Whetting Family Appetite for Farmers Market

Ah, the bounties of nature to be found at the local farmers market: decorative items made of handblown glass, pony rides and, of course, an espresso bar (I mean, this is L.A. after all).

At the Northridge Fashion Center's Farmers' Market & Family Festival, the newest addition to a centuries-old tradition of outdoor produce markets, the offerings go beyond berries and bok choy.

To be sure, there are fruits, flowers, nuts and neatly ordered rows of organic veggies for sale at the weekly event, one of 10 Certified Farmers' Markets in and around the San Fernando Valley.

But organizers say that in this era of "shop-atainment," even a rustic farmers market often must add an element of fun if it is to prosper.

"You do need it," said Dave Gayman, co-owner of Monrovia-based Family Festival Productions Inc., which organizes the weekly market in Northridge and two similar events in Los Angeles County. "Economically, if you want to get the maximum amount of people into a specific geographic area in that four-hour period, you have to give them as many different options as you can. Some will come for the veggies, some for the tri-tip sandwich."

The Northridge location, which had its official launch May 5, combines a Certified Farmers' Market with kiddie rides, arts and crafts, food booths and live entertainment, Gayman said. Only 35% to 40% of the Northridge market's vendors sell produce and other edibles, including baked goods, he said. The rest appeal more to your appetite for aesthetics and amusement.

That contrasts with more traditional markets that focus more exclusively on fruits and veggies.

Joey Char, marketing director for the Northridge Fashion Center--the only Valley mall to host a farmers market--said the aim of combining a festival element with the market, which is open Wednesday evenings, was to provide a weekly event for families. The effort fits in with the larger push in retailing to turn drive-by-shopping venues into entertainment destinations.

"We wanted to appeal to the community with a family-friendly event," said Char. "And to give them a reason to come to Northridge above and beyond the stores.

"When you see how many parents with strollers there are here, it's a really neat way to spend an evening."

"The purpose is to get people into an arena that they wouldn't otherwise visit," added Gayman, who organizes markets in Montrose and Monrovia and will soon start a similar "show" in Covina. (The Northridge market is modeled after the Montrose event, another festival/farm hybrid that some observers say is becoming more commonplace.)

But how do the farmers fare at such entertainment-heavy shows?

Farmers' market purists worry that in a contest between asparagus and espresso, the produce will lose out.

"We don't have crafts; this is strictly a farmers market," said Phyllis Power, market manager for the Calabasas Farmers' Market, which opened in June 1993. "The idea here is for the community to be able to take advantage of the farmers' produce. If we had room, we could have 300 crafts."

Gayman said the Monrovia market, which he describes as the "largest weekly show of its kind in California," attracts about 10,000 to 12,000 people per night.

But figures from the Southland Farmers' Market Assn. trade group show that the Monrovia market is among the least productive for farmers. The average gross sales per day, per farmer at the Monrovia market in 1998 was $275, far below the $631 take seen by farmers in Calabasas, and the $748 per farmer haul in Studio City, the most successful San Fernando Valley market for farmers.

And growers make up only 20% of the vendors in Monrovia, Gayman said.

On a much smaller scale, Studio City does have kid-friendly features like train rides, the omnipresent "bouncy house" and face-painting clowns.

But most of the vendors are farmers. Forty of the 60 or so vendors sell fresh produce, and another 10 sell prepared food items, according to market manager Polly Ward, who helped establish the 9-month-old market. The rest sell ornate pillows, antique wooden wagons and gadgets, like the Swiss-designed Chopper Machine.

(I bought one of the hand-held devices, because it was billed as "the answer to all your chopping and dicing problems." Now I can move on to establishing world peace and getting the ink stains out of my husband's white shirts.)

Sherman Oaks residents Marlene and Mark Clayman said they were drawn to the Studio City market largely by the features that appeal to their precocious 2-year-old, Jack.

"Absolutely, we came for the things for the kids," said Marlene Clayman, as Jack waited patiently for the next adventure. "We get produce here, but it's not the major reason."

Gayman acknowledges that there are successful farmers markets that "don't have the extra bells and whistles," citing Calabasas, Studio City and Encino as examples. (The average gross sales per market day for a farmer in Encino last year was $533, up 20% from the 1997 average.)

But most of them, he said, operate during the day or on the weekend. Farmers at the Northridge market peddle their produce midweek, in the evening.

Ward said that from what she hears, Northridge, even in its infancy, is off to a running start.

"My impression is that it's great," said Ward. "The prepared food will do very well, the children's area will do well. I'm just not sure how well the farmers will do."

Jim Terrick, who was manning the Tanaka Farms booth recently at the Northridge market, conceded that his sales are better at markets where "more of a percentage of the people come for the produce."

But even at festival markets like Northridge and Montrose, he said, "we're plenty busy and we get a lot of repeat business."

Luis Guevara, of Guevara Farms in Santa Maria, pushes produce at about seven farmers markets a week, including Studio City's on Sunday mornings.

He said he likes the ones with the family features because "it gets the people to bring their kids down. So it's not so boring for the kids when they're walking around."

Terrick feels that the added attractions "just bring out that many more people." People like Northridge residents Jennifer and Scott Stanley.

The couple had just let their two young children take a turn in "the bouncy thing," when they headed for the produce lanes. The two said they like the convenience of being able to amuse the children and shop for squash all at the same place.

"It meets a lot of needs in one stop," said Jennifer. "We came two weeks ago and we'll be here next week."

But not all parents are enamored of the amusements, with one woman saying the tchotchke-packed festivals remind her of a swap meet.

Another shopper opined that if you're in the market for onions, some of the larger festival-markets may be too much bother.

"It's a little overwhelming," said Althea Lee, as she strolled the produce lanes at the Northridge market with her 2-year-old, Liz. "To make this a regular stop for produce on a regular basis? I'd really rather just have the produce."

My 2-year-old came down squarely in favor of the festival markets, spending most of our recent visit to Northridge pleading: "See the horsy, Mommy? See the horsy, pleeeezzzzz?"

Which, if you're in marketing, is an effective strategy. Appeal to the one who pulls the heartstrings. The purse strings will surely follow.

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Valley @ Work runs each Tuesday. Karen Robinson-Jacobs can be reached at Karen.Robinson@latimes.com.

* GREEN ISSUES: As Valley golf recovers from the recession, environmental concerns resurface. B5

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