Less than 30 minutes after the San Pedro farmers market opened for business last week, 71-year-old Joe Bednash stood at a nearby bus stop. Three bags filled with fruit and vegetables were at his feet.
"Well, today I got a bad batch of strawberries," Bednash said, regretting his decision to purchase some cheap berries from a market vendor, only to discover that a few were rotten. "Next time, I guess I'll go for the higher-priced ones."
So it went last Thursday morning as Bednash and others crowded onto the small parking lot below the Harbor Tower senior citizens building at 3rd and Mesa streets to buy home-grown produce, eggs, honey, nuts and flowers from more than a dozen farmers from all over the state.
Word of the market has apparently traveled fast. Despite the fact that this was only the market's second week, by the time it opened at 10 a.m., several hundred shoppers had shown up. Some had come to do a little dickering.
"The longer I stay, the more willing they'll be to come down in their prices," said one middle-aged woman who declined to give her name. "You just have to stick it out. . . . Stay around and see."
Third in South Bay
The San Pedro farmers market is the third to open in the South Bay, and Inglewood and Torrance plan to open markets of their own within the next several weeks. Gardena has had a successful farmers market for seven years, and Redondo Beach has had one for three.
The once-a-week markets have proliferated since the late 1970s when the state Department of Food and Agriculture approved rules that allow farmers to sell produce directly to consumers without meeting state packaging and labeling requirements. The markets are supervised by either local governments or nonprofit organizations, with farmers typically forking over a small portion of their gross sales receipts to cover operating expenses.
State officials estimate that 2,000 farmers have been certified to sell produce at about 90 farmers markets throughout California. Not all the markets have succeeded--Los Angeles County agricultural officials, who oversee about 20 markets in the Southland, report that three markets near downtown Los Angeles have come and gone in recent months because of a lack of shoppers--but interest in starting new markets apparently remains strong.
"They are really catching on," said Victor Bogdanoff, who manages the San Pedro market, as well as two markets in Long Beach, for the South Coast Ecumenical Council, a nonprofit religious organization. "They've really gotten to the point where they are not just a different kind of swap meet, but a different kind of market."
"Overall, the enthusiasm for farmers markets is part of the whole back-to-nature and health consciousness movement of the last 10 to 15 years," said Vance Merrill-Corum, who works for the Department of Food and Agriculture and assists groups and cities that want to establish a market. "People are looking to connect with people in their communities."
Senior Citizen Pressure
That was the case in San Pedro, as well as Inglewood and Torrance. Officials in the three cities said the decision to launch the markets came about largely as a result of pressure exerted by senior citizens groups on City Hall. Indeed, in Torrance, where a market will open June 4 at the Torrance Athletic Field parking lot on Crenshaw Boulevard, it is viewed as a recreational outlet of sorts for seniors as well as others.
"We are really stressing the social aspect of it," said Terese Condon, an employee with the city's Parks and Recreation Department. Condon said a number of educational programs, including several sponsored by local hospitals, will be offered at the market on opening day.
"If you have ever been down to the market in Redondo Beach, you'll see the same people every week," Condon added. "The markets give people the chance to kibitz about everything in the world. A lot of them spend the whole day there."
Help Downtown Area
Mark Weinberg, assistant to the city manager in Inglewood, said that he and other city officials also believe the establishment of a farmers market will offer senior citizens a convenient place to shop and socialize. But he said the city also hopes the market will serve another purpose.
"We want to bring people back into the downtown area, and we hope the market will help," Weinberg said. Inglewood's market, he said, is scheduled to open July 13 on Locust Street, one block east of the city's central business district.
Whether the produce offered by farmers at the markets is actually cheaper or fresher is a matter of some debate. Weinberg said produce sold at farmers markets can save shoppers 25% or more. Bogdanoff said the markets are "not always cheaper, but always fresher. Most of the produce has been picked in the last 12 hours."
Not Always Fresh
Maybe, but not always, according to Jits Teruya, a county agriculture commissioner who works to make sure that the produce offered at farmers markets meets minimum state standards. Teruya said farmers travel to the Los Angeles area from all over the state with large loads of produce. After selling some at the large downtown wholesale markets, they attend farmers markets in outlying areas. Hence, some of the produce may be several days old.
"We have farmers who come in from Central California who stay two or three days and try to hit two or three of the markets," Teruya said.
That apparently was not the case with the produce being sold in San Pedro last week by Francisco Zamora. The 58-year-old farmer had traveled from his home in Vista in San Diego County with his wife and daughter to sell crook-neck yellow squash, strawberries and other produce. A son operated another stall a few feet away.
"We usually pick a day before we come to the market in the afternoon," said his 17-year-old daughter, Jackie. She said her family, including three brothers, have been selling produce at farmers markets throughout the Los Angeles area, including Gardena and Santa Monica, for the past three years.
And freshness didn't appear to be an issue at the egg stand operated by 35-year-old Nellie Mejia. She said she had traveled from Pomona to sell eggs laid by some of the 85,000 chickens owned by an Ontario rancher. Signs in front of her stall advertised the eggs as being "laid last night" by "happy chicks."
Many Good Deals
But even Mejia, who perceives a difference in taste between fresh and not-so-fresh eggs, said she probably wouldn't buy the ones she was selling to others for 95 cents a dozen or more. "I don't think I'd pay this much," she said.
Nevertheless, some people, judging from the business she was doing, apparently were willing.
But there were many good deals, too. Frances Hilts, a Wilmington resident who was coaxed into coming to the market by a neighbor, said she bought some green beans for 59 cents a pound--far cheaper than what most supermarkets were charging last week.
Hilts, however, appeared to be most impressed with the quality of the produce offered by the farmers. "Look at these tomatoes," she said, retrieving a sack from the trunk of her car and holding them up for a visitor to inspect. "You can tell they are vine-ripened. In the supermarket, they are green and ech !"
"Nice and fresh and cheap," Silvia Hayes said when asked why she decided to come to the market. Hayes added that despite the fact that some produce offered in supermarkets may look good, it isn't. "My gosh, don't let appearances deceive you. They are flavorless," she said. That advice was echoed by others, including Bednash, who was deceived by appearances when he bought the bargain-priced berries. No matter. He said that he planned a return trip to the market as soon as he could make his way home and put away what he had already bought.
"I'm a fruitarian," said Bednash, who sports shoulder-length hair and a shaggy beard. "I try to eat only fresh fruit and berries and vegetables. And if you get them direct from the farmer, they're even better. They're more powerful."