Farmers markets that close seasonally typically do so in the winter, when fresh produce is least abundant in most of California, but the Palm Springs farmers market shuts down from June to September, in deference to the brutal desert summers, when temperatures can easily surpass 120 degrees. In winter and early spring, by contrast, the generally balmy weather attracts a profusion of tourists and snowbirds, and the desert (mostly the less developed areas of the southern Coachella Valley and Imperial County) produces much of the nation's vegetables.
This would seem to be a promising base for a market, and, indeed, the Palm Springs event, founded in February 2008, is thriving. This was not a sure thing -- several markets established in the area in recent years had failed to take root -- but Paul Palodichuk, who manages this event with the aid of his wife, Giacomina Marie, has managed to succeed by emphasizing authenticity: Unlike the proliferating swap meets that call themselves farmers markets, his event focuses on actual farmers, and the great majority of the vendors he has chosen honestly grow what they sell.
First on the honor roll is Bob Knight Sr., who was long one of the most beloved vendors at markets in Pasadena, Whittier and Alhambra. Now 87, and tired of arduous drives from his farm in Redlands, he has given up these markets but still comes to Palm Springs. He currently brings Hayward kiwifruit -- a vestige of the vogue for planting this fruit that swept Southern California in the 1970s -- and Washington navel oranges, which are just starting their season around Redlands, where they truly reach their peak of flavor in February.
Local citrus cultivation is besieged by development, water shortages and the threat of greening disease, but Robert Knight Jr., who accompanies him to the market, is trying to support local farms through a community-supported agriculture program, the Inland Orange Conservancy.
Sage Mountain Farm of Aguanga, which represents the gold standard of quality in organic vegetables, offers pristine romaine and butter lettuces, orange and purple carrots, Riverside Candy onions, winter squash, beets and Swiss chard. The vendor, John Burgan, also has his own little stand, where his father, Craig, sells vegetables grown around their home in Anza, such as Black Spanish radishes and Red Stalk celery, an English heirloom with full flavor that maintains its color when cooked.
There's not much agriculture left in the upper Coachella Valley, but John and Estelle Foster of Mighty Sprout sell sprouts and wheatgrass raised near their home in Palm Springs and intensely vegetal wheatgrass juice.
Cid da Silva, who grows 40 acres of avocados in Valley Center, specializes in avocado oil, which is a bit thicker than olive oil and has a much higher smoking point. Da Silva was born on a farm on the Portuguese island of Madeira, where his father grew bananas, sugar cane and avocados. He immigrated to the United States and worked as a software programmer in the Seattle area before moving south to start his farm and oil venture, Bella Vado Splendid Oils.
Robert Jaye, a retired cameraman and movie producer, brings two olive oils made from fruits grown by a farm he contracts with near Santa Ynez. His mildly flavored organic oil is as different from the other, a robust blend of four Spanish and Italian varieties, as Bud Light is from Guinness Stout. Jaye is also hoping to increase his own olive production in Malibu, adding to the 12 trees he currently grows there, whence his venture's name, Malibu Olive Co.
Several of the vendors are regulars at the Santa Monica and other Los Angeles-area markets, including Bautista Family Organic Date Ranch; Jaime Farms, which brings a wide range of vegetables, grown in four far-flung districts; Wong Farms, which will start selling tomatoes, grown near the Salton Sea, in a week or two; and Flying Disc Ranch, which comes every other week and offers extraordinarily luscious dates and richly flavored grapefruit.
Many of the Palm Springs vendors attend Palodichuk's other markets, in Palm Desert on Wednesday and La Quinta on Sunday. He is also planning to stage farmers markets, rather innovatively, at the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals in Indio next April, where some of his stands will send second crews, focusing on products that can be readily eaten out of hand, like apples, oranges and berries.
Palm Springs farmers market, Camelot Theatres parking lot, 2300 E. Baristo Road (at Sunset Way), 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays, late September to early June (June 5 in 2010).