Before daybreak, rain or shine every Wednesday, farmers from San Luis Obispo to San Diego are hard at work, picking and packing fresh produce and then hitting the road for Santa Monica's open-air market, the largest of more than 100 in the state.
The market, celebrating its 10th year this July, is a $3-million-a-year operation. It draws an average of 6,000 shoppers each week to stalls strung side by side along 2nd Street and Arizona Avenue, offering fruits and vegetables, herbs, eggs, honey, seafood and flowers.
Farmers love it. Shoppers love it. City officials love it. Downtown merchants? Well, that's another story.
Some merchants say that business is down by as much as 50% on Wednesdays because their customers have learned that the Farmers Market, which operates from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., makes parking nearly impossible.
Now, the city plans to expand the market to a second day each week--Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon, beginning May 11--and the merchants are more worried than ever.
City officials promise that the disruption will be minimal. The Saturday market will be limited to 24 stalls--there are as many as 84 on Wednesdays--and it will be over by noon, so there will be little overlap between market traffic and summer beach traffic.
"We don't want this to be another Wednesday market," said Laura Avery, market manager for the city. "Of the 24, all will be new farmers--some have been on the waiting list since 1986." Half of the stalls on Saturdays will sell organically grown produce, she said.
The merchants likely to feel the Saturday impact most are those near the market hub at 2nd Street and Arizona Avenue. Both streets are closed to traffic when the market operates.
"It's just a mess for us business-wise" when the market is open, said John Lin of Todai Restaurant, which occupies a corner of the intersection. "Restrooms are not readily available, and we are constantly harassed," he said.
Lin's neighbor, David Godshaw, owner of neighboring Sample Shoes Unlimited, added: "I love this town, but since the (Third Street Promenade) redevelopment project, the city said, 'We'll do whatever we want, whenever we want.' "
Blocking 2nd Street on Saturday "would destroy us," he said.
Thomas Carroll, executive director of the Bayside District Corp., the nonprofit company set up by the city to plan and administer the Third Street Promenade, said the city is aware of the merchants' complaints about plans for a Saturday market.
"We want to work with everyone," he said. "The city is trying to do something for the community."
Carroll said he was concerned about the impact the market and its attendant congestion on retail business. But he said area churches do not want the market on Sundays, and the nearby movie theaters don't want it in the afternoons. Peak store hours and summer beach traffic also are limiting factors, he said.
"This is the least intrusive compromise we could find," said market manager Avery.
Monty McCormick, president of the Central Business District Advisory Committee, a downtown merchants group, predicted that organized opposition from merchants would grow once the Saturday markets begin.
"The Farmers Market was imposed on the city by a few City Council members and has been a thorn in the side of many merchants," he said.
The Santa Monica Area Chamber of Commerce has scheduled a meeting of chamber officials and downtown merchants in late May--after the Saturday market has operated for several weeks--that is likely to become a forum for retailers to voice their complaints.
In the next year or so, the city plans to address the shortage of parking by adding more levels to the six municipal parking structures on 2nd and 4th streets. The parking structures also contain the downtown area's only public restrooms.
In a way, the opposition to the Farmers Market reflects its success. It was conceived in 1981 by former Mayor Ruth Yanatta Goldway and some council colleagues as a means of attracting foot traffic to the financially troubled 3rd Street pedestrian mall. The plan was that Santa Monica residents--particularly the elderly and those with low incomes--would have access to high-quality, low-cost produce. The farmers, by selling without an intermediary, could enjoy a heftier profit.
The market is organized and overseen by the city of Santa Monica and promoted by the Southland Farmers Market Assn., a nonprofit organization that offers support services to the growers.
It is self-supporting. Participating farmers pay 4 1/2% of their gross sales to the city to cover staff support at City Hall, signs, barricades, and police and fire protection. The city's cut is reduced to 4 1/4% from farmers who agree to donate unsold produce to the Salvation Army and other local causes.
The farmers market association also takes 1 3/4% of the farmers' gross to cover its expenses. The association sponsors open-air markets in 15 other locations, including Venice, West Hollywood and--starting next month--Hollywood. But participating farmers say the Santa Monica market is hard to beat.
"We strive to offer something unusual" in Santa Monica, said Richard Sager of Nichols Farming on a recent Wednesday as he stood next to his display of ramenesca , a cauliflower-broccoli hybrid. "People here go for something different."
Gil Erb, owner of Energy Bee Farm, who has been selling his honey at the market since its inception, enjoys Santa Monica for the "complete cross section" of shoppers it offers.
As one might expect of a farmers market in Santa Monica, there are characteristic efforts to reach out to the elderly and the homeless.
A shuttle bus operated by WISE Senior Services and under contract with the city provides free transportation to the market for elderly residents.
Justice Bakery, a nonprofit operation, hires street people to help out at its stall. And the Farmers Market itself hires workers from Step Up on Second, an agency that provides social services to the homeless.
All produce at the market is regulated and subject to periodic inspections by the state Department of Food and Agriculture. John Kincaid, supervisor of inspections for the department, said the Santa Monica Market is "a good clean market offering fresh, quality produce," and has incurred only a few violations over the years.
Organic produce is regulated separately by a farmers' organization, California Certified Organic Farmers.
George Wemetz, who has been selling seafood at the market since early this year, says "it's a great place to spend the day."
"Strawberries next door, flowers across the street, what more could you ask for?"