At this same time last year, while talking to a friend, I reminded him that National Farmers Market Week was almost upon us. Despite being aware of my passion for farmers’ markets—and my role as the executive director of Boulder County Farmers Markets—he flippantly replied that he wouldn’t be able to participate because he had “misplaced his bonnet.” Markets are often derided by the unconvinced as simple, quaint weekend outings, but since that time, the COVID-19 pandemic has altered that point of view.
Throughout the United States and here in Colorado, many spring shoppers not only experienced that initial pandemic spectacle of grocery store shelves stripped bare, but they also witnessed firsthand the broken agribusiness supply chain disrupting our industrial food system. Lags in distribution and virus outbreaks at meat processing plants caused those grocery store shelves to remain more barren than usual. For the first time, many Coloradans had a window into what food insecurity might look and feel like.
A few lucky locals didn’t worry. What was their secret? They bought food from our robust local food system: the hundreds of farms and ranches across Colorado that have the ability to sell produce, eggs, meats, grains, dairy, honey, and flowers directly to their neighbors. These “community scale growers,” the farmers and ranchers who live in our communities and sell directly to us, give us the opportunity to get to know them, develop trust, and participate wholeheartedly in the Colorado food system.
There is a price that Colorado growers pay for working at a community scale. They must forgo the cost efficiencies of large-volume manufacturing. Local farmers grow a diverse variety of products, which means the land must be worked by the most versatile machines ever created: people. The sacrifices made by community scale growers put the planet and its living creatures over profit.
What that means in practice is, for instance, leaving room on the edges of fields to encourage pollinator habitat and ecosystem health; that inevitably requires reduced harvest volume. Pasture-raised animals are fewer in number, but have more room to roam. Lower production volume of fields and animals means fewer distribution options and fewer potential customers.
This is where farmers’ markets come in, and shine. Acting as a critical distribution outlet for community scale growers, farmers’ markets are much more than a pleasant morning errand. They are, in fact, a direct manifestation of the local food system. They are made up of the energy of local farmers, ranchers, food artisans, and the community, all with a shared enthusiasm for food with integrity. As such, farmers’ markets are often a community’s largest and most diverse access point to the local food system. They connect tens of thousands of customers with hundreds of local vendors. They act as a business incubator for new farmers and food artisans, too.
Perhaps numbers tell the story best. In 2019, farmers and ranchers at Boulder County Farmers Markets collectively sold over $5 million in locally grown products, $350,000 of which went to low-income residents via our SNAP and WIC programs. Food artisans collectively sold another $3.5 million worth of products made in local kitchens or onsite at each of the in-person markets in Denver, Lafayette, Longmont, and both of the Boulder markets.
In total, those five Colorado markets recorded 350,000 visits in 2019. Each visit strengthened the bond between vendors and the community they serve. Each visit strengthened local farms, the local food system, and local economies.
COVID-19 brings a stark reminder of what we stand to lose if those markets were to close. Throughout the state, farmers’ market openings were delayed because they are typically (and mistakenly) deemed as events, rather than services. But markets are essential, providing an access point to millions of pounds of locally grown produce and meats. Without them, accessibility goes down and the food system is at risk. Fortunately, with support from the Colorado Farmers Market Association and the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), a national support and advocacy group, local farmers’ markets advocated to be officially deemed essential and were allowed to open in Colorado with restrictions on March 22; BCFM markets were allowed to open on May 7.
In pandemic times, the market procedures necessary to ensure public safety, while crucial, have resulted in fewer vendors, fewer customers, and increased operating complexity. The outcomes are uniform and alarming. In a recent nationwide survey of markets conducted by the FMC, 74 percent of markets indicated they have earned lower income as a result of COVID-19; 93 percent reported higher costs. This is a toxic combination. FMC executive director Ben Feldman predicts that a large number of American farmers’ markets will go out of business in 2020.
If that prediction comes to pass, we will see a direct impact on Colorado’s local food system. Area growers will stand to lose access to thousands of customers and a solid base of support. Some farms will pivot and create distribution directly from their farms. Many, however, will lose revenue, straining already incredibly thin margins. Farmers will be forced to move into other industries, and the profession will become less appealing to new generations. Then, we will all have no choice but to depend even more on an anonymous, industrial food system with fewer choices and less access to high-quality nutritious products. In the event of emergencies like we’ve seen this year, we may not have access to high-quality food at all.
This year, National Farmers Market Week is August 2–8 and Colorado Proud Month runs all month long. Show your support for Colorado’s food system by frequenting your local market. Bonnets, of course, are optional.
In honor of Colorado Proud Month, Boulder County Farmers Market launched curated boxes ($74–$100) filled with Colorado-grown and -made produce, products, recipes, and more. Each week this month will feature a different theme, including Flavors of Latin America, Breakfast on the Front Range, the Ultimate Colorado Snack Box and Colorado Dinner Bell. Order yours for curbside pick up in Longmont or Denver here.