Markets sprout, and farmers survive

Column by Ann Macari Healey

Ann Macari Healey
Ann Macari Healey
Posted

The early morning chill, left over from winter's most recent unwelcome blast, settles along the quiet street where blue and white canopies have popped up like overdue buds, signaling the arrival of the season's first farmers market.

Soft music, lingering from a nearby restaurant, punctures the hush, along with occasional laughter and voices from vendors as they ready tables with wares and hopes for a good day.

Danish bakery workers pull sugar-crusted strudels — apricot and apple raisin — from their truck to shelves along the sidewalk. Nearby is the homemade peanut butter woman and the Angus beef man and the cheerful El Salvador cook.

At the end is the farmer.

He is 63, the great-grandson of a farmer who bought a plot of land 108 years ago in Welby, between Denver and Thornton, off North Washington Street. Today, he has 80 acres in Hudson, a country town of 2,300 northeast of Denver on Interstate 76, a solid hour-and-15-minute drive to the Sunday market in Highlands Ranch.

He stands next to his white truck, watching the market unfold, an ever-present long cigarette clutched in a weathered hand that tells a story of a working life rooted in the soil. He is a content man whose easy smiles crinkle soft grooves around blue eyes that peer intently from a sun-worn face.

“I might not be farming today if it weren't for the markets,” Alan Mazzotti says. “They've kept us in business.”

And they've kept us, the customers, connected to a less complicated time, when people knew who had grown the food on their table — a slice of knowledge that cultivated gratitude and nurtured community.

Sean and Maria McAfee, married 22 years, can't drive by a farmers market without stopping, whether it's along the coastal drive to San Francisco or in their hometown. When they lived in Evergreen, they visited the local market there every Tuesday. Now, in Highlands Ranch, they never miss a Sunday.

It's a matter of principle and a matter of friendship.

Besides the benefit of fresh produce, “I'd rather pay a little more to support local people,” Maria says. “We're big believers in moving away from the Walmart-ization of the U.S.”

And, over the years, many vendors have become friends — the Angus beef man invited them to his wedding last year.

“They become part of the fabric of your life,” Maria says.

“We were so excited,” Sean says of the week leading up to opening day. “We were talking about this all week.”

They walk away, hand in hand, each with a small bag. Basil and oregano seedlings in one, peanut butter, pasta and honey in the other.

This time, “we didn't have a lot to buy,” Maria says. “It was seeing old friends.”

Colorado has more than 100 farmers markets, with about half in the Denver metro area, according to the state Department of Agriculture. They operate individually or through sponsoring organizations. Most are seasonal, running from May through October, and their arrival seems to signal the start — finally — of summer.

The Metro Denver Farmers Market, founded 36 years ago, is the oldest organization. And that's how long Mazzotti, an original member, has been selling at the outdoor markets, which he estimates have kept 70 percent of local farmers in business.

In fact, he says, most farmers grow specifically for the markets. He has corn, carrots, green beans, cauliflower, sweet corn, cucumbers, winter and summer squashes, parsley, basil. “I can't think fast enough,” he says as he rattles off the list.

Farmers do have other outlets such as fruit and vegetable stands, garden centers and pumpkin patches. But they expect to earn most of their money in the summer markets.

They are, however, no longer just for farmers. Walk through any market and you'll see the realization of a melting pot of dreams.

There's the gourmet nut man, stirring almonds with a wooden paddle in a copper vat as a tantalizing aroma draws a crowd. There's a local children's book author. And there's Monse Perez Hines, the young Salvadoran wife of a military man, who drives up from Colorado Springs each week to sell curtido and pupusas, traditional foods she makes in her home which are so popular she always returns with empty coolers.

“I've received such great support from everyone here,” she says. And “I've been able to share my culture.”

And Evi Bujdoso of Hungary, selling Danish pastries. She wears a white apron, and her short, blond hair pokes out from beneath a white cap. A half hour from closing time, just a handful of strudels and a few croissants are left.

“We weren't prepared all the way,” she says with a slight accent and a quick smile. “People were excited to see us back again.”

As vendors begin to pack up, Mazzotti stands by his truck, behind the tables and ground laden with pansies, petunias and geraniums in planters, baskets and trays. Herb seedlings, also from his greenhouse, sit in the canopy shade. It's too early in the season for most vegetables and fruit.

The day's proceeds: Just OK.

“A little chilly,” he explains.

But that's all right. He's reconnected with many of his customers, some now friends, like the brothers in their 90s at the Auraria market in Denver that he's known for 30 years and who even visit his farm at times.

Next week, he hopes to bring asparagus, spinach and lettuce with his flowers. Come June, he'll be trucking loads of vegetables to six markets a week.

Down the row of vendors, he watches canopies folding shut — like tulips closing at day's end. Like the others, he loads up and heads for home.

“I'm tired,” he says. A smile quickly appears. “I'm getting older every day.”

And rest won't come until the plants are back in the greenhouse, the truck is cleaned, the crops tended, the chores all done. Then, he'll enjoy the peace of the land, the lack of pavement that traps heat, the friendliness of country neighbors.

“I have to make a living. I have to feed my family, too.” But more than anything, he says, working the land and sharing its yield with the rest of us, “is a way of life.”

A farmer's life. And a good life.

You'll find farmers markets listed at www.coloradofarmers.org.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@ourcoloradonews.com or 303-566-4110.

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