It’s 3 a.m. on a recent Thursday, still night and chilly, and Howard Eckert and Jim Molyneux are packing the remaining crates of large nectarines, tender peaches and shiny apples into the truck.
Within the hour, they’ll leave Tenerelli Farms in the Antelope Valley where they work and hit the road to Costa Mesa, a little more than two hours away. There, as they have for the past few years, they’ll set up shop at one of Orange County’s four certified farmers market and sell the fruit they had harvested just the night before.
They’ll make the drive back to the farm that afternoon, only to return to the area within 24 hours to another market. Taking enough produce for two days and saving the sleep and time wouldn’t cut it. Satisfying their customers means delivering fresh fruit that’s no more than a day old.
Their consumers don’t take freshness lightly. And it’s that passion for freshness that drives the county’s four certified farmers markets.
More than a thousand Orangenoes frequent the four markets weekly, seeking fresh food (and a little fresh air) from vendors who set up shop on the back of their old flatbed trucks or off makeshift tables covered in bright green faux grass.
The vendors who visit the two markets in Fullerton and the ones in Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa must be certified, meaning that the state and county agriculture and farm departments have verified that they grow what they sell. In the case of the non-farmer vendors of fish, bread and preserves, the department of health has given the stamp of approval.
These markets shouldn’t be confused with those stores calling themselves farmers markets but are actually glorified retailers selling perfect-looking produce with a shelf life similar to a conventional supermarket.
“It’s not looks at all that get people buying this (produce),” said San Diego farmer Jerome Stehly. He and his wife, Peg, have been coming to the markets at the Costa Mesa fairgrounds and Fullerton’s Woodcrest Park for the last four years, selling citrus, avocados, garlic, onions and winter squash.
“Much of this would be thrown out,” he explained, referring to the produce’s appearance. “We don’t do any spraying. We haven’t in five years. What (customers) who come here are looking for is flavor. In the supermarket, you get beauty, but not always flavor. What we offer is fresh. It never made it to cold storage.”
So how fresh is fresh at a certified farmers market? Hours. Sellers leave their farms long before sunrise, driving as long as six hours to bring their harvests to suburban consumers.
Most of the farmers have been seeing the same customers since the beginning, such as Pat Lopez of Anaheim who has been visiting the Fullerton market on Wednesday mornings for the past six years.
“We’ve become friends. We ask about each other’s families,” she said.
Norco residents-in-the-know have been going to the Fullerton Certified Farmers Market since it opened in August, 1981. Sitting along a narrow dirt strip next to the playing field at Woodcrest Park and shaded by mature ash trees, the market was started by a nonprofit association by the same name which contributes 5% of the farmers’ profits to community projects, shelters, local schools and a scholarship fund for students majoring in agriculture.
About 40 vendors regularly sell their wares here to the few hundred who visit every Wednesday. It’s a clientele that represents a concentrated multi-ethnic cross section of Orange County residents. Among the languages overheard are Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish and Arabic.
The success of this market spawned another in an Old Towne Fullerton parking lot last spring. Sponsored by the city, this Thursday evening (5 to 8:30 p.m.) market attracts about two dozen vendors and shares space with a bazaar of artisans hawking everything from jewelry to clothes to handblown glass.
Vendors attending the city-sponsored market in Fullerton and the two organized by the Orange County Farm Bureau in Costa Mesa and Huntington Beach pay a percentage of their profits to participate. Contrasted with going through supermarkets, however, it’s a deal, say farmers, because they save on expensive packaging costs and bureaucratic headaches.
What’s more, they get to know the customers who will eat what they’ve so painstakingly produced.
“You really come to appreciate the customers and the farmers,” said Mary Lou Lorenzini of the Orange County Farm Bureau.
The Costa Mesa Certified Farmers Market, in its 13th year, the longest running (and, depending on the season, one of the largest), is open every Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The year-round market is at the parking lot near the main entrance of the fairgrounds.
The farm bureau also runs the downtown Huntington Beach market at a public parking lot on Main Street, every Friday from 2 to 6 p.m. This afternoon market gets about half as many vendors as doesCosta Mesa. Being near the beach, where it gets colder and darker earlier during the winter months and the crowds are less inclined to come, it operates only from March through December.
But all of the markets operate come rain or shine and offer free admission and parking.
“The most important thing is that the customer is buying direct from the farmer,” says Mona Amoon, co-manager of the Wednesday Fullerton Certified Farmers Market. “They save on costs, and they can meet the farmer and discuss the way it was grown.”
And skipping the middle man--a.k.a. the conventional supermarket--generally results in good savings. Consider the current going rate of $1.59 a pound for oranges at some supermarkets versus 25 cents at a farmers market. How about 20 extra large eggs for $2--or a single egg for a dime? And because the florist grows her own, the prices are wholesale, generally half of retail.
Variety is another advantage. Besides all the basics found at your local green grocer, expect the unexpected and hard-to-find at farmers markets.
A Fresno grower brings down Oriental veggies such as fresh soybeans, lemon grass, Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, snake squash and six kinds of eggplant. From Downey comes inexpensive and very fresh chamomile, lemon basil, sorrel, arugula, dill, cilantro, lemon thyme, water cress and four different kinds of mint and sage.
Eggheads can buy brown, double-yolk or cage-free eggs, those laid in nests by uncaged hens fed a diet of grain without hormones or antibiotics.
“The customer request for organic (foods) is unbelievable,” said “Farmer Mike” Almond, who sells beets, carrots and spinach farmed by him and a partner on land they rent at the Seal Beach Navy base.
Although not a certified organic grower (yes, it takes separate certification), Almond says demand has encouraged him to go that route.
During a recent morning, it seemed like the second most popular question after how much does it cost was what, if any, chemicals were used.
But health-conscious consumers can find certified organic growers at all of the markets, as well as information on what pesticides have been used, or in the case of non-produce vendors, where the fish was farmed or what ingredients went into the bread.
“I better know what’s in it, such as how much niacin is in the flour or, for diabetics, how much sugar there is,” said Don Bishop, a baker and salesman with At’sa My Bread.
The Rancho Cucamonga-based bakery has found its niche strictly doing farmers markets in Southern California--35 of them a week. The bread is baked that morning and never includes eggs or dairy products, so it’s fat free. Pick up a loaf of wheat, sourdough, rye, Italian, shepherds or six grain; or try the sweet cinnamon rolls.
Other treats available are olives--up to 40 mouth-watering kinds, including those stuffed with almonds, jalapenos and garlic. Raw natural honey comes in flavors such as orange, sage and wildflower in jars, as suckers or in honeycomb form.
With so many fresh goodies available, you may want to pick up more than just an item or two. So don’t forget your recyclable shopping bag . . . and your sun hat.
Fresh Facts at Your Fingertips
COSTA MESA FARMERS MARKET Where: Orange County Fairgrounds, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa. When: Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., year round.
FULLERTON CERTIFIED FARMERS MARKET Where: Woodcrest Park at Orangethorpe and Richman avenues, Fullerton. When: Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 2:30, year round.
FULLERTON MARKET Where: On Wilshire Avenue between Harbor Boulevard and Pomona Avenue, Fullerton. When: Thursdays, 5 to 8:30 p.m., year round.
HUNTINGTON BEACH FARMERS MARKET Where: At Main Street and Orange Avenue in downtown. When: Fridays, 2 to 6 p.m., from March through December.
Parking and admission are free at all markets.