Farmers Market Director Talks the True Cost of Good Food

Farmers markets are a staple of the Colorado lifestyle — it’s sometimes hard to beat a leisurely morning spent shopping for fresh leafy greens or searching for the juiciest cherry tomato from a row of vendors. And the instant gratification of handing cash to a farmer in exchange for a bundle of beets that they planted, nurtured and grew themselves is palpable. But what really goes into running a farmers market? Does the average shopper really know how their business directly affects the farmers in question?

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Brian Coppom is the executive director of the Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM) which includes five different markets under the organization’s umbrella. BCFM brought in around $9 million worth of gross sales in 2019 and has worked to continue thriving and supporting farmers throughout the pandemic. Through their delivery and curbside pickup options and cooperation with SNAP and WIC programs, they’re doing their best to fulfill the overarching mission of all farmers markets of allowing everyone access to local, fresh and nutritious food.

The Real Impact

Coppom describes the food dollar, or every dollar spent on food, as a chart. 50% of this food dollar chart is taken up by “marketing,” which includes promotion, advertising, distribution, wholesale and any other supply chain costs. “So that has remained relatively steady,” he said of the marketing cost. “What has changed is that the cost of inputs has increased significantly. So fertilizer, and the cost of seed, the cost of labor — the farmer takes home less and less, and it’s at the point where it’s really not sustainable because that small piece that they take home means that your scale has to be dramatic in order to take home a living,” he added.

This article by the Washington Post places the average take-home pay for a farmer selling to a grocery store at 7.8 cents per food dollar, versus the approximately 94 cents from a local farmers market as reported by BCFM. “The opportunity with direct to consumer food sales (which includes farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) and farm stands) is that the farmer can take home significantly more because they’re setting their price and the marketing component is not taking its share,” he said.

He also noted that the 6.5% (up from 3.5% since the onset of the pandemic) that the farmers market takes doesn’t go towards building equity, but rather is redirected straight back to reinvesting in the local food systems.

“The farmers don’t have time to go to city council meetings or Boulder County Commissioner meetings and advocate for rule changes that make it easier to farm,” said Coppom. “That’s what we do.”

BCFM also takes on the role of educating the general public on the importance of local food systems. Coppom also references this report by The Rockefeller Foundation on The True Cost of Food, which takes into account the actual implications of the American food system including those related to obesity, climate change and loss of biodiversity.

Staying Afloat

Dr. Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation in the above report, believes the pandemic exposed longstanding fault lines in our food systems.

“As lockdowns took hold, hunger and insecurity skyrocketed, and cars stretched for miles outside food pantries across the country,” Shah wrote. “Producers faced surplus goods, while grocery store shelves sat empty, revealing a supply chain vulnerable to crisis and disruption. And the climate crisis, which our food system contributes to, continued unabated. The drastic nature of the present moment offers us an opportunity to achieve transformative change.”

Coppom explained that when the pandemic began to delay the opening of farmers markets in the spring of 2020, his first thought was the farmers and how they’d be able to survive. He wondered, “How are they going to distribute if the markets don’t operate? How will they sell their product?”

BCFM set up a “makeshift” curbside ordering system where they’d assemble a box of products from different vendors that people could reserve and pick up at the fairgrounds parking lot. “One of the real opportunities it created was to fail miserably and be okay with that,” he said.

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These roadblocks resulted in the realization that they needed alternatives for the farmers in the case of disruptions like this. “And so we’ve continued to pursue online sales and we’re planning indefinitely on doing it year-round,” he said. They’re now able to work with farmers who can’t sell in person at a market, but “are awesome local growers and have a terrific product,” Coppom said. “It’s challenging because for many people in the local community, one of the benefits is actually meeting the farmer. And so we’re trying to find the population who’s not going to the CSA, or the farm stand or the market, but still values the local food system.”

Local Food and Community For Everyone

For Coppom and the BCFM team, it’s important that this type of food is available to everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

“Sales at markets help fund the operation of food equity initiatives at the market including SNAP and WIC programs,” said Emily Tracy, BCFM’s PR representative. “Though BCFM host these programs at a cost to the organization, BCFM believes everyone deserves the choice to have fresh, local, nutrient-dense food.”

After transitioning out of the telecommunications industry, Coppom is struck by the tightly knit community surrounding the markets and the strongly held values that accompany it. “More and more we share the value of having an environmentally healthy planet,” he said. He listed sustainability, trade equity and fair labor as other points of importance. “Just the community bond and the sense of belonging is biggest,” he added. “Our industrial food system actually supports all the values we don’t want.”

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BCFM’s curbside delivery is still running. Order for pickup here, or check out one of their four operating in-person markets during the week and on the weekends.

All photography by Ashton Ray Hansen — all unmasked and non-distanced images were captured pre-pandemic in 2019.