These days, everyone and his uncle wants a farmers market in his neighborhood or shopping center. Dozens of new farmers markets open each year in the Los Angeles area, varying greatly in their operators, intentions and locales. Some are basically swap meets, dominated by prepared foods and crafts, and many languish and disappear after a year or two. Several more noteworthy markets, which have opened or will open soon in Thousand Oaks, Hollywood and Torrance, provide an object lesson in the complex motivations, economics and logistics that underlie the farmers market world.
The new Thousand Oaks market will open next Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., at the Lakes shopping center with about a dozen farm vendors and no prepared foods or crafts. The operator is Gail Zannon, whose Santa Barbara Pistachios, grown in Cuyama, are a familiar presence at farmers markets such as the ones in Hollywood and Santa Monica. The idea, she says, is to run the market on behalf of a group of high-quality farmers, with an emphasis on organic growers, and to develop a local venue in which produce is primary.
Her roster of about 15 vendors, still a work in progress, includes Tom Shepherd, a legend at the Santa Barbara markets for his organic salad greens, vegetables and strawberries; McGrath Family Farms, which grows a wide range of organic vegetables in Camarillo; Munak Ranch of Paso Robles, which sells exceptionally flavorful tomatoes and melons; and Hayground Organic Gardening, an innovative nursery based in Silver Lake.
There are some peddler-ridden markets in the general area, and part of Zannon's rationale in opening her venue is to provide a higher-quality alternative. Ironically, however, she is most directly competing with a large, very good market at the nearby Oaks shopping center, which has been held on Thursday afternoons for 20 years. So why did Zannon choose this location? The Lakes mall, eager to open a farmers market, was willing to provide space and promotional support, she says.
"Shopping centers want farmers markets because they think it will drive traffic and bring validity," says Karen W. Schott, manager of the established Thousand Oaks market. She was asked by the Lakes management to open a new market there but declined, she adds.
Raw Inspiration, which operates 19 farmers markets around the Southland, runs several markets at malls, such as the Westfield in Century City and the Americana in Glendale. Now it's about to open a high-profile venue at the western edge of the Hollywood & Highland shopping center, off Orange Drive.
John Edwards, Raw Inspiration board president, said Wednesday that he expects to sign a contract with the company that operates the mall on Friday morning and that he anticipates the market will open on Sept. 10. The market, which will run from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, would have about 50 vendors in total ("medium size for us"), of which half to two-thirds would be farmers. The mall's owners are hoping that the farmers market will draw more local residents to shop, he added.
With all the new markets that have opened in recent years, real farmers who sell only what they grow are stretched thin, and illicit resellers of produce have come to dominate some venues. Raw Inspiration has been beating the bushes (metaphorically) to come up with authentic farmers.
"Anyone we don't know, we make a farm visit first before we let them in," says Edwards. "We're really emphasizing the quality of our farmers."
The farmers market scene is becoming increasingly competitive as rival market operators encroach on each others' turf. The new market off Orange Drive will be going up against the well-known nearby Hollywood market on Ivar Avenue, whose management and customers were recently relieved to learn that it will soon receive a one-year permit to continue operating at its location on Sundays, a partial victory in its fight with the Los Angeles Film School over street closure; now it will face a new challenge from a nearby venue.
Torrance has been well served for many years by two large, diverse farmers markets held on Saturdays and Tuesdays at Charles H. Wilson Park but has gotten a new addition with a Thursday afternoon market opened in April at a downtown location abutting a small shopping center. The driving force was Michael Shafer, owner of two adjacent restaurants, who hopes to contribute to the revitalization of the downtown area, he says. The city of Torrance recruited Mary Lou Weiss, the veteran manager of its two established markets, to start the new venue. It is scheduled to operate at least until September, after which the city will evaluate its success, says Weiss.
All of the venue's 15 vendors are farms, quite a few of them well-known from selling at many other markets, such as Mark Boujikian of Raisin City, famous for his figs; Santiago Farm of Nipomo, with its much-imitated checkerboard squares of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries; and Arnett Farms of Fresno, which currently has enticing displays of stone fruit spilling out of farm baskets.
As farmers markets proliferate, however, more of the vendors are local employees who have little direct connection with the farm. The price of success is that it is becoming rarer and rarer to find an actual farmer at a farmers market.
Farmers markets on the Westside are among the many businesses not looking forward to the closure of the 405 freeway this weekend, but it appears from a recent flurry of emails within a managers' group that all will remain open despite the mayhem. Markets and vendors are scrambling to find farmers nearby places to stay over the weekend to avoid the traffic, but most growers are expected to participate as usual. Just a few from the Santa Monica markets, including Gloria Tamai, David West, Maggie's Farm and Spring Hill Cheese, have decided to bow out of the July 16 and 17 markets, says manager Laura Avery.
"We think we could get to the markets pretty easily, but getting back would be the problem," says Nate Peitso of Maggie's Farm, which grows in Agoura Hills. "It's unfortunate, because if everyone stays home this weekend, the markets might be quite busy."