They are the nomads of retail. They ferry their tents and wares, set up fleeting cities and entice passersby with their samples and smiles before packing away their produce and crafts; their racks and cash.
They move on to the next fair, the next parking lot or the next stretch of closed-off street.
They are farmers market vendors. And every year, typically from late spring to the first nips of fall, ripe tomatoes, robust melons, goat cheese, goat lotion (for people, not goats) grass-fed beef, smoked salmon, homemade jams, hand-stitched crafts and all things knickknack can be found daily somewhere along the Front Range.
Mike Taylor of Taylor Produce said the reason people shop at farmers markets is simple — they want to know where their food is coming from.
“We’ve built relationships with our customers,” Taylor said. “We’ve been at the farmers market in Woodland Park for six years and we’re on a first-name basis with our customers.”
Taylor, who owns a peach orchard in Palisade on the Western Slope, said he’s been involved with regional farmers markets for a decade now and each year his sales continue to trend upward. He pointed to a recent listeria outbreak from California-raised stone fruits as an example of how important it is to know food sources.
“One thing I can assure our customers at farmers markets is, I know who is picking those peaches and how the fruit is handled,” Taylor said. “I know how sanitary and clean conditions are. I can tell you the fertilizer I use. The peaches are going from the trees into a 34-degree trailer to the market. That’s not a lot of middlemen.”
Beth Carrier, owner of crafts business Colorado Cuddlies, said the consumer philosophy that applies to produce also applies to her industry.
“People like that we’re independent and not a big corporation,” she said. “A lot of times people ask if I live locally and whether I actually make these things. The fact that I’m local is a big factor in why people buy from us.”
Carrier embroiders throws and towels and makes and embroiders quilts.
“I liked to sew and I had an embroidery obsession,” she said of the impetus behind her business. “I gave everything away as gifts, but at some point everybody already had a gift. I decided to try and sell my crafts 10 years ago at a single farmers market.”
Carrier, an employee of Wal-Mart for 25 years, decided two years ago to focus solely on her business. Now she travels to several regional farmers markets in the summer and craft fairs in the winter.
“I was at a time in my life where I wanted to do something different,” she said.
One factorthat affects vendors’ bottom lines more than their brick-and-mortar counterparts is the weather. That is doubly true for Taylor.
“Every year we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said.
At his orchard near Grand Junction, spring frosts can annihilate crops before market season even begins.
“We lost 70 percent of our crop two years ago,” he said.
Carrier said there is no way to predict how business will be week-to-week, even when the weather cooperates.
“Business now is good, but it can be feast or famine,” she said, adding most customers make their way to farmers markets for the food, not the crafts. “We’re an impulse buy. If people have disposable income, they’ll buy. But people don’t have the disposable income they used to.”
She said the rainy summer months this year have also posed a problem.
“With the things I sell, even if there are a few sprinkles, I’m in trouble,” she said.
Linda Kent said she could make a living creating doll clothes and accessories, but she doesn’t want to do that. Kent owns and operates LJ’s Doll Fashions. The former nuclear medical technologist worked in medicine for 40 years, and now she’s in business not for the money, but for the people.
“I’ve been doing this five years and I don’t make a living at it,” Kent said. “Some people do. I just make enough to keep myself in material and dolls. But I love it. What I really enjoy are the people. Last year my husband had surgery and I didn’t know if I would be able to do business. My farmers market friends all pitched in and helped set up, unpack my things and take everything down each week.”
Carrier’s motivations are different, however. She isn’t looking for a hobby; she’s trying to make a living. Her business operates year-round. The warmer months mean farmers markets, winter months are for craft fairs and 12 months a year she’s selling online through the crafts site Etsy.
“I’m a one-woman American operation,” she said. “This isn’t just a hobby. It’s not really post-career, it’s a second career. I work very hard at it. And business is good, but everybody wants more. I could make $300 to $400 in a day and still want more.”
Taylor’s business extends beyond farmers markets as well. He owns six full-time seasonal produce stands around the state, which account for half his income. He also has approximately 20 employees during his peak season. His main “store” is located at Powers and Palmer Park boulevards, where he’s sold his peaches and produce from his neighbors in the Grand Valley for 17 years.
One reason farmers markets work so well as a business model, according to Taylor, is that diversified vendors draw diverse crowds.
Kent said, when a friend first approached her about doing farmers markets, she thought selection was limited to food.
“It’s not just produce,” she said. “In Colorado we have so many talented woodworkers, jewelers, potters. You have fabrics and weaving. I can’t believe the things people create.”
Taylor said larger farmers markets draw more than 100 vendors. “Monument on Saturdays will have at least 75 vendors,” he said. “That’s a busy market.”
Kent said she has seen dramatic differences in vendor selection and crowd size in just the five years she’s been involved.
“There are a lot more people at farmers markets today. This year is a little down because of the economy, but when I first started at The Broadmoor [farmers market], there were maybe 10 people pass through a day. Two-hundred and fifty people passed through [last] Monday. At the Monument farmers market, we’ll see 800 people in a single day.”
Kent said, because of how technology-focused society has become, farmers markets are more important today than ever.
“Farmers markets keep us from drifting into a world where we don’t ever have to leave the house to buy anything,” she said.
“The market is a way to maintain community. In 40 years in medicine, I learned it’s important for people to talk to each other. Not just saying ‘Hi. How are you? Goodbye.’ People tell me stories about their grandkids and what they did before they retired. … Someone may not buy something, but they’ve shared a part of their life.”
Kent said that camaraderie extends to relationships with other vendors that last through the offseason.
“You may talk a couple times a winter,” she said, “but when summer comes, it’s like I saw everybody just yesterday.”
Carrier said despite the unpredictability, there is nothing she would rather do.
“I really do enjoy it,” she said. “I like both working out of my house and being able to talk with people. I love selling things online and sewing. I’ve tried to think of other things I can do [for work], but I always come back to this.”
Acacia Park Farmers Market
9 a.m.-1 p.m. through Oct. 26
Broadmoor Farmers Market
9 a.m.-2 p.m., through Sept. 29
Briargate Farmers Market
11 a.m.-4 p.m., through Sept. 28
Doherty High School
7 a.m.-noon, through Oct. 5
Farm & Art Market
at the Margarita at Pine Creek
9 a.m.-1 p.m. through Oct. 11
First & Main Town Center
9 a.m.-3 p.m., through Oct. 30
Ivywild School Farmers Market
3-7 p.m. through Oct. 8
Monument Hill Farmers Market
8 a.m.-2 p.m., through Oct. 18
Old Colorado City Farmers Market
7 a.m.-1:30 p.m., through Oct. 25
University Village Farmers Market
9 a.m.-3 p.m., through Nov. 1
Western Museum of Mining and Industry Farmers Market
9 a.m.-6 p.m. through mid-October
Woodland Park Farmers Market
7 a.m.-1 p.m., through Oct. 26