Coco and Lafe’s Excellent Adventures

How many farmers markets did you visit this year? Probably not as many as Coco and Lafe, the singing-songwriting duo that recently wrapped up their 2010 Get Fresh tour of 100 farmers markets. Despite traveling from coast-to-coast, they found time to share a little bit about themselves and why they think farmers markets are so special with Real Time Farms’ Director of Vegetable Outreach, Cara Rosaen.

Cara: What were you doing before leaving for this farmer’s market adventure?

Coco & Lafe: Coco took early retirement from Twinfield Union School in Vermont as a kindergarten through 12th grade music teacher. I worked for record companies most of my life, ending with a decade representing Warner Brother’s children and world music labels as their international sales manager.

Cara: What made you decide to leave what you were doing and head out on the road to play at farmers markets?

C&L: A few months before we became “empty nesters” we asked ourselves: “How are we going to top what we’ve done? How do we want to finish this life?” And the answer was clear: write and perform songs. When the younger of Lafe’s two sons graduated from High School, we put him on a plane for his next adventure and three days later we ran away from home.

We went to Boston first to break into the vibrant songwriter scene there. What we found was 500 other singer-songwriters in line ahead of us, and dozens of them were very good. We started playing on the street! There’s a whole other story there, a very fun one, but the upshot is that a farmer’s market manager approached us to play. We did, and sold CDs by the pound, and found the vendors were fascinating people and very appreciative. That manager gave us the names of other managers and voila! We had a new career.

Until it snowed. Now we follow the harvest across the country.

Cara: How did you both meet?

C&L: Coco was the lead singer in a very popular country band. When I was 16, she invited me up on stage to sing the first song I’d ever written. We didn’t become a couple then, but I lusted after her like Vegans crave eggplant and eventually…

Cara: How long do you plan on touring farmers markets?

C&L: Until the grass grows above our heads.

Cara: How has doing this shaped how you feel about eating locally?

C&L: We both were ‘co-op’ shoppers and Coco was a gardener before we started playing and promoting farmers markets. Immersing ourselves in the lives of farmers and markets revealed just how much impact a single shopper makes in a community and now we feel very passionate about the cause. It’s not just buying local and eating fresh; it’s also community and education.

Cara: What is special to you about farmers markets?

C&L: There is so much, how do you choose? The people, the festive atmosphere, community, vibrant colors and smells, the impact of buying local and eating fresh, the quality of the produce and the humor of the farmers themselves. Who knew? Try this: tell a joke to a craft or hot food vendor, and the same joke to a farmer or gardener — big difference. Don’t ask me why. Something about working in dirt makes people happy.

But our favorite moments playing markets is the kids. We give them shakers and they dance, we pull the microphone down and they sing with us, they pet Lilla our busking beagle, they put dollars in the tip jar or my hat with shy glances. They are fresh and living totally in the moment. And look what they’re eating! Strawberries! Carrots!

Cara: You’ve said there are markets out there “full of American heroes”. Can you tell us about a few American heroes you’ve met?

C&L: Stacy of Styria Bakery in Denver. With her brother and his wife, and one other partner, the five of them bake 3 to 5 thousand loaves of bread each night and sell them at 27 farmers markets each week. No restaurant sales, no retail: direct to markets only. They each work seven days a week, and two of those days are eighteen hour days. How do they have a life? The season is only May through October. They do a few events during the winter, but pretty much it’s a half year occupation, and she gushed about it. She loves it.

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E.J. (“E Jay”) Riggen of Pleasant Valley Farms in Cleveland, Ohio. E Jay has been coming to this farmers market for 70 years: first with his grandparents, then his parents. This market still has a slaughterhouse on site, although the FDA closed it down ten years ago. The only markets he’s missed in 70 years were due to “…fighting in THE war, a brief honeymoon (his), and two weddings (not his). He’s only been to a doctor once in his life, and that was for a broken bone. He attributes his good health to fresh food and hard work.

E Jay turned 80 the week we met him, and he showed us pictures of his favorite birthday present: a friend of his let him pilot his new Cessna Twin Engine plane, including touch downs (he called them “dust offs”. It’s all E Jay wanted because he had to turn in his pilot’s license at 70.

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David Yang of the Yang Farm in Sanger, California. This family owned and operated farm has been bringing food to markets for over 50 years, but David couldn’t tell me how long they’ve been farming this same land: “Before my dad…” How many family members? “I don’t know”, he said, “it’s a very extended family and many of them work the fruit trees in land we own in the mountains. A few dozen.”

What makes him a hero to us? The fact that he doesn’t care about numbers or think what they are doing is special. They care deeply about the quality and the variety of the produce they bring to market, and how he and his brothers and sisters know everybody’s name at 7 different markets. “We know what each one eats.” I find that eye opening, amazing, and it reassures me that the world is full of people who still take great pride in hard work with quality results.

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Cara: How would you finish the sentence ” I eat local because….”

Lafe: …the sooner you eat it the better for you it is.
Coco: …knowing who grew it and how much they love doing it makes it taste better for me.

And lest you think that vendors at a farmers market require booths, check out this photo Coco and Lafe shared of a Vermont farmer who doesn’t rent a booth, just booth space. This is how he brings and displays his crop to the market.

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