The idea that shook the world

Times Staff Writer

ON a lazy Saturday morning behind a mini-mall between Compton and Hawthorne, the Gardena farmers market unfolds to the tinkling beat of a Caribbean steel drum. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about it -- about a dozen farmers selling greens and root vegetables, nopalitos and radishes. It hardly looks like one of the birthplaces of a revolution that has changed American agriculture and even, to an extent, our relationship with food.

But that’s exactly what it is. In 1979, the Gardena farmers market was the first to open in Southern California and one of the first half a dozen in the state.

And if today we tend to think of farmers markets mainly in terms of celebrity chefs seeking out the most exquisite produce, or as a place we can meet to socialize with other food-obsessed friends, the Gardena market is a reminder that when the movement started, the goals were much more modest.

Back then, farmers markets were intended simply to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to shoppers who might otherwise have a hard time finding them, and to help small farmers stay alive in what even then was an increasingly hostile world of commercial agriculture.

Not only did the markets succeed at those twin goals, but they also ended up changing the way farming and the produce industry work. Along the way they became not only gourmet bazaars but also social centers and engines for urban redevelopment.

Today, farmers markets seem to be everywhere -- there were almost 500 in the state last year, more than 80 of them in Los Angeles County. And although the farmers market movement is closely identified with California, it has exploded into a national phenomenon. There were more than 3,700 farmers markets in the United States in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than double only a decade before.

Who would have dreamed such a thing could come from what started out as four farmers in a church parking lot?

“This whole thing started with a small idea, but it put into motion something that turned out to be much bigger when others heard about it,” says Ida Edwards. She and her husband, Leroy, were customers that first weekend; now they manage this market and another one at Adams Boulevard and Vermont Avenue -- and they even do some farming themselves, raising aloe vera that they turn into soaps and lotions to sell at the markets.

To appreciate what the movement has accomplished, you have to look below the surface of what’s going on at the Gardena market now. That stand with the bags of cute little citrus? That’s Friend’s Ranches from Ojai, and those Pixie tangerines are similar to the ones served at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. That stand over there with the great-looking strawberries and mixed vegetables? That’s Tamai Farms from Oxnard and right across is Ha’s Apple Farm from Tehachapi -- their produce is served in some of California’s finest restaurants.

Even more to the point: that funny-looking money that so many customers are using to pay? That’s scrip for federal and state anti-hunger programs and accounts for as much as half of the market’s sales.

From at one time not having access to fresh produce, low-income customers at the Gardena market -- and many other small markets -- now can get the same ingredients as are used by some of the best chefs in the country.

That is surely well beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic of the markets’ founders. The first five farmers markets in Southern California were sponsored by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, a project of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, with the simple idea of bringing fresh food to the poor.

“We were really addressing questions of food access, because at that time some of the supermarkets had fled the inner city,” says Vance Corum, who organized the first half a dozen successful markets in Southern California. “At the same time, we were also very aware of the plight of farmers. That was the start of the tough times in the farm economy around the country. Things were tight.”

Sea change

UNTIL just a couple of years before, there had been no way to bring farmers and their customers together outside of a commercial market because of state regulations. Designed to smooth transactions between growers and the produce industry, these rules specified exactly how fruits and vegetables were sorted, packed, transported and sold.

But in 1977, after a peach harvest with prices so low that some farmers protested by dumping excess fruit on the state Capitol lawn, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order exempting farmers from those restrictions if they would sell their produce at farmers markets.

Even today, Corum can recite from memory the opening dates and sales totals from those first markets. He opened Gardena on June 23, 1979, finding four farmers mainly through word of mouth and a lot of begging. But after the farmers sold everything they had brought that morning before the market had even officially opened, Corum didn’t have to beg any more.

There were still some tough spots: That first winter of 1979-80 was really rainy, slowing sales to a dribble. But the market survived and the next summer more followed, all in underserved neighborhoods: Pacoima, Pasadena, Long Beach and Adams-Vermont. The produce had to be fresh and of high quality, of course, but the idea of establishing a new style of haute cuisine was about the furthest thing from anybody’s mind.

“We were not gourmet at all,” Corum says, laughing. “For years, in fact, I had trouble accepting the fact that we were getting this foodie mentality in the markets. I wanted to keep prices as low as we could.

“But over time I realized the reality was that some farmers were just that much more proud of their product. They were providing much better food than a supermarket could provide and so they thought they deserved to get higher prices.”

A rousing success

THE world of farmers markets really started to change the next year. The woman who had helped hire Corum to the hunger coalition post, Ruth Yannatta Goldway, had just been elected mayor of Santa Monica. Saddled with a struggling downtown area, she thought that a farmers market might prove the key to drawing walking traffic to local businesses, which had been hurting since the opening of the Santa Monica Place mall.

“One of her first acts as mayor was to call me and say, ‘Vance, it’s time to call in the chips. We’re ready for a market in Santa Monica,’ ” he says. On July 15, 1981, the first Santa Monica market opened, located at the head of what would eventually become Third Street Promenade.

It was a rousing success right from the start. Suddenly everyone wanted a farmers market. Who could have guessed that shopping for carrots and broccoli would become a recreational activity for thousands of people?

Along with Ferry Plaza in San Francisco and Union Square in Manhattan, the Santa Monica market became a symbol of a new form of agriculture. It’s on the must-see list for visiting chefs from around the country. In fact, the Culinary Institute of American in New York brings its students by for tours.

It was chefs who helped drive the initial popularity of these markets. And they rely on them even more today. “We gear our menus a lot around the farmers market, what’s coming into season, what’s going out,” says Campanile’s executive chef Mark Peel, one of the first to shop the market regularly.

But even chefs who can’t attend the Santa Monica farmers market buy produce from it -- even if they work on the other side of the continent. FreshPoint Consolidation, a subsidiary of the giant restaurant supplier Sysco Corp., buys fruits and vegetables there every Wednesday and ships them all over the country.

FreshPoint ships colossal asparagus from Zuckerman-Heritage Farms, green almonds from Weiser Family Farms and blackberries from Pudwill Berry Farms to Per Se in New York; it ships baby gai lan from McGrath and Jaime farms to Emeril’s Orlando.

FreshPoint’s weekly newsletter touts the glories of garlic scapes from Windrose Farm, and baby pearl onions with tops from McGrath Family Farms to more than 1,000 subscribers around the country. All told, the newsletter promotes produce from as many as 20 farms from the Santa Monica market.

FreshPoint President Verne Lusby says that for both his company and the restaurants they serve, farmers market produce is a way of separating themselves from the herd. “It’s hard to differentiate yourself, and that’s one of the ways we can do it,” he says. “I tell chefs, ‘Put the name of the farm on the menu and that’s an extra $5 you can charge for any item.’ The customer doesn’t even know who Weiser Farms is, but it’s great marketing.”

Once the chefs got on board, high-end supermarkets quickly followed. It’s hard to overstate the effect these markets have had on the produce industry. Taken together with Americans’ awakening interest in food, it has been nothing short of revolutionary.

Between 1987 and 1997, sales of fresh fruits and vegetables in this country more than doubled to more than $70 billion. And according to one industry survey, the number of items in the average supermarket produce section has risen from 173 to 335.

Not all of this can be attributed directly to farmers markets, of course, but they certainly moved things along.

“I remember 12 years ago I was giving a speech as part of a panel of produce industry CEOs, and I said that the biggest competition for supermarket produce departments was not going to be other supermarkets, but farmers markets,” says Karen Kaplan, president of the specialty produce company Frieda’s.

“There were a couple of reasons for that and I told them they had better pay attention. For one thing, consumers like better-tasting produce. That seemed to surprise them. And I said it was about the shopping experience, it wasn’t about price. The supermarkets didn’t want to hear that, but that’s what I still believe.”

Frieda’s buys produce from growers discovered at farmers markets and distributes it to supermarkets across the country, as does its main competitor, Melissa’s. Much of this goes to high-end markets, which seem to be in a competition to see how closely they can replicate the farmers market experience. Whole Foods markets now sometimes buys directly from small farmers, and in some areas has even changed its distribution system to allow farmers to deliver directly to individual stores rather than go through the central warehouse. This way, tender fruits and vegetables can be picked two or three days later than they would otherwise.

“I think the farmers markets help us keep an attachment to the roots of what produce is,” says Mark Wilson, produce buyer for Whole Food’s southern Pacific region. “It keeps people realizing that there is food that is grown for taste. For us, it’s a great place to experiment and to find new products.”

For the folks who grow the fruits and vegetables, farmers markets have been nothing short of a lifesaver. Stuck in the traditional commercial marketing scheme, many of them might not have survived. Consider that in 1979, when the markets began, it was considered scandalous that farmers received on average only between 30 and 35 cents of every retail dollar spent on what they grew. Today, that figure is closer to 19 cents.

At farmers markets, growers not only realize the full value of what they grow, they get it in cash, rather than having to wait weeks for a wholesaler’s check.

In some cases, going to the market has even changed the way they run their farms. Daisy Tamai, who was at Gardena the second weekend, is the fourth generation of her family to farm. Traditionally strawberry growers, the family had always sold its fruit through conventional channels, raising a few vegetables on the side.

Today the Tamai family is still at the Gardena market, as well as a dozen others around Southern California -- in fact, Tamai says 90% of the farm’s business is done through farmers markets. And though strawberries are still important, the family grows a full range of vegetables (actually, they may be better known for their tomatoes and corn).

“From having nothing to do with markets, now that’s almost all we do,” she says. “And because there was a demand from our customers, we started growing things we’d never grown before.”

Is it any wonder that Tamai Farms and Friend’s Ranches are still selling at the Gardena market, more than 25 years after the day it opened?

“We believe in both prongs of what they’re trying to do there,” says Tony Thacher, who grows those wonderful Pixie tangerines at Friend’s Ranches. “First, bringing better food into poorer neighborhoods at reasonable prices, and also earning money for farmers who don’t want to have to deal with the whole food industry thing.

“Farmers are able to actually access their money right away and the public is able to access the food. I think both of them are wonderful ideas.”