Outstanding in their field

How the Boulder County Farmers Markets have quietly become some of the nation’s best

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Aspen Moon's stand at the BCFM.
Susan France

As average consumers in Boulder County, we have a tendency to think of our Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM) as an end. They’re places to meet farmers and try new food and learn about agriculture, sure, but we’re there, primarily, to get produce and local goods.

This obfuscates what BCFM has become: a national leader in supporting small-scale farmers and an example to other markets on how to do the same.

Take the Lafayette Thursday night market, for instance. While Boulder has the biggest market in the county, and Longmont has the fastest-growing, most family-friendly event, BCFM is “still working hard to find a strategy” as the Lafayette market enters its second year, says Elyse Wood, operations and community manager at BCFM. The market is billed as a night out, complete with a beer garden for those who attend. Farmers and artisans who can’t get into one of the other markets due to space limitations are encouraged to set up a booth at Lafayette’s market and help it grow.

But here’s where BCFM is blazing a trail: Wood says that because the market may only receive 300 visitors on a good night, farmers need to be assured that they’ll make enough money at the market to cover the costs of showing up. To help cover that risk, BCFM started a Founding Membership Program, which asks Lafayette residents to become “founding members” for $55. The funds are put into a pool to help cover the costs for farmers who show up and don’t break even. So BCFM purchases enough food from low-selling farmers to cover their costs, and then the food is donated to local charities. Last year, the program bought and donated 1,500 pounds of produce and meat, which was donated to Community Food Share.

In exchange for the $55 fee, founding members will get special deals and an invite to an exclusive end-of-year celebration. Of course what folks are signing up for is an opportunity to get hands-on with the growth of their hometown farmers market.

“We’ve never seen it before,” Wood says of the model, but it’s born out of BCFM’s commitment to support farmers first, and let the local food system thrive around them.

“We want to be able to keep our value system in place in terms of supporting farmers,” Wood says.

BCFM has always been about farmers — 30 years ago, the first farmers market took place on Pearl Street in front of the courthouse. Wood says since then, despite the rapid growth and transformation into a business, “ultimately we are a board of farmers who always put agriculture first.”

BCFM has expanded to welcome foods that come packaged and prepared, as opposed to only fresh produce, but what constitutes the thread between all producers is being local. Wood says that has allowed for diversity in products, with BCFM serving as an incubator for new ideas. It’s led to the launch of national companies like Noosa Yoghurt and Justin’s Nut Butter, and local enterprises like Organic Sandwich Company.

Wood says only about two to three new people get to enter the Boulder market every year, which has an average of about 30 square feet available when new seasons start. Some of that goes to new producers, and some is split between farmers, like when a fruit grower doesn’t have anything to sell until later in the summer.

But for all the talk about sustainability and supporting local producers, there needs to be equal attention paid to affordability. For Boulder County residents who might not have the means to shop for all their produce at farm stands and at the BCFM (full disclosure: me), Wood says education can go a long way in at least getting people to consider what it means to shop at BCFM.

“We really want to educate the public about the cost of food and what goes into environmentally friendly food, where the labor is paid for fairly,” she says. “A lot of food that is cheap is food that is also harmful for the environment or harmful to the labor force.”

Wood adds the cost of farming in Boulder County is higher than in other places, so that factors into the price of produce.

However, BCFM is trying to mitigate affordability concerns on a couple fronts: First it will continue to feature certain foods which may be available at discount prices, like a market-wide special. But it’s also attacking the notion that BCFM is vastly overpriced. Wood says, “there’s a misperception around farmers market prices,” and that BCFM will start to include comparisons to grocery store prices in its newsletters so consumers can decide for themselves.

BCFM also expanded its reach in the community a few years back by launching Seeds Library Cafe in the main branch of the Boulder Public Library. It’s a surprise among the stacks to find such fresh food, and chef Matt Collier deftly works with the local fare to produce unique meals.

Wood says if BCFM continues to grow, it can be viewed as an exemplar to other communities across the country, with the caveat that what makes the business side work is the benefit BCFM provides to people.

“I think first and foremost we are a community resource and a place where … people can come together,” Wood says. “We’re really focused on finding ways to better improver how we create and share local agriculture in this community.”

The Boulder and Longmont Saturday markets open April 7. Boulder Wednesday markets start May 2, the Denver Union Station market on May 12 and the Lafayette Thursday night market on June 7. For more info, visit bcfm.org.