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Salt Lake's farmers market welcomes summer season

By Ladd Brubaker | Posted - Jun. 11, 2011 at 7:55 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Chad Midgley’s farmers market booth stands out like a sore green thumb.

The 32-year-old, full-time gardener keeps in constant motion, calling out like a carnival barker to the hundreds of people milling through the packed north end of Pioneer Park.

For many, it's not summer if the Downtown Farmer's Market isn't open.

“Only one box left! Lemon Spinach! Great flavor! It’s selling out! Who says the economy is depressed!”

It’s mid-morning Saturday, a bright, blue-skied season-opener to the Salt Lake Downtown Alliance’s 19th annual Farmers Market.

The open-air, produce-craft-food-art and “other” market will run each Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Oct. 22. And Tuesdays from 4 p.m. to dusk, Aug. 9 to Oct. 25.

Midgley offers samples to the hesitant. For the unprepared, the tart leaf knocks the chin back and puckers the mouth. Just like lemons. The flavor sells itself.

But his booth lacks the professionally printed banners, the eye-catching logos, the boutique-style packaging offered by many of the other vendors. He’s stuffed sheaves of the spinach into large Zip-Loc bags, which are packed into large Dole banana boxes.

In the next booth over, Chad’s father, Paul Midgley, can’t compete — neither in energy nor in customers. That seems to content him. He offers a few basil and horseradish plants for $5 each; Cherokee Purple tomato plants, $2 apiece.

Apologetically, he motions to a bucket of freshly harvested garlic still on the stalks. The heads are about an inch in diameter. Crops are at least a month behind this year, he says. The fields have been too wet to plant.

He forms a circle with his thumbs and forefingers three inches across. “Normally, they would be about like this.”

A retired Union Pacific worker, his gardening is for fun — his life doesn’t depend on it.

His son’s does. It’s Chad Midgley’s only job, and with his passion for green, he’s done well. His house, cars and debts are all paid off, Paul says — clearly pleased. “There aren’t a lot of people these days who are his age, doing what he’s doing.”

He seems to have found a way around this season’s farmers’ lament: too wet, too cloudy, too delayed. He credits his soil. His Orchard Avenue Ogden plot has topsoil nine feet deep, Paul says. And Chad continually recycles organic material back into it. Then, there’s the coddling his plants get in early spring.

Craig and Felicia Christensen have come to the market for the first time. They hitched a small U-Haul trailer to the back of their Chevy Blazer, loaded it with stacks of tomato flats and drove up from Newcastle, 30 miles west of Cedar City.

Their operation is doubly green, because it runs on geothermal power.

Utah plate: "GREENQN." That would be Felicia.

Craig is tanned, stocky built, and quick with a quip and a smile. He too keeps up a steady patter: “Fresh tomatoes — from southern Utah. Just picked yesterday.” Customers openly admire the rich, orange-red skins that stretch tightly over each plump fruit.

“Yep. We hand-painted each one,” Craig barks out. “It looks like it!” a man replies.

Telling customers the produce is from southern Utah seems to be the clincher — the possibility that the tomatoes, at least, got a springtime of sun.

Not so much, Felicia Christensen says. Their family business also has three acres, all within greenhouses, which are not a sure hedge against the weather. “For every cloudy day, it sets us back a day.” To date, she reckons lost time at about a month.

"It's all behind because we can't plant and nothing grows when it's really wet like that," said Ben Hogan of East Farms in Layton.

Harry and Janis Johnson are content to enjoy Saturday morning’s sun. The couple stand in the shade, sharing a fresh fruit blueberry pie from Ron Burningham’s stand.

In his real job, Burningham is Willard, Utah’s postmaster. Since his small orchard can’t compete with others along the “Fruit Highway,” he started his fresh fruit pie business — although his own fruit won't come on until later in summer.

“Nobody else does what we do,” Burningham says. “When you bake a pie, you cook everything (the nutrients) out of it.” His are more flavorful and healthful, he says.

It’s not the long, cool spring in a cloudy dress that hurt his orchards.

The blame for that goes back to last fall's early frost, Burningham says. The cold hit before the trees had gone dormant. Burningham figures he will lose all but 10 percent of some of his crops.

But he’s been coming to the Salt Lake farmers market for nine years, and is still enthusiastic: “It’s been rated the third best in the country,” he says.

Story written by Ladd Brubaker with contributions from Jennifer Stagg.

Photos

Ladd Brubaker

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