visited with Colorado produce growers at Sakata Farms in Brighton to discuss ways to make the program easier to use.
Like Robert Sakata, who heads up the fruit and vegetable growers association, Monroe has stopped growing sweet corn, even though it is a popular summer staple. There's just too much hassle involved in harvesting it and not enough labor to go around, Monroe said.
On top of that, many customers now prefer to buy their corn already shucked, he said.