Modern Buyers Love Old-Fashioned Farmers' Markets in Vista, Del Mar

What a difference a minute makes.

At 7:59 a.m. a crowd of more than 100 people has gathered between two rows of trucks and wooden stands on a dirt lot next to the Vista city hall.

As farmers and their families work quickly to unpack produce and arrange it neatly on the stands for sale, the people in the crowd banter and eye the fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers being set out on all sides. Many are local residents, and this is a good time to renew old friendships or establish new ones.

But idle conversation comes to a halt when the whistle blows at 8 a.m., signaling the market is open.

It's the early buyer who gets the best produce--or so everyone seems to believe. Within minutes, cash has changed hands in dozens of transactions and people are heading for their cars carrying bags full of fresh local peaches, avocados, tomatoes, peas, raspberries, roses and countless other products.

So goes market day--Saturday--at the Vista farmers' market, where people who grow food sell it directly to people who eat it. No frills, no gimmicks, no middlemen.

Founded in 1981, the Vista farmers' market has grown from modest beginnings into a lively business and social event. Its success recently helped inspire the establishment of a similar farmers' market in Del Mar, and there are plans to open another in Carlsbad later this year.

Roughly 50 growers come to the Vista market on an average weekend, up from only a handful when the affair first started. Gross sales have increased from $32,000 the first year to $164,000 last year.

"And it's a good social outlet for the community," said Bart Bollin, who manages the Vista and Del Mar farmers' markets for the loose group of farmers that participates.

"It's alive, it's friendly, and it's not commercial," agreed Carol, a thin woman with streaked gray hair who asked that her last name not be used. A 40-year resident of Vista, Carol said she buys produce regularly at the farmers' market "because of the quality of food. "They have excellent prices here, too," she added. "It beats the stores by half, if you consider the quality and the freshness."

Statewide Effort

Bollin said the markets are part of a statewide effort to help farmers sell their products directly to consumers. There are some 75 farmers' markets in California and the number is growing.

Only goods that have been grown in California can be sold at the markets, and growers who want to participate must pay $25 to be certified to sell their agricultural products. Inspectors from the county Department of Agriculture "have the option of inspecting your property to see if you're growing what you say you are," said Bollin.

In turn, the certificates--which growers are required to display at the markets--"ensure to the clientele that (the produce) is fresh, and that the seller really is the grower," Bollin added.

Growers who take part in the Vista and Del Mar markets range from retired couples who raise fruit and avocados in their backyards to professional farmers with more than 50 acres under cultivation. But most, like Roger Steeve, fall somewhere in between.

Protected From Fluctuations

Steeve, 26, who said he has sold produce at the Vista market nearly every week since it opened nearly six years ago, was at the market on a recent Saturday morning, offering eight-pound bags of small juicing oranges for $1. He and his parents farm 10 acres in Escondido where they raise peaches, apricots, oranges, plums, boysenberries and a variety of vegetables.

Steeve said that by selling most of its produce at the farmers' market, his family is protected from price fluctuations in the wholesale market. "When you sell to a wholesaler, if there are a lot of oranges on the market, you can't get anything for yours," he explained.

"This is a more (stable) marketplace, and that's important. It means we can hold our prices--in other words, we can make a living.

"We can also supply people with a product that's better and fresher than what you can get in the stores," he continued. "We pick our peaches and apricots when they're ripe, not when they're green. They're not always cheaper (than they are in supermarkets), but . . . they're the best."

Prices vary from grower to grower and from month to month, but Steeve said his family usually sells peaches for about 65 cents a pound, apricots for about 70 cents a pound. A local supermarket chain was recently selling peaches for $1.49 a pound and apricots for 98 cents a pound.

The local farmer's markets also attract larger growers such as Les Myers, 47, who has 55 acres in Fallbrook planted primarily with avocados and lemons. Myers said he sells most of his crop to packing houses, since he couldn't possibly sell it all at farmers' markets. But packers are paying only about 22 cents a pound for large Hass avocados, he said, and he can sell some of those same avocados directly to consumers at the farmers' markets in Vista and Del Mar for about 40 cents a pound.

Thus, the markets provide a good supplement to his income. "I get a price almost twice what I'd get from a packer, and yet it's still a good discount for the customer," said Myers. (In one local supermarket, large Hass avocados were recently priced at about 75 cents a pound.)

Other Produce a Bonus

"Besides, where would I get rid of the rest of this stuff?" he asked rhetorically, gesturing to boxes of tomatoes, cucumbers and limes. "I don't raise enough of it to interest a wholesaler."

Myers said that on a good Saturday he sells $200 worth of produce at the Vista farmers' market, which is open from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Then he drives to the Del Mar market, which is open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and makes $200 more.

"That's definitely worth my time," said Myers, "but I enjoy just coming down here and meeting people, too. There's a feeling of pride (in selling your produce to customers), and it's fun to explain to people the difference between varieties, and things like that."

"You spend most of your time working, so it's nice to come here and hear the people appreciate" your effort, agreed Bill Brammer, 34, who raises organic peaches, peas, beans and other vegetables on 20 acres near Rancho Santa Fe.

Brammer and his wife, Marsanne, also 34, have sold their produce regularly at the Del Mar farmers' market since it opened in November in a parking lot next to the Del Mar city hall. Del Mar is closer to their farm than Vista, Brammer explained, and it's also a better place to sell organic produce, which brings a premium price due to relatively high labor costs and lower yields.

Less Price-Conscious

"People at this market aren't as concerned about price," said Brammer, echoing the comments of his fellow farmers, who describe shoppers at the Vista farmers' market as "penny pinchers" and "price-conscious."

With only 16 or 17 growers coming to sell their produce each week, the Del Mar farmers' market is also smaller and offers somewhat less variety than its counterpart in Vista. The clientele is generally younger, too, and clothing such as designer jeans and T-shirts commemorating Hawaii abounds.

Bill Loomis, a bearded man of 46, said he and his wife walk to the market every week from their home two blocks away. "We always buy five bags of (green) beans for our dog. If she ate only dog food, she'd get fat," he said.

"Today we also bought cucumbers for a party we're having tomorrow. They're really better here," Loomis went on. "And I see friends here that I don't normally see."

The market "gets the community together," agreed Alice Goodkind, 46, a Del Mar resident who helped organize the farmers' market for the town last fall. "Del Mar has lost some of its community feeling, but now we see each other at the market.

"It also gives you a feeling of being in Europe. They have open-air markets almost every day over there," added Goodkind, who said she formerly lived in France. "And the lettuce you buy here is so fresh that it lasts all week."

The opportunity to showcase fresh, high-quality and sometimes hard-to-find local produce recently prompted a group of Carlsbad residents and property owners to look into setting up a farmers' market in their town, too.

The Carlsbad market is scheduled to open later this year, according to Mary Hillebrecht, one of those helping to organize the venture. It will be open for business Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, she said. In addition, there are plans to organize a farmers' market in the East County. "The whole concept is a throwback into history," said George Cunningham, 50, a grower who regularly sells persimmons from his De Luz Canyon farm at the Vista farmers' market. "It's the way people have been buying and selling produce since time began."

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