Grab your bags and clear out your fridge. It’s peak season for the Boulder County Farmers Markets.
While Boulder’s farmers market has been open for months, Colorado is a bit of a late bloomer, and this year, a cold and moist spring pushed that back a few weeks even later.
But it’ll be worth the wait. Late July is when the market tables will be overflowing with fresh tomatoes, corn, watermelons, peppers and more. Peak produce season will continue to boom strong through late August, and even into September, before a slight decline that will then welcome fall veggies.
“It’s shaping up nicely,” says Boulder County Farmers Markets executive director Brian Coppom. “Right now, it looks like there’s going to be a lot of variety and really high-quality produce at the market.”
It’s common for people to get excited as soon as the weather starts to warm up in the spring and expect there to be mountains of fresh produce, Coppom says, but that’s not how the harvest works. The spring and into summer is when plants are growing; you can still get some produce along the way because of how farmers cycle their plants, but the summertime is when most plants are maturing, he says.
“Late summer and early fall is when we really see the harvest,” Coppom says. “A lot of people will say, ‘It’s July 7. Where’s the watermelon?’ It’s still growing.”
Soon, you’ll be able to get that fresh melon, though. As well as peaches. The early-season varieties were delayed this year, but late July, you’ll start to see additional varieties rolling into the market. Nectarines won’t be far behind.
If you haven’t added the farmers’ market into your weekly grocery shopping routine, now’s the time; it’s the best time of the year for farmers, says Coppom. Get the most out of the experience by bringing your own bag (don’t make the mistake of thinking you won’t need one), as well as a cooler to keep lettuce, kale, char and other heat-sensitive produce fresh during the drive home. If you’re on a bike, pack a cooler on a bike trailer.
Coppom also recommends subscribing to the weekly newsletter, which outlines what to expect at the market that week. He says he loosely plans his meals around what’s in season, especially if it has a short season, like asparagus. You can find a link to sign up for the newsletter on the bottom right of the farmers’ market website.
As a bonus, food not only tastes the most delicious when it’s in season, but it’s also cheapest then.
“I’m always thinking about what my fridge is going to look like in the next two to three weeks,” Coppom says.
A New Year
This year, the farmers’ market looks much different than in 2020.
Last year, due to coronavirus restrictions, the market opened late (the last week of May); had mask requirements; stationed vendors six feet apart from customers; enforced social distancing and encouraged people not to come as groups; limited the social aspects of the market, such as gathering to listen to live music; had a cap on the number of shoppers; and had designated one-way walking lanes.
“Last year felt like it was functional. It allowed people a chance to buy, but that was balanced by a little bit of sadness from the social standpoint,” Coppom says.
This year, things feel largely back to normal.
“When the mask requirement was lifted, you could almost feel this collective sigh of relief,” he says. “This year, it feels like people are ready to sit and listen to music and meet friends.”
Some people are still not comfortable with groups, however, and for those people (as well as those in a hurry), the market is continuing to offer the curbside pickup that it enacted in 2020. It may keep the pickup indefinitely, if it continues to be popular, Coppom says.
The Lafayette market will not open this year, due to a lack of participating farmers, but it is expected to return to normal next year.
Taste the Season
While picking out produce at the market, stop by the farmers’ market booth to pick up “Farmers Market Meals,” a recipe book put together by Matt Collier, who runs the Seeds Cafe at the Boulder Public Library. The recipes are inspired by local produce, and they’re all straightforward, doable (no matter your kitchen experience) and tasty, says Coppom.
You can also find recipes that can be sorted by season on the farmers’ market website.
In addition, local restaurants share recipes that highlight Colorado’s summer produce, such as Frasca’s tomato risotto and Coperta’s (and the late great Beast & Bottle) rigatoni ratatouille.
When shopping the farmers’ market, here are some tips to help you pick the best produce:
Don’t damage the goods.
Do not stick your fingernails in corn husks or pull away their strands. Don’t squeeze tomatoes and peaches, because that can bruise them.
Instead, ask the farmers for advice if you don’t know how to pick. You can tell how ripe something is by its smell and color. Tomatoes should feel heavy for their size. Watermelons should have a hollow sound when you knock on them.
Consider the different systems.
The market features farms that are organic, conventional, in between, biodynamic and hydroponic. The difference between produce grown these different ways is pretty nuanced and you may not be able to tell the difference (for example, field tomatoes that spend a lot of time in the sun and in rich soil may have more depth of flavor).
Regardless, Coppom says, “Hydro produce and field produce are all leagues over what you’re going to get in a grocery store, so we’re almost nitpicking here.”
For some shoppers, it’s a matter of values. If you are concerned about soil health and pollinator habitat, you might choose soil-grown plants; if you value water conservation, hydroponics may be for you.
Use all of your senses.
Peaches should smell how you want them to taste and feel heavy for their size. Peaches with “give” should be eaten within a day or two. Harder peaches can be left out on the counter to be eaten later in the week. However, please abstain from hard squeezes that could ruin the produce at stands.
Like peaches, tomatoes should feel heavy for their size and have a small amount of give. Ripe tomatoes should have a glossy skin with a deep, bright color.
When corn is ready to harvest, the cornsilk turns from a light blond color to a dark brown. When the cornsilk is dark brown all the way down to the husk, you can assume that the corn is ready to eat. Contrary to popular tactics, please don’t stick your fingernail in the husk or peel back the husk as it ruins the produce for other guests.
Watermelons develop a splotch where they grow on the ground. When they’re ready to be picked, they turn yellow. If you tap them, they should give a deep hollow sound.
The best way to select a ripe cantaloupe is by smell. The fruit should have a sweet smell at the end, feel heavy and have a slight give at the end. If the melon has a lot of give, eat it within a day or two. Like watermelon, it should have a low, solid sound when lightly tapped.