It used to be a guy named Dawa selling yak butter on a roadside. Now it's a guy named Butch peddling organic heirloom tomatoes at a card table.
I think we can all agree that in the past 10,000 years, farmers markets have come a long way.
And based on current trends, it appears this graceful evolution will continue. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets jumped by 16 percent between 2009 and 2010, to a total 6,132 markets nationwide. In 1994, when the agency began its directory, there were only 1,755.
Locally, our small band of food producers continues to create new markets annually, and awareness of food issues has spread with the help of advocacy organizations like the Peak to Plains Alliance. Many people are opting to become urban farmers themselves, as evidenced by the hundreds who attended this past year's Pikes Peak Urban Gardens classes and started community and backyard gardens.
All this said, we figured it was the ideal time to highlight the growth by pitting four of our dozen area markets against one another in an Indy food fight.
Where, we asked, can you find the tastiest snack while you peruse produce? Who's selling organic goods? Which market offers the most variety? (We're avoiding price comparisons; they're all good, and often better than at supermarkets.)
In this spirit, we visited each of these markets during the first week of September, a time that our harvest schedule (coloradofreshmarkets.com/crop_calendar.html) revealed to be inside the most bountiful window of the season.
Most markets will conclude their season sometime next month. Visit the calendar section of csindy.com throughout the year for an up-to-date and comprehensive market list, and check our spring InSider guide for information on both markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) food shares.
Colorado Farm & Art Market (CFAM)
America the Beautiful Park, 126 Cimino Drive, Wednesdays, 3-7 p.m., through Oct. 13; The Margarita at PineCreek, 7350 Pine Creek Road, Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., through Oct. 16: farmandartmarket.com, 640-6154
Atmosphere (Winner: CFAM on Saturdays)
With the city's cancellation of concurrent free summer concerts, the Wednesday afternoon scene in A the B Park has quieted significantly. (The market now provides its own live music, but it fails to draw the big crowds.) On Saturdays, the unique Margarita at PineCreek offers gourmet concessions on a comfortable, shady patio, local live music and a lively market below. It invites both lounging and shopping.
Selection (Winner: CFAM for quality, F&M for the bag deal (tie) )
This is the only market with wholly sustainably grown food offerings, some certified organic. Most producers are members of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers (AVOG). All growers are present and sell only their crops. At roughly 20 booths, you can find fruit and veggies, meats and bread, and a healthy dose of crafts, soaps and lotions.
Site Bites (Winner: CFAM on Saturdays)
On Saturdays: popcorn, tamales, pastries, coffee, beer, super-fresh gazpacho Bloody Marys, local brats, tacos (with seasonal peach salsa) ...
First & Main Town Center Farmers Market
Powers Boulevard, between Constitution Avenue and N. Carefree Circle, Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., through Oct. 14: firstandmaintowncenter.com, 970/301-7097
Super-friendly vendors make up for the drab setting off roaring Powers Boulevard. Stands are easily accessible, arranged in a large horseshoe shape. A balloon guy handles entertainment, and the market lends a refreshing local vibe to the sea of chain stores. But the lack of adjacent open space makes this more of a get-in, get-out scene.
Selection (Winner: CFAM for quality, F&M for the bag deal (tie) )
F&M is anchored by Platteville's Miller Farms, which is conventional but doesn't use pesticides. Miller offers an unbeatable fill-a-bag deal: whatever you want for $7 or $10. (The farm donates leftovers locally.) Miller's surrounded by up to 50 other vendors, peddling everything from Pampered Chef and Tupperware products to home-canned veggies, jellies, crafts, dog treats and teas.
Pizzas or crêpes, popcorn, (superior) pulled pork sandwiches, tamales.
Old Colorado City Farmers Market
Bancroft Park, 2408 W. Colorado Ave., Saturdays, 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., through Oct. 30: shopoldcolorado-city.com, 574-1283
Between Colorado and Pikes Peak avenues, 24th Street becomes one narrow, boisterous produce- and food-vending alley. A few craft stalls affiliated with the Old Colorado City Historical Society's History Center extend onto Pikes Peak Avenue. The adjoining park offers shade and a shopping respite, and colorful west siders offer people-watching aplenty.
At its 20-odd kiosks, you'll find mostly conventionally grown items, save for one regular organic vendor and occasional sellers like a certified natural peach farm. Some items come from as far away as California (gasp!), missing the point. There's a good selection of unique items like local goat cheese and honey, smoked salmon and wild rice.
Hawaiian crispy wafers, pastries, coffee, tamales and whatever's cooking in a Mexican food truck on Pikes Peak Avenue. Usually, cookies and La Baguette breads, too.
Soda Springs Farmers Market
Soda Springs Park, 1016 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, Fridays, 2-8 p.m., through Sept. 24, 635-0944
Soda Springs Park's pavilion and playground provide hanging-out space and children's activities. Fountain Creek cools feet, and a Hula Hoop booth ensures hippie dresses will flutter. (Usually there's live music, but not on my visit.) This is the laid-back, spaced-out Manitou you know — just with produce.
Around half the usual vendors (including one chili-roasting grower with car trouble) were absent on Sept. 3; the 15 or so present blamed Labor Day weekend. Crafts and art outweighed food, with only a small Miller Farms stand and a middle-woman who didn't know how her Pueblo-bought produce was grown. Result: disappointment. This was, however, the only market with energy healing sessions available.
None on my visit. Usually brats, pulled pork, tamales and fry bread available, according to the market's organizer.
Overall winner: CFAM
Sustainable produce and face-to-face interaction with the growers and ranchers — together, these strengths capture the spirit of modern farmers markets as counterculture to big agribusiness. Though Wednesdays in the park are pleasant, the Margarita at PineCreek's scenic setting, comfy ambience and gourmet eats and drinks can't be beat on Saturdays.