When Laura Avery took the reins as head of the Santa Monica farmers market in 1982, the Wednesday event was only a year old, and the modern idea of farmers markets — which are now understood to be a central, important nexus of a local food community — was itself in its infancy.
Today, restaurant groups employ people whose primary responsibility is shopping the market;
in the early days, Avery recalls Nancy Silverton herself would walk along the stalls on Arizona Avenue, buy “$2,000 worth of stuff” and toss it in the back of her pick-up truck to cart to her restaurant.
Since then, under Avery’s watch, the Santa Monica farmers market has expanded to four separate markets weekly, drawing roughly 130 farmers and thousands of shoppers. It’s the first stop for any serious home or restaurant chef in greater L.A.
Avery announced this week that she will retire at the end of the year, ending her 36-year run as market supervisor. A replacement has not been named.
“It was just time,” said Avery in a phone call. “I decided over a year ago.”
Chefs and restaurateurs credit Avery for shaping the market, for creating a bridge between chefs and farmers, and for putting the focus on the farmers, rather than other vendors and sellers, as was common at many farmers markets back then.
“Her decision years ago to have a market without kettle corn was — and is — revolutionary,” said Amelia Saltsman, author of “The Santa Monica Farmers Market Cookbook.” “She’s really given the market its identity and its soul.”
As more chefs began to shop at the market, Avery took notice and worked to build relationships with them.
“When I started, the ‘farmers market’ wasn’t a thing,” Avery said. “It just started growing. Nancy would talk about it and more chefs would come. And it took off from there.”
She traveled the state and recruited farmers. A trip to Fresno led her to meet Kong Thao’s parents; today Thao Family Farm is a mainstay at many markets, where it sells leafy greens such as bok choy, basil and sweet potato leaves.
“She didn’t invent it [the farmers market], but she’s influenced education, home cooks, chefs, the local community, parents, children, issues of food access, WIC and SNAP and farmer outreach,” said David Karp, a longtime writer about produce for The Times, who also sells stone fruit at the market on Wednesday’s market.
In an interview earlier this year, Avery said she was proud that -- thanks to the Santa Monica farmers market -- customers were able to form face-to-face relationships with farmers.
“This is also the first time a farmer got to meet a customer,” she said. “It's just been a family affair. It's pulled the family farming community and the Santa Monica community and the greater L.A. community all together.”