When neighborhood business owners and residents started the Mar Vista farmers market in 2006, they were not just looking for a local source for fresh fruit and vegetables; in a car-centered city where shopping experiences are typically impersonal, they wanted the market to serve as a community square for residents to meet and socialize. By this standard, certainly, the event has been a great success, having expanded from a small, sleepy "starter market" to a lively venue with some 58 stands.
Situated on a broad street just south of Venice Boulevard, it has a relaxed, pleasant vibe and room to accommodate crowds without feeling cramped. Several booths serve the community, offering dog sitting, face painting and balloons for kids, and environmental information.
Nurturing a farmers market might seem like child's play, but it actually requires skill and experience, and Mar Vista is lucky to have as its manager Diana Rodgers, who previously ran Santa Monica's Main Street farmers market. That venue has a distinctive identity as the only one of Santa Monica's four markets to prominently feature noncertified and prepared foods, and Mar Vista has taken a similar approach, with 28, almost half of its stands, falling into that category.
A bit disconcertingly, however, several of Mar Vista's noncertified stands sell products, such as mushrooms, cheese and dried fruits and nuts, that compete with the offerings of certified producers — the farmers who are supposed to grow what they sell. California dried apricots have to contend with Turkish dried apricots at supermarkets, but surely this should not be so at a certified farmers market. (This is legal under state regulations, but the fact that the noncertified stands are clustered in their own section is a distinction lost on all but hard-core farmers market devotees.)
According to Rodgers, in the market's early years it was not easy to attract good certified vendors, so she recruited or kept some noncertified vendors (who buy products and resell them) to help build the market. Now that the market is prospering, premium certified vendors (farmers) are calling, but she is reluctant to eject the stands that helped the market gain traction. However, says Rodgers, the market now has "a moratorium on any more prepared foods, and the space that we do have left over to expand is being saved for specialty produce vendors and organics."
It will be interesting to see as the market continues to grow and mature whether the training wheels do indeed come off.
Meanwhile the market has a pretty good assortment of growers, including several well-respected organic vegetable farms. These days customers are making a beeline for the tender, plump sugar snap peas grown by John Givens in Goleta. The farm harvests sugar snaps in autumn, late winter and early spring, so they should be around for a couple of months. In order to provide a continuing supply, Givens, like most farms, puts in half a dozen or more plantings to mature every two weeks; so it makes sense to sample a pod or two at each market before buying, to make sure that they are young and sweet, rather than old and starchy. Givens also sells at Encino, Pacific Palisades and Hollywood.
Goyo Rodriguez of J.R. Organics, from Escondido, brings pristine sorrel, which is surprisingly difficult to find at farmers markets. A few pieces of the tart, lemony leaves, scattered through a salad, make a snappy counterpoint to sweeter, milder greens like spinach.
Nut grower David Avila of Hanford, looking to boost sales during his winter slow season, brings four nut butters: pecan, the most distinctive and flavorful, as well as walnut, peanut and almond.
Robert Todd of Rancho Padre, from Exeter, who recently started selling at this market, is a good bet for citrus, with Washington navel oranges, Ruby grapefruit and W. Murcott Afourer mandarins. The season has just begun for Central Valley grapefruit, which is still a bit bracing for most palates at this time.
Mar Vista farmers market, Grand View Boulevard between Venice Boulevard and Pacific Avenue, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times