Market Makers

Most of us have an idyllic view of farmers markets: honest, hardworking yeomen selling the rare and perfect fruits of their labors to happy shoppers. What we rarely think about is the time and effort that goes into making this vision a reality. Welcome to the world of farmers market managers--recruiters, marketers, lobbyists and, perhaps most important, the thin blue line of enforcement that keeps markets from being overrun by those who would take advantage of the system.

Of the many factors that determine the quality and integrity of a farmers market, none outweighs the influence of its manager. The public rarely notices a steady hand on the tiller but may have cause to lament its absence.

There are more than 100 farmers markets in Southern California, and each of them is different. There are markets where almost anything goes--so-called "family festivals" with prepared foods and handicraft booths that outnumber the farmers selling produce. Then there are markets for purists, where only farmers are welcome--and mostly organic farmers at that. What they all have in common is that they are reflections of the market's community, the goals of the sponsoring organizations and the choices made by the managers who run them.

By state regulation, people become market managers only if they fit one of three criteria: They must represent a nonprofit organization or a government agency, or they must be farmers themselves. Markets charge farmers fees of 6% to 8% of sales; the largest can clear profits of $50,000 or more a year. Managers' salaries vary greatly; some work as volunteers, while one Westside manager reportedly makes $55,000 a year for running a single market.

Traditionally, many managers have been idealists. "Trust me, I'm not in this to get rich," says Kathy Foster, who tries to emphasize small local growers at her four markets. "I feel some managers have sold out, but my goal is to create a feeling of community among the farmers and customers."

Managers are called on to do almost anything that needs doing at a farmers market, from negotiating for space and selecting the farmers to making the rules and printing up fliers. And there are 1,000 other things as well. When a generator goes down, they're the ones called to solve the problem.

But perhaps their most important role is produce cop. Under state law, everything a farmer or his representative sells at a certified market must have been grown by him or by one of two other farmers (known as "second certificates") for whom he has been authorized to sell. These rules are intended to keep the markets from degenerating into open-air supermarkets.

Though state and county agricultural authorities are primarily responsible for enforcing rules, most lack the money and manpower to investigate infractions, and so the burden falls to the managers.

The response to violations varies from market to market. At the Torrance farmers market a month ago, among such delicacies as white-fleshed loquats, novel Apriums and tasty black-boned Chinese chickens, there was a stand selling what appeared to be Turkish dried apricots. Over the past decade, cheap imports of these small whole fruits, lighter in color and much less flavorful than domestic varieties, have devastated California apricot growers.

When showed a bag of the illicit apricots, the market's manager, Mary Lou Weiss, arched her eyebrows and marched to the stand to investigate. She frowned, bought a sample as evidence and told the vendor, Joe Bonilla, to remove the box from sale. Then she walked back to her office and filed a complaint with the Los Angeles County, Fresno County and state agricultural authorities.

"That's pure greed," she said and expelled him from the market. Acting on Weiss' complaint, Fresno County also fined him.

"I was just trying to make an extra buck," Bonilla said. "I can't blame anyone but myself. I was kicked out of three farmers markets. I feel a lot of regret."

Not all managers care as much about integrity, however, and peddlers gravitate to markets where managers don't ask too many questions. Some managers work with merchant groups that want a farmers market primarily to lure shoppers and don't care when vendors set out mounds of implausibly perfect tomatoes in January or immaculate green grapes in March.

Some managers are reluctant to take on the burden of enforcement. "I'd prefer it if [county] inspectors came by more frequently than every six months," says Patricia Harrison, who manages four markets in Orange County. "But I don't have time to go check out people's farms. I don't get paid to do that."

Laura Avery, who supervises the four Santa Monica markets, feels driven to do just that. "When farmers complain that someone in my markets is a peddler, curiosity gets the better of me and I have to find out for myself," she says.

She long suspected Wally Melzer, an avocado farmer at her Wednesday market, of selling packing house culls, since his fruits were mostly small and imperfect. Late last month she drove down to his farm in Temecula to investigate. After speaking to a neighbor, she learned that the property had been foreclosed in February and that Melzer was no longer farming it. At the next market, a Los Angeles County agricultural inspector issued a citation to Melzer's seller, and Avery dropped the farm from her market. Melzer could not be reached for comment.

Enforcement is the toughest part of her job, says Avery, adding, "You're dealing with people's livelihoods."

Her favorite part of being a manager is the access to fantastic produce, like ripe peaches, rare heirloom tomatoes and prize-winning goat cheeses. Avery was a new mother with two young children when she started managing the year-old Wednesday market in 1982.

Now the market is California's largest in sales of produce, and one of the best. Part of that success stems from Santa Monica's enviable demographics, but Avery deserves credit for continually searching, as she puts it, for "high-quality producers who are passionate about what they do and have a real connection to the land."

Others are drawn by the business aspect of the markets. "There's a whole new breed of entrepreneurs these days," observes Jane Allen, who manages the highly regarded Encino farmers market.

Jennifer McColm, a 37-year-old mother of three, has opened six new markets intended as profit-making ventures in the last two years. Several have closed, but her Pacific Palisades venue has proved quite successful. McColm qualified to be a market sponsor as a farmer based on one grapefruit tree and four lime trees in her yard at home.

Cheerful and energetic, McColm features respected names such as Bernard Ranches and Underwood Farms, and gave Cahuilla Mountain Farm, an artisanal grower of organic heirloom vegetables, its first outlet in Los Angeles markets. But her events also include a few vendors who push the rules.

At her Beverly Glen market in late March, one vendor displayed what appeared to be distinctively firm Shinko Asian pears--a variety not listed on their certificate. They were still packed in boxes from a giant commercial producer. When asked about this, McColm first told the vendor merely to shift the pears out of the incriminating containers. McColm was friendly with the woman, she said, and didn't want to annoy her. The next day, at the Pacific Palisades market she also manages, McColm asked the vendor to remove the item from sale.

The next weekend, however, the same vendor showed up with a newly issued "second certificate" authorizing her to carry Shinko pears from another grower. How easy it was, McColm observed, to legitimize what appeared to have been peddled product. The truth is, regulations intended to ensure integrity sometimes just require peddlers to work a little harder.

So it comes down to the managers and sponsoring organizations to determine what goes on in their markets. "A lot of markets are just an excuse to eat corn dogs," says Clark Staub, who operates a superb market in Claremont that is rich in small organic growers. "My idea was to bring in good farmers and break that cycle, so that people would come for the produce."

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