In the fall of 1986, a half-dozen Boulder County farmers came together around a vision: to create a market for farmers — run by farmers — where vendors could sell what they’d grown directly to the local community.
With the support of Boulder County, the city of Boulder, some students at the University of Colorado and a lot of volunteers, the Boulder County Farmers’ Market launched in 1987 with the goal of supporting local agriculture. This year, the market — which returns for the season April 7 — celebrates its 25th anniversary.
“Twenty-five years ago in Boulder County, we had some visionary individuals come together and (set up a market) before it was fashionable,” said Shanan Olson, the market’s interim executive
Sue Parsons, right, of Sweetheart Farms, unloads produce at the Boulder Farmers Market on 13th Street in June 1987. Parson still sells at the market, which is celebrating its 25 anniversary this year. ( SUE PARSONS VIA CARNEGIE LIBRARY )
director and a farmer herself. “They consciously decided they wanted to feed their neighbors and families and friends.
“There’s something pretty fabulously amazing about that.”
Over the last quarter century, the original Boulder market has grown into a touchstone of the community; a second market was set up in Longmont; the hours, the days of the week, and the length of the season for both markets have been stretched year after year; and the offerings available at the markets have diversified in creative and unexpected ways.
But one thing has not changed: Every farmer who sells at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market grows his or her own produce, setting it apart from most farmers’ markets across the state and across the country. The premise of grow-what-you-sell is woven directly into the fabric of today’s market, just as it was in 1987 when it began.
IF YOU GOWhat:
Boulder Farmers’ MarketWhen:
8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday, April 7 through Nov. 17; 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every Wednesday, May 2 through Oct. 3Where:
13th Street between Canyon Boulevard and Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
What: Longmont Farmers’ Market
When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday, April 7 through Nov. 3
Where: Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Road, Longmont
More info: boulderfarmers.org
“It’s always been run by farmers, and it always demanded that the farmer that was selling it had actually grown it,” said Bob Munson, of Munson Farms, who has been part of the farmers’ market from the beginning. “At that time, a lot of farmers’ markets started all over Colorado. (They) quickly became a place where junk produce was sold. You can get junk produce for nothing and sell it for something.”
The market that began in 1987 along 13th Street between Canyon Boulevard and Arapahoe Avenue was built on the shoulders of an earlier market that grew up on the lawn of the Boulder County Courthouse in 1975, when Pearl Street was still a through-road.
That small market was organized by Richard Foy and David Bolduc through the Downtown Boulder Association as a way to attract shoppers to the area.
“They visualized that it would be a real nice draw for people to have events down there,” said Munson, who sold at that market with his two young sons. “They made a big banner — a canvas sign — and it could hang all the way across the street or it could hang all the way across trees as you enter the
Chet Anderson, background, one of the founders of the Boulder County Farmers Market, watches one of his workers potting basil plants at his grow operation in rural Boulder County. The market, with locations in Boulder and Longmont, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. ( CLIFF GRASSMICK )
Munson remembers about five other farmers selling regularly at that first market, which ran for a couple hours on Saturday mornings from July into September.
But the market faltered after its 10-year anniversary, partly because of the limited size of its location and partly because of new competition from a short-lived produce and crafts market set up in a parking lot near the site of the current farmers’ market.
“The courthouse lawn was limited in space, and the space was not viable anymore,” said Ulla Merz, who interviewed 10 of the longtime farmers selling at the market for the Maria Rogers Oral History Program at the Boulder Public Library. Merz, co-founder of Bookcliff Vineyards, also sells Colorado
Dennis Vinh of the Esoteric Food Company works on packing some of the company’s Zuké product line of raw pickled vegetables at the company’s facility in Boulder. The company will be selling its products at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market this year. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)
wines at the current markets in Longmont and Boulder.
“We were looking for a place with better access — a place more convenient to people,” said Chet Anderson, who helped found the market. Anderson still sells at the market, though he has switched from offering produce to ornamental plants and cut flowers through the business he now owns, The Fresh Herb Company.
The farmers settled on a location along 13th Street for their new grower-run market.
Sustaining local ag
Moving to the new location adjacent to Central Park in 1987 for the official start of the Boulder County Farmers’ Market was made possible thanks to the support of government leaders in the city and county. In general, a groundswell of community support for making sure that agriculture remained a part of the Boulder County landscape was emerging at about the same time that the farmers selling on the courthouse lawn began to look around for a new location.
“(The Boulder County Farmers’ Market) got started as a way to preserve local agricultural land — to provide a market for agricultural products so people would keep their farms,” John McKenzie, one of the market’s founding farmers, told the Camera in May 1990.
COMING WEDNESDAYLook for a calendar of Colorado crops and information on what’s new at this year’s farmers’ markets in the Camera’s Essentials section
And it worked, at least for some farmers.
“If it weren’t for the market, we wouldn’t have a farm in the city,” Chuck Rozanski, who grew herbs and vegetables on two-thirds of an acre in north Boulder, also told the Camera in 1990.
Boosted by the new location, the market caught on and grew quickly.
“It started out as something small, and it’s kind of become a summertime event in Boulder every year,” Anderson said. “I’m not sure I could have foreseen it being quite like it is today.”
At its fifth anniversary, between 75 and 100 vendors sold at the market, a 50 percent increase from the market’s first year. That year, 1992, the Wednesday market also launched. (It wasn’t successful until the hours were shifted from morning to afternoon.)
Twenty years later, the Boulder market has about 120 vendors and the Longmont market has another 70 or so, and both markets are thriving, though neither can take on many more vendors in their current configurations.
Even so, changes are afoot.
The market has launched a new initiative to help prepared food vendors connect with local farmers to source ingredients for their products. As part of the program, the market has asked the prepared food vendors to come up with three-year plans for how they can incorporate more local ingredients.
“We’re really serious about these connections being made,” said Jenn Ross, who manages the Boulder market. “Sometimes it’s hard for a prepared food vendor to find information on some of the small farms or sometimes it’s hard for a farmer to plan and prepare to sell to these contractors because they don’t have the contact information themselves.”
The ultimate goal is to strengthen the local food economy. And it’s working, at least for one of the Boulder market’s newest vendors, Zuké Pickled Things. The company wants to pickle more local produce for its products, but as a new business, it’s been difficult to know how to reach out to farmers and how to know how much produce they’ll need.
“It’s going to help us so much the way that they’re doing it,” said Willow King, Zuké cofounder. “We say, ‘This is what we need in the upcoming months,’ and then the farmers can kind of come to us.'”
Zuké also plans to buy produce at the market, pickle it during the week, and then resell it at the following week’s market.
“It’s going to be really seasonal,” King said.
At the Longmont market — where gross sales increased 20 percent last year — the changes underway this summer likely will be more obvious.
First Boulder market is established on the lawn of the Boulder County Courthouse, while Pearl Street was still a through-road. It lasted about 10 years, until outgrowing its location and facing competition from a very short-lived produce and crafts market on the site of the current market.1987:
The current Boulder County Farmers’ Market is launched as a growers-only Saturday marketplace on 13th Street between Canyon Boulevard and Arapahoe Avenue.1990:
The Longmont Farmers Market makes its debut.
1992: The Boulder market launches its Wednesday market, which isn’t successful until the hours are switched from daytime to evening.
1996: The Boulder County Farmers’ Market celebrates its 10th season with a jazz festival, bagpipe parade and what was billed as “Boulder’s largest carrot cake,” designed to feed 6,000 people.
Two years ago, the Boulder County Parks and Open Space Department, which runs the county fairgrounds where the market is located, extended the available electric service and expanded the market area to the east.
This year, the department is working to build a pavilion, where people can eat in the shade, and an arbor in the middle of the plaza to provide additional shade, according to Stan Snyder, a landscape architect for Boulder County Open Space.
The improvements are expected to help feed further growth this year, said Lisa Searchinger, the Longmont market manager. Searchinger expects another 20 percent increase in sales this season, thanks to the infrastructure, new vendors and growing community enthusiasm.
“I think people really appreciate our core value, which is we grow what we sell,” she said. “I hear that continually from customers that that’s why they like our market.”
Even with an eye toward change, as the market turns 25, leaders are looking back toward their roots.
“We’re celebrating the eaters that come and seek the growers of the food we love,” Olson said. “We’re also grounding. We’re celebrating where we’ve come from and how we got there — the vision of the people who started this as a growers-only market in the first place.”
Olson — who sells produce from her organic farm, Abbondanza, at the market — said the time is also right for the market to play a role in bringing the community together and educating the public. Interest in local agriculture has swelled over the last several years, and, recently, the Boulder County community also has been embroiled in a debate about how to best use agricultural land owned by the county’s open space department.
A central question in that debate was whether or not genetically modified organisms should be allowed on county-owned land. And while the debate highlighted the increased interest in local agriculture, the GMO issue was extremely divisive.
“I think there’s a desire to bridge some gaps,” Olson said. “The debate that happened last year around GMOs and open space — it really pitted organics against GMOs and vice versa. We’re celebrating 25 years of a growers-only market that has never discriminated against any form of agriculture. … The farmers’ market is such a great place to celebrate all that diversity and all those unique perspectives.”
Olson, who is serving as the interim executive director, said the market eventually will be looking for new leadership. But for now, the board is taking a deep breath and focusing on how to keep the market’s founding spirit alive for another quarter century.
“We want to make sure our next 25 years are about celebrating everyone who’s choosing to support the community in their backyard by going to the farmers’ market and trading and sharing and taking turns with their neighbors instead of industries and corporations,” Olson said.