Grilled baby new potato salad

Grilled baby new potato salad (Karen Tapia-Andersen / LAT)

Maybe what attracts customers to the Weiser Family Farms stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market is the rainbow of potatoes in different shapes and sizes: Russian Banana, Rose Finn, Red Thumb and Purple Peruvian, some of them so fresh their skins rub off between your fingers. Maybe it's the Bloomsdale spinach with its fleshy leaves so sweet you can eat them raw without a taste of tannin. It could be the fuzzy green almonds. Certainly the dozens of buckets of sweet-smelling lilacs don't hurt.
FOR THE RECORD:
Garfield High School —An article in Wednesday's Food section about Weiser Family Farms said that Garfield High School, where Sid Weiser was a counselor, is in Alhambra. It is in East Los Angeles.

Whatever it is that draws them, shoppers crowd around the stand, picking out produce and paying for it. And almost everyone — from "civilian" food lovers to chefs — stops for a word or two with Alex Weiser, though there is seldom time for much more than that.

"Wednesdays tend to be like a hockey game around here," Weiser says. He wouldn't have it any other way. After all, this half-day madhouse is the linchpin of his family's business.

And a business is exactly what it is. Though the popular image of a farmers market grower may be of a dusty, overall-clad geezer handing over his crops one piece at a time, the reality is often entirely different.

For the Weisers, favorites of Southern California cooks for more than 20 years, farmers markets are just one part of a business that grosses more than $1 million a year. That may sound like a huge amount, but expenses eat up most of it — 75% to 80% just to get the stuff to market, not including how much it costs to grow the crops.

Most impressive, at a time when the odds seem ever more stacked against small farmers, the Weisers are able to help support four families and more than a dozen employees. To do it, they have to be creative — and not just in their farming. As a result, they and others like them are beginning to change the way the business of agriculture is conducted.

Traditional commercial agriculture is predicated on growing the greatest possible amount of food for the lowest possible price. At this it has succeeded to an almost unimaginable extent. Americans spend less of their paychecks on food than any other industrialized nation — 11% — less than half of what our grandparents spent before World War II.

But this success has come at a cost, both to producers and consumers. For farmers, it has meant operating at such razor-thin profit margins that they are faced with a stark choice between getting big enough to take advantage of economies of scale and going broke.

A recent study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that farmers earn only about 20% of the retail cost of the crops they grow.

For shoppers, it has meant food that no longer has the flavor they remember. Commercial agriculture rewards farmers for growing more crops; there are few incentives to grow crops that taste better.

Indeed, even a glance at how produce gets from farm to market is enough to explain how this works. Traditionally, farmers grow only one or two types of crops. They harvest them, and then drop them off at packing plants, where their fruits and vegetables are mixed with those of dozens of other farmers who grow the same things.

These pooled products then work their way through the supply chain, from packing shed to distributor to supermarket, oftentimes with even more steps in between.

Sometime later, the farmer will get a statement telling him how much he was paid for the crops (and sometimes, even, how much he owes — packing and sorting can actually cost more than the crops were sold for). From this amount, he subtracts the costs of planting and growing the crops, and then figures out where he stands.

But farmers markets allow the farmers not only to earn the full sales price of their crops, but also to be rewarded for growing fruits and vegetables that have better flavor.

On the other hand, it is forcing them to rethink how they do business. Now, growing and harvesting is only the beginning of their work.

Which brings us back to the Weiser stand at the Santa Monica market. Here, Alex Weiser keeps up a steady patter with the customers who flock to the tables. Liberally salted among the home cooks buying food to fix for their families' dinners are professionals. There are chefs such as Josiah Citrin of Mélisse, Joe Miller of Joe's Restaurant and Mark Gold of Café Pinot. And there is a surprising number of wholesalers who sell to restaurants and supermarkets — representatives from companies such as FreshPoint, LA Specialty, Frieda's Inc. and Melissa's.

Gwen Kvavli Gulliksen, former chef at the Getty Center and now with restaurant produce supplier Harvest Sensations, brings by students visiting from the Culinary Institute of America in New York.