Colorado food / Food trends

John Ellis: Paying it forward so Boulder County agriculture can survive

Farmer John has been championing local farming in Boulder County for decades.

by John Lehndorff

(Boulder Weekly, Jan. 26, 2017)

If you find yourself thinking fond thoughts right now of warm Saturday mornings at the Boulder County Farmers Market (BCFM), you might want to pen a thank-you note to Farmer John.

“Farmer” isn’t John Ellis’ first name but it might as well be. That’s how everybody has known him for decades.

John has been working, sometimes quietly and occasionally pretty loudly, to keep local agriculture alive in Boulder County since he started farming while still a student at Fairview High School, then located near Baseline Reservoir. Over the decades he has helped launch the BCFM, supported sustainability efforts, served on countless committees and worked to make sure there is a next generation of Boulder farmers.

“Farmer John has a reputation for always being willing to lend a hand or a piece of equipment from his sizable collection. He genuinely cares about his fellow farmers,” says Brian Coppom, executive director of the BCFM.

As far as John is concerned, agriculture has always been built on paying it forward. “That has gone on since the very beginning of farming. Older farmers had always helped the younger ones. We had a neighbor when I was growing up, Bob Clynck. From when I was 8 until I was 16, I followed him around constantly and learned what it took to be a farmer,” Ellis says.

Asked to share some of the advice he got, Ellis says: “I couldn’t repeat most of it except ‘Always check the oil.’” The old farmer’s “tips” were mainly variations on “Don’t be stupid!” he says.

John comes from a family that had farmed in Ohio and he has farmed his whole life in Boulder County. He’s as close to a native son as possible, but like many locals he first arrived as a tourist.  “My family came out from Ohio on vacation near Nederland. My dad was a machinist and applied for work at the Rocky Flats plant. We moved here when I was 7,” he says.

When his parents bought the farm on the southwest corner of 75th Street and Valmont Road in the 1960s, it was the last acreage still being worked by a team of draft horses. It had something else: irrigation. The family grew sweet corn, pumpkins and blue spruce trees at their Evergreen Acres Farm, which is now Cure Organic Farm.

The first thing John remembers growing were strawberries and sweet corn, which got sold at the family farm stand. “Boulder has never been as agricultural as Longmont. The interest here grew after the farmers’ market started,” he says.

The Boulder County Farmers Market now seems like an essential part of what makes Boulder special. Virtually every travel story written about the city now mentions the market as one of the nation’s best along with the foodie culture it has helped to support, but it took a while to convince locals that the idea had merit. Although, farmers did start selling some vegetables and fruits on the Boulder County Courthouse Lawn during the early 1980s a few years after the Pearl Street Mall was installed.

“About a dozen of us farmers met with the city to talk about setting up a summer market. We involved the University of Colorado in choosing the best site and they ended up choosing the 13th Street site where we have been ever since,” Ellis says.

The importance of the market, beyond supporting local agriculture, became apparent immediately. “It added a sense of community for the students and the people moving here who believed in local food. It was perfect timing. We had Alfalfa’s Market for local produce but there wasn’t any place to come together,” John says.

The BCFM that opened in 1987 was quite small compared to the current sprawling complex. “We had stands at the farm but those are different. We were learning as fast as our customers in Boulder were,” he says.

The first thing they learned was that only one thing mattered: locally grown food.

“We went and looked at a lot of farmers’ markets. Farm to customer was the whole point. What drew people was local food and not just another flea market. Making it all local-grown produce was our best decision. In the early years there was a vendor set up who pulled out a crate of lemons. I told him: ‘You can’t sell those here.’ He looked real surprised,” John says.

It also took some time for shoppers to understand why fresh-picked farm produce was worth it. “Sometimes you have to beat people in the head with the celery so they understand why it’s better to get the same item grown just down the street,” he says.

Among the folks selling produce along with Farmer John is Cure Organic Farm. He was renting his old family farm at 75th Street and Valmont Road to another grower when he ran into Anne Cure. “Anne was a really good vegetable grower. I told her: ‘You need to farm this place.’ She had no knowledge of machinery when she started up so I helped her with that. Now she grows 100 or more kinds of produce,” he says.

Cure Organic Farm provides produce to Boulder Valley School District cafeterias, grows vegetable and herb starts for the schools’ Growing Gardens program, and it hosts farm camps for kids.

While the weather has always had its ups and downs including the devastating 2013 floods, the climate is a greater concern, he says. “The climate in Boulder County has changed in the last 40 years. The seasons have shifted. New weeds and diseases are moving in that weren’t here before and new insects predominate. Is it because of climate change or GMOs? I worry about the next generation of farmers and of humanity,” John says.

John talks about irrigation ditches as being as essential as sunshine for farming in parched Boulder County, and he has served on the boards of various local ditches. The low-paying gig involves dealing with disputes between ditch users and the owners of property through which the water flows and a knowledge of Colorado’s famously complex and centuries-old water law system.

At the age of 68, John would be a geezer in any other profession, but he is far from the eldest farmer in the valley. He has a 76-acre farm near Niwot where he grows hay, wheat, pumpkins and other vegetables. He also owns a 6-acre peach orchard in Palisade. He sells his produce and freshly ground wheat flour at the markets in Boulder and Longmont. Two notable restaurants, The Kitchen and Arcana, use his wheat on their menus.

“I’m starting to realize I’m not so young any more so I want to see things happen soon,” John says. He says he would like to see composting grow on a much bigger scale in Boulder County, and an expansion of programs to provide vouchers for fresh produce for at-risk women, children and seniors.

He talks to farmers and bakers about growing grain at the Grain School at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Calling it “the more left-leaning farmers’ organization,” John is also involved in the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. “There is a bunch of new farmers in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have a lot of enthusiasm for farming,” he says.

“The future farmers in Boulder County will be small family farmers selling locally, not commodity farmers. They’ll grow a variety of crops instead of a monoculture. I can’t imagine sugar beets being a viable crop in Boulder County. You’ll see more green houses with more produce sold directly to restaurants and schools,” John says.

This year, Farmer John is once again running for the board of directors of the Boulder County Farmers Market. “This is really in my heart. I want the best for this community despite how much I complain about everything,” he says with a chuckle.

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