Life at farmers’ markets not always peachy
DILLON – As farmers, bakers, flower growers, jerky smokers and marinade makers at the Dillon farmers’ market packed up their booths Friday afternoon for the last time this year, hugs, smiles and heart-felt goodbyes abounded. The last few shoppers juggled bags full of produce and armfuls of flowers while herding their kids into cars. Lake Dillon sparkled in the background and sunshine drenched the parking lot the market has called home for the past seven summers.
This neighborly feel and idyllic setting mask some of the challenges and tensions facing vendors as a result of rapid proliferation of farmers’ markets in Colorado. According to Dillon’s events manager, Sally Croker, there were 110 markets across the state this summer, compared to 55 in 2002.
“I definitely had to step up my marketing plan,” Croker said. “The public has a perception that you’ll find the same good stuff at every market. People used to drive 15 miles to get great produce from a farmer they really liked. Now, they have a market right in their back yard that they may go to instead.”
As more farmers’ markets pop up, some vendors find their resources strained as they chase their clientele to multiple locations.
“We want to be everywhere,” said Jay Sharpless, co-owner of Loredana’s Pesto. “There are so many farmers’ markets out there, and we want to keep our market cornered. If we’re not there, we’re leaving a market open for someone else.”
Sharpless said he has resorted to hiring people to cover markets he can’t attend himself, which is a big expense, considering the short window of opportunity he has to make his living.
“We’re trying to pop 12 in a week. I bank on how good our summers turn out to be. This was a hard season.”
“I’ve definitely seen the strain,” Croker said. “One of our bakers has seen his sales cut in half. You’ve got vendors who spend twice the energy and twice the money for an income they used to get at one market.”
Miller Farms of Platteville, whose two tables at the Dillon market spilled over with ripe tomatoes, green beans, corn and other Colorado-grown delights, vends at 32 different markets each season from March through October. According to Wendy Jenkins, who works the Dillon booth, 90 percent of the farm’s income comes from farmers’ market revenues.
Granby farmer, Carol Morales, suffered health problems when she tried to cover more markets. “I spread myself thin. I got fatigued. It wasn’t worth it,” she said.
With the huge increase in markets, Sharpless says that quality can be driven down.
“They flooded Denver with so many markets that there is a vendor shortage. You’re starting to see farmers’ markets that look more like flea markets, and they’re giving us a bad name.
“In the spring, we have to play the A-Basin/Breckenridge “Who’s going to open first?’ game. Then, at those early markets, there’s no produce. People come with much excitement and get disappointed. It can hurt us.”
Despite the growing pains the farmers’ market community is experiencing, vendors, market managers and customers alike have plenty of enthusiasm for the opportunities they offer.
Silverthorne resident Megan Morgan visits the Dillon farmer’s market about every other week.
“It’s really cool,” she said. “The food is super fresh. It really does taste better, it supports the Colorado economy and I’m not stuck pushing a shopping cart.”
Morgan also appreciates the quality assurance she gets at the farmers’ market.
“The growers are right there. You can sample everything, so you’re not buying blind. The cheese guy is right there and he makes the cheese, so he can talk to you about it.”
Croker said that a market like Dillon’s, with a high quality and diversity of vendors, is a great opportunity for locals.
“You can get produce that was picked that morning,” she said. “It hasn’t been sitting in a warehouse for two weeks.”
Granby farmer, Morales, relishes the relationships she fosters each summer with her customers.
“The most rewarding part of this market is the direct response people give us about how grateful they are for our product,” she said “That makes it all worthwhile.”
After her attempt to expand resulted in illness, Morales now dedicates herself to a few select markets.
“Now I don’t go anywhere but Dillon, Minturn, Vail and Evergreen,” she said “The mountain community deserves a fresh product.”
According to Morales, farmers’ markets provide a vital niche for many Colorado growers.
“If it wasn’t for people coming to farmers’ markets, a lot more farms would be going under. NAFTA, Canada and Mexico can sell a product at a less-expensive price than what it costs an American farmer to raise it.
“With extreme gratitude, I thank all the locals who have supported our farm.”
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