Where can you find the freshest produce in Southern California? For many of us, that answer is our local farmers market. In addition to offering freshly picked fruits and vegetables and other seasonal offerings, the market offers customers the opportunity to interact directly with the farmers, asking questions and seeking out tips and recipe ideas.
One of the largest and most well-known farmers markets, the Santa Monica Farmers Market, started on a Wednesday in the summer of 1981 as a means to bring fresh produce directly to the city’s residents. The Wednesday market now averages 8,000 to 10,000 visitors a week (the city’s three other weekly farmers markets each average 3,000 to 5,000 visitors a week) and caters to a customer base that ranges from household shoppers to restaurants, chefs, produce companies and even schools. I recently caught up with the market’s longtime supervisor, Laura Avery, to talk about the market’s evolution over the years, as well as its various outreach programs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been with the market since 1982. How did you originally get involved with the market?
I think I was in the right place at the right time. I had just moved to Santa Monica. I had two small children and I would take them out for walks and I came across the street closed one day and I thought, "Oh, what's going on over here?" And the market had just started and they were running it administratively out of the mayor's office, but they needed someone to basically run the market on a, you know, more than six hours a week basis. I applied for the job and I got it. I think I was the only person who applied.
The market is a CFM, or Certified Farmers Market. What does this mean?
We were one of the first markets to begin operating after the passage of the Direct Marketing Act, which was written into California code of regulation in 1977. That was the first time farmers were allowed to sell produce that they grew directly to the public at a location that was designated as a certified farmers market. The word “certified” is key because every person here actually grows what they sell. They are required now by statute, by state law, to grow what they sell and if you look around you can see they literally have to make a declaration, "We grow what we sell."
When you come to this farmers market, you're guaranteed that you're buying produce grown here in California by the person who's selling it.
Laura Avery, supervisor, Santa Monica Farmers Market
How has the market evolved since its inception?
When it first started, the mayor, Ruth Yannatta Goldway, was really focusing on the senior citizen population in Santa Monica. There was a substantial senior citizen population here, so it was a means of getting fresh locally grown produce to residents of Santa Monica. High quality, fresh and local. That was the original impetus: healthy, fresh, local.
This is also the first time a farmer got to meet a customer. Before that, they had to sell sort of through a packing house. We always talk about this as the face of California farming and so farmers and customers have now managed to have face to face relationships. The farmers know their customers by name. And in my personal experience, I have raised children and now grandchildren who are experiencing this produce at the farmers market. We've watched families grow from pregnancy through birth, through the kids in the back of the truck and running around, through high school, college and marriage. We've had marriages on the farm, we had a marriage here at the market a couple of weeks ago. It's just been a family affair. It's pulled the family farming community and the Santa Monica community and the greater L.A. community all together.
How many farmers participate in the markets?
Every week we have, in our four markets, approximately 130 farmers who either come year-round or seasonally. Today at a typical Wednesday market, we have 75 booths. We're in April, but summer is coming. Our summer fruit will be coming back — the cherries, peaches and nectarines. We will be getting even more farmers in here when summer rolls around. It's our busiest time of year.
Still, the customers forge real relationships with the farmers, and vice versa.
Four markets and 130 farmers. And, you know, the farmers have built up a following. They have a loyal customer base and they know what to bring. They know how much to bring.
Farmers know their customers by name.
You also work to find other outlets for farmers.
We're doing quite a bit of sale to restaurants as well. We even have produce companies that are either buying or picking up the produce, taking it to a restaurant or to their warehouses to then show customers that there is a better way to shop. This produce is one to two days off the vine or tree; it’s fresh and hasn't been stored. It hasn't been run through a packing house and hasn't been waxed and died and gassed, so it's the freshest produce you can possibly get unless you have a tangerine tree out in your backyard.
You also work with schools.
We started a salad bar program at the Santa Monica school district in 1997 and we were sourcing produce from the farmers market. We are trying to reinstitute that at the school district, and we're identifying farmers who will be able to sell to the school district on a regular basis.
We're trying to teach kids about farming and farmers and so schools still come for field trips every week throughout the school year. One to two classes will come, and we usually have second-graders. Part of our education program is to teach children where the food comes from and then they actually get to meet and talk to a farmer and they have a lot of questions for the farmer, like, “What kind of animals do you raise?” and “How many acres do you have?” and “What do you grow and what's the biggest challenge?” So the kids really get to meet a farmer, and they realize that farmers aren't all men with straw hats and overalls. We have all different kinds of farmers here and they're tasting things that they probably have never tasted before. Even our carrots are better than commercial carrots. They actually get excited about carrots. And that’s a good thing.
Food Bowl Alert: Learn to pick the best produce and cook with seasonal ingredients from your local farmers markets at the Los Angeles Times Food Bowl throughout the month of May. For farmers market chef demonstrations and related events, as well as for a full schedule of Food Bowl events, click here.
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