Jim Barnes stands in the midst of plenty at Pasadena's Villa Parke farmers' market. All around him, shoppers are headed home bearing big bags of oranges and grapefruit, leafy heads of lettuce, armloads of daisies. Nearby stalls offer sprigs of mistletoe, twig wreaths trimmed with plaid bows, even a few stalks of birds of paradise from someone's back yard.
Barnes, 38, surveys the scene from behind his table laden with olive oil and nuts, and declares:
"You don't realize how lucky you are by shopping here. Try getting this at a supermarket."
Between 2,000 and 3,000 people each week turn their backs on the supermarket chains to patronize Pasadena's three thriving farmers' markets. Started about 10 years ago as a single open-air market to provide quality food to low-income people, the operation today has branched into three separate markets that together do more than $1 million a year in business, organizers said.
The markets still draw plenty of bargain hunters, lured by the prospect of fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, fish and cut flowers for prices 5% to 50% cheaper than in grocery stores, said markets co-manager Gretchen Sterling, a member of the Villa Parke Assn., a nonprofit organization that co-sponsors the markets with the city of Pasadena.
The markets also attract people who are interested in back-to-nature ethics--or in free entertainment offered by outspoken vendors.
Barnes, of Lindsay, Calif., provides some of it.
Peddling a bag of walnuts to a customer, he jokes in a husky voice, "Five dollars even and nothing for the government. . . . He's got enough of our money."
Brad Bryce and Claudia Chase-Bryce of South Pasadena said they stopped shopping at supermarkets about seven years ago. They are vegetarians and say they frequent farmers' markets because of the fresh produce and the people.
"We love the markets. It's a nice place to socialize," Brad Bryce said. "We always buy a lot of vegetables and fruit juice."
Chase-Bryce said it seems pleasantly old-fashioned to buy food at outdoor stands.
"We share things with the farmers," she added. "We share a common interest in growing things. They have given me flowers and seeds."
However, she said, "I wish there were more organic growers."
On a recent Tuesday at Villa Parke, the couple circled the market to check out the produce and plant offerings.
And, as usual, they paid a visit to the cactus lady.
After chatting awhile with Ingrid Stewart, they bought one of her special offerings: A Christmas wreath of tiny assorted cactus plants held together with a wire ring.
It was just the latest in a long line of similar acquisitions. "We have an 'Ingrid's Garden' at home. Every one of our plants have come from her," Brad Bryce said.
Stewart commutes to the Pasadena markets twice a week from her home in Riverside.
"It's a wonderful way for people to shop," she said. "The farmer helps the consumer and the consumer helps the farmer."
Tosh Ishibashi's flower stand is one of the markets' biggest attractions.
When he pulls up at the Victory Park market every Saturday morning, he finds a line of customers waiting for him. The eager ones sometimes help him unload the truck.
Ishibashi has been in the flower business for more than 10 years. His family operation is based in Palos Verdes and Malibu.
"People are very nice and they appreciate you bringing fresh flowers," Ishibashi said. "We sell it for a real reasonable price. I have people waiting for me, especially on holidays.
"Sometimes they bring us candy. It's a pleasure just to talk to the people. People like individual attention."
The Villa Parke market--the original market, and the largest of the three--is held Tuesdays at the Villa Parke Neighborhood Center from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Starting Jan. 1, the market will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The other Pasadena farmers' markets are held at City Hall (Thursdays from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m.) and Victory Park (Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
The vendors come from as far away as Fresno and as near as Temple City. They range from back-yard gardeners to big-time farmers. In all, about 160 growers sell things through the Pasadena markets each year, Sterling said.
And like their customers, the farmers say they like doing business directly.
"Down here, you get better prices because you eliminate the middle man and you get fresh produce," said Richard Watts, who sells oranges and grapefruit with his wife, Deborah Watts.
All produce sold at the markets must be checked by county agriculture department officials to verify it was grown in California, Sterling said.
The growers must also pay 5% of their gross sales to the Villa Parke Assn. each market day. This helps cover insurance, advertising and cleanup costs, Sterling said.
Customers tend to spend about $7 to $10 per visit, Sterling estimated. Growers accept both cash and food stamps for purchases.
Sterling said occasionally customers complain that it is hard to park, or that they don't like standing in line at dozens of separate stands, or that it's inconvenient to pay in cash.
But for most, the direct, personal contact with vendors makes up for the markets' drawbacks. And at times, the line between buyer and seller is blurred.
"Sometimes, if things get real busy, customers will jump behind the table and start helping out," Sterling said. "They become market groupies."