In previous Markets & Makers columns, we’ve featured several of the wonderful brick-and-mortar markets in the area. But now that cooler temps are here and with the bounty of an early autumn harvest, a visit to one of Tucson’s most popular farmers markets seemed appropriate.
The Heirloom Farmers Market at Rillito Park is one of five markets that stretch throughout the valley. The others are at Steam Pump Ranch in Oro Valley on Saturdays, Udall Park on Fridays, Green Valley Village on Wednesdays, and Rincon Valley in Vail on Saturdays. The Rillito Market is Tucson’s longest-running year-round market and has won the Tucson Weekly’s “Best Farmers’ Market” in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 and earned The Arizona Daily Star’s “Readers’ Choice Award” from 2018 through 2020.
I chose to write about the Rillito site because it is the flagship market — and because it’s closest to my home.
Today, the market at Rillito Park is a bustling, vibrant example of all the wonderful foods that can be found here. A stroll through the market is filled with the aromas of grilling meats, roasting chiles, and a whiff of peppermint or sweet soaps. The crowd reflects the population of Tucson: generations of families, cyclists in their brightly colored clothes, college kids, and seniors carrying cloth shopping bags. It’s Tucson in all its glory.
Lena Melnick, Heirloom Farmers Markets Director of Operations, noted there is something for everybody.
“The market means so many different things to different people,” she said. “Whether riding The Loop and you’re coming for your breakfast burrito or coming to do your grocery shopping for the week or just meeting a friend. We’re trying to establish a place where you can really connect with the folks you live with and understand more about the food system in the area.”
Located across the parking lot from the grandstand, the Market runs every Sunday year-round. Hours differ depending on the season and right now the winter hours, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m., are in full swing.
The vendors are housed under pop-ups. Some have their names printed directly on the pop-up, others use hand-lettered boards listing what’s for sale.
Shoppers can find numerous vendors selling their wares. Farmers display their weekly harvest. Makers sell all manner of food products. Crafters display their work. Food trucks have a world of culinary treasures. And folks can take a break in the center plaza area while they nosh at one of the tables, listen to live music, and do some serious people-watching. What a wonderful way to spend a sunny Sunday.
To make all these people and products run smoothly you need hard-working and dedicated people and Heirloom’s team is exactly that.
“Our main mission is to be able to connect local farmers, ranchers, and food producers to the community,” said Melnick.
The market began in 1994 at another site.
“The Rillito Park market opened in its current location from St. Philip’s in November of 2014,” said Melnick. “It was also at this time that Heirloom Farmers Market gained its 501(c)(3) NPO status.”
The move was a giant step up because, in a partnership with Pima County, a permanent space was constructed. Consisting of four shaded pavilions and a central entertainment area, customers can now shop along a 5,000-square-foot paved space.
Most people access the Market from either First Avenue or River Road; parking is free. Plenty of people arrive at the market via The Loop. These are mostly cyclists who are decked out in their colorful cycling outfits and cleats, although walkers take advantage of what the market offers.
Please note not all of the booths are there every Sunday.
The farmers are all local, meaning as far away as Willcox, and the produce they sell was most likely harvested only days before if not early that morning. Of course, the offerings are seasonal and you’ll find plenty of the usual veggies and fruits. Occasionally, a mess of okra or an unusual squash appears. Sleeping Frog Farms, a long-time Rillito Park Heirloom Farmers Market member, even has starter veggie plants to inspire you to grow your own.
As you stroll through the market, you can’t help but notice the red banners that hang from several of the booths. This is the REAL Vendor Certification Initiative. The three designations are REAL Farmer, REAL Rancher, or REAL Vendor.
For the REAL Farmer and REAL Rancher designations, Melnick explained, “After reviewing the application, we’ll go out to the farm and make sure that everything they specified is actually what’s going on. Everyone’s very transparent and very excited to share what they are doing.”
“To qualify for a REAL producer flag, you must sell eggs, milk, cheese, or honey,” Melnick added, noting that these must be produced with local ingredients.
Most of the farmers have an assortment of items but you can find the occasional specialty items like eggs, mushrooms, nuts, dairy products, dates, and honey.
Ranchers offer beef, pork, lamb, and chicken. Then there are certain vendors who sell salmon and other seafood.
If you have any questions, whether it’s how to cook kohlrabi or how to grow it, the farmers are most happy to answer them. It’s obvious that there are repeat customers because they are greeted like old friends. New friends are made every week.
Many of the vendors credit the market for the success of their business.
Adela Durazo, of Durazo’s Poco Loco Specialty Salsas, has been with Heirloom even before it became Heirloom and appreciates the support she receives from the team.
“My business has grown very much,” said Durazo. “With the proper advertising done by our coordinator and making us all links to the main website, it made it easy for people to find us. Especially for those of us who did not have our own websites to go to. This is a huge plus in free advertising on our parts and Heirloom helping us to all be seen together on one website.”
Kris “Red” Young, who roasts chiles at his booth, Red’s Roasters, has also been a long-time vendor and echoed Durazo’s feelings.
“I started helping the previous chile roaster in about 2008 or 2009, just helping him out one day a weekend,” said Young. “His name was Bob Cacouza and his business was named Bob’s Honey Bee Roasters. In 2015, I bought Bob’s chile roasting business. I immediately changed the name to Red’s Roasters. Upon buying the business, Bob told me that Heirloom was a great company/farmers market to be with and to follow them and don’t go anywhere else. So, now the only farmers markets I do are with Heirloom.”
“Heirloom is the best in the state,” said Durazo, attributing much of her success to the market. “They are the most organized and well-run market. They take care of their vendors. That’s important.”
The makers that line the walkway are a most impressive bunch. Salsas, cider, coffees, fresh pasta, baked pasta, jerky, raw foods, granola, spices, freshly roasted chiles, teas, jams, and jellies in a wild assortment of flavors, and chocolate.
I counted more than six bakers who sell sweet rolls, tortillas, empanadas, quiches, pies, crusty bread, bagels, and gluten-free goods. I’m sure I missed a few with all that there is to offer.
Craving a lobster roll? Stop at Taste of Maine. Hankering for a crepe? Head on over to Tucson’s favorite creperie on wheels, Planet of the Crepes. You can travel to the Middle East by sampling Turkish Elif gözleme, which is a mixed bowl of Egyptian ingredients at Eatgypt, and for a full menu of Mediterranean fare stop at Bella’s Mediterranean tent. Malta Joe sells his pastizzi and other Maltese treats at his bright red Pastizzi Express truck.
As an aside, several current brick-and-mortar restaurants got their ‘start’ at the market. Some include Tumerico, Selena’s Salvadoran, Fiamme Pizza, and Del Cielo Tamales.
You’ll also find an eclectic mix of non-food items: soaps and oils, gorgeous wood cutting boards from El Mesquite, or products to improve your health or enhance your natural beauty. One booth, Prickly Paradise Elderberry, sells just that — products made from elderberries. Another, Pawlicious Pet Treats, offers handcrafted goodies for your fur babies. Follow the scent of peppermint over to Peppermint Jim for an array of peppermint products. You can even get your knives sharpened by Iverson Sharpening. It’s fun just to watch Sven Iverson at work.
Food security and education are vital to the mission of Heirloom Farmers Market. To that end, the management and board of directors are working with various agencies to establish programs in an attempt to get food to those who need it most.
Information on the programs can be found directly at the market’s two large orange pop-up tents located in the central courtyard.
One is the information booth with pamphlets, recipes, and details on SNAP, the state’s food program for families. You can also purchase wooden tokens, which is one of the methods of payment used at the market.
The other is the Taste of the Market.
Every week, the folks under the tent cook up something tasty using ingredients found at the market and then they hand out samples. Most of the recipes are developed by Doran Hadan, the Development Director for Heirloom, but some come from volunteers, staff members, and regular customers.
“The Taste of the Market is a program where we engage customers in a weekly activity or recipe that encourages them to go out, meet their vendors and their farmers, and buy the produce that they may have tasted and make the recipe at home,” said Haden.
“They can also take home educational information on nutrition or food storage or information about local vendors and farmers,” she added.
Other activities include seasonal food festivals, quarterly chef demonstrations, and bicycle-friendly events.
Detailed information on all these programs can be found online along with a wealth of other information about the vendors, all of the other markets, helpful hints for shoppers at the market, upcoming events, and more.
While most vendors prefer cash you can also pay with credit or debit cards but, as a heads-up, not all vendors are capable of taking them. As a way to avoid any confusion, you might want to purchase wooden tokens at the information booth where EBT cards can also be cashed in for the SNAP Farm Bucks.
Kris “Red” Young has benefited in many ways from being a vendor and not just financially.
“I love being part of something so good for so many people,” he said. “The relationships that I have made here at Heirloom farmers between the staff, customers, friends, and family have made me enjoy being a business owner. Honestly, I sometimes don’t even feel like a business owner, I just feel like a part of a huge family.”
“The friendships developed amongst friends, customers, and fellow vendors are important to me,” said Adela Durazo, agreeing with Young. “Many, I have known for all this time, if not close to all the years that I have been a vendor. The customers are loyal, and I see them on a regular basis. We’ve all become one big family.”
Lena Melnick’s view is from the business side but her feelings about being involved in The Heirloom Farmers Market are not so different from Durazo and Young.
“COVID-19 gave us the opportunity to look inward and refocus on our mission,” said Melnick. “Refocus on our connection to people we’re close to, try being able to offer the best the Tucson community has to offer, and to really highlight the wonderful farmers, ranchers, and producers we have in the area.”
The pathway gets quite crowded most Sundays, so the folks who run the market ask you to leave your dogs at home. If there is no other option, a series of strict guidelines must be followed.
So, now put on a pair of comfortable shoes (or your bike cleats) and head on over to any of Tucson’s treasured Heirloom Farmers Markets.
For more information on the Heirloom Farmers Market at Rillito Park and all of the other locations, visit heirloomfm.org.
Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The History Press. Growing up in a large Italian family instilled in her an appreciation for the important role food plays...