The benefits of local: Taking a look at the farmers market

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Collegian | Tri Duong

Josh Hillhouse, owner of Golden Poppy Herbal Apothecary, showcases a jar of Alaea salt at the Larimer County Farmers’ Market in Fort Collins Sept. 5, 2021.

Ivy Secrest, Life and Culture Director

Sunday morning chatter fills the Fort Collins Farmers Market. Like buzzing bees, patrons dart between booths and around produce. They pick over cucumbers and discuss cuts of meat and their best uses. The boom of Joe Miller’s voice echoes over the crowd, thanking them for being there. 

“Fifteen dollars a bag and a free melon on your way out — thank you for being here,” Miller repeats. 

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Head of Miller Farms, Miller has been attending markets for more than 40 years. 

“Normally, we have three generations here,” Miller said, gesturing to his daughter and grandchildren. “I’ve been doing this my whole life.” 

A busy place, the Fort Collins Farmers Market has regained its former popularity after the pandemic, and now more than ever, it represents a cultural hub in Colorado. Sometimes perceived as expensive hipster hubs full of overpriced goods, farmers markets can be misunderstood. 

For vendors like Miller, the market is essential for business. They rely on loyal customers and show their appreciation by giving deals, like the free melons Miller offered Sunday. 

“We don’t sell to grocery stores; there’s only so many farms they’ll even buy from,” Miller said. “You sell all your product direct — there’s no middle man.” 

Being able to have face-to-face interactions with customers is also a huge benefit for vendors, and even if they could sell to stores, many likely wouldn’t have enough to keep up with the demand. 

“We’re just a small family farm; it’s pretty much just me and my husband, and we have a 3-year-old,” said Jessica Wagner, owner of Wagner Land & Cattle. “We’re not big enough to sell in grocery stores, but we have enough to go to farmers markets.” 

Wagner cares greatly about her cows and ensures they live good lives. She also tries to keep her pricing in line with grocery stores so her products are affordable as well as grass fed and finished. 

“We’re providing quality beef for the community, which is definitely not something you can get in the grocery store as easily,” Wagner said. 

The support of the community brings the market to life. Ellen Bristow, founder and co-owner of EP Greens, based in Estes Park, is happy to chat with anyone about her microgreens and will even help people grow them at home. 

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“There are places you can do this (type of market) and places you can’t,” Bristow said. “The population has to have an appreciation for this kind of food.”

Typically, terms like “local,” “organic” or even “grass fed” trigger financial stress, so an appreciation for these products keeps businesses like Bristow’s afloat. Dawn Thilmany, a Colorado State University professor of agricultural economics, said not all products at farmers markets are overly expensive. 

“The farmers will always sit there and give you great ideas on how to cook it — some of which don’t even require a kitchen.” -Dawn Thilmany, CSU agricultural economics professor

Some of the economic strains on businesses — like the price of gas and raising minimum wage — may not affect local farmers to the extent they affect larger businesses, Thilmany said. Local farmers potentially don’t have to travel as far to sell and can benefit from maintaining family businesses. 

Thilmany said this doesn’t mean local businesses aren’t being affected at all; however, they may be able to maintain their prices longer than larger corporations. 

Looking at the rising cost of food, Miller’s $15 bag of produce could be very appealing. 

“Some people don’t care if they pay $5 for a cucumber, and others fill the bag to get the full value, so it works,” Miller said. 

Even on a college budget, farmers markets can be good options. 

“If you’re eating in the dorms or cooking from home, sometimes it’s hard to be eating healthy as a college student,” Thilmany said. “The farmers will always sit there and give you great ideas on how to cook it — some of which don’t even require a kitchen.” 

Thilmany said local businesses tend to invest their profits back into the community by getting machinery fixed by local mechanics or hiring locals. 

While this isn’t always the case, there are benefits beyond the economics for both vendors and customers. The community farmers markets build is irreplaceable, and the quality of the products is high. 

“I think I’m much healthier than I was before I started eating this stuff,” Bristow said, referring to her microgreens. “I just feel strong, and I feel good — plus I’m eating all of (the other vendors’) stuff too.” 

Vendors like Bristow, Wagner and Miller take pride in their products and work very hard to provide the best they can for their customers, keeping that local focus at the forefront of all they do. 

“For a while, we kind of lost that in the United States: 40-50 years ago, it was harder to find local options, and now we’re kind of back to the place where regions even have things they like to brag about, like Palisade peaches or Colorado beef,” Thilmany said. “It’s a great way to get to know the state through what we can produce.” 

Those new to Fort Collins should consider visiting the local farmers markets to experience Colorado through its products and Fort Collins through its staple community: members like the fun and lively Miller family. 

Reach Ivy Secrest at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @IvySecrest.