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With so many farmers markets in Orange County, some are struggling

It was a hot Saturday morning at Old World Village in Huntington Beach. In the west parking lot, 11 booths were set up for the commercial center’s weekly farmers market, but guests were few and far between.

Market manager Gabriele Utz walked around, asking vendors if they needed help with anything. Utz, who started the job in July, has tried everything from social media to handing out fliers at the Bella Terra shopping center across the street to get the word out about the farmers market.

Less than a dozen people visited that morning to examine the market’s fresh produce, succulents and craft soaps.

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“People came earlier today, maybe because of the heat,” Utz said. “When it’s cloudy, it’s a completely different scene. Last Saturday was cloudy and more people came, but as soon as there’s a sign for people to go to the beach, they don’t show up.”

Farmers markets can be found in almost every nook and cranny of Southern California. Orange County has 36 state-certified farmers markets, which is down from 42 tallied last year by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said Donna Barnes, deputy agricultural commissioner for the state agency in Orange County.

“Orange County may be oversaturated with farmers markets, which is evidenced by the number of markets that have opened and closed,” she said.

Huntington Beach alone had four certified markets this year — at Old World, Surf City Nights in the downtown area, Pier Plaza and Peter’s Landing in Sunset Beach.

That number dropped on Sept. 12, when the Peter’s Landing farmers market closed because the property owner did not want to renew the market’s five-year special-event permit, said Mary Ann Senske, who organized the event during its last three months.

“The business owners in that plaza … didn’t want us there,” she said. “Some of them would park their car in the lot where the farmers market would set up.”

Nevertheless, Senske has been busy managing other successful farmers markets, including Surf City Nights in Huntington Beach, the seasonal market in Fountain Valley and the Orange County Great Park market in Irvine.

Having a variety of vendors and transparency about the products make for a successful market, Senske says.

“You want to have something that makes people come out and stay all day or for a couple of hours,” she said. “It’s also important to let people know what they’re purchasing, what the differences are between a grocery store and a farmers market and who they’re supporting. I don’t think people understand that when they’re purchasing produce at a farmers market that they’re supporting California farmers.”

The Old World market is not the only such business that has troubles. Michi Ward, the market manager and a produce vendor for Pier Plaza’s Friday farmers market, said her market’s schedule has not been kind to the business, which typically has 20 vendors each week.

The market runs from 1 to 5 p.m., which puts a strain on farmers who go to other markets early the next day, Ward said.

“After the market is done, the farmers have to go back to their ranch, offload their unsold products and reload [their truck] with new produce for the next day,” Ward said. “It’s a long day for them and they’re really tired the next day. I’m having trouble having farmers stay at my farmers market right now.”

Ward added that the market’s beachside location primarily brings in tourists who don’t buy much.

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“The vendors always tell me that this is a tourist’s market, but I tell them there should be a few locals,” she told Times Community News. “The kettle corn and peanut vendors do well because they’re snack foods. Sometimes people will buy one peach instead of 5 pounds worth of fruit.”

Like Barnes, Ward said she believes there are too many farmers markets in Orange County and possibly in Huntington Beach.

“I think reducing the number of markets could help,” she said. “As a farmer, I don’t want to push people to grocery stores, but the farmers need a steady stream of clients that come every week.”

At Old World, Utz said she would try to keep her market open until the end of the year. Senske has helped Utz with the project, providing her with vendors who used to go to the market at Peter’s Landing. The challenge is helping those vendors turn a profit and stay at the location.

“I really love the vendors, and they like me as a market manager, but I have to make some money from this and they have to make money too,” Utz said. “I’ll go from month to month and see how things are developing. I haven’t lost vendors over the past weeks and I actually got new ones.”

Huntington Beach resident Marah Johnson is one of the new vendors, selling personalized trinkets made from silverware.

She has been at the market the past three weeks and said she plans to stay, despite the slow business.

“You need to stick with it to keep people coming; they need to know that you’ll be there, and I have repeat customers,” Johnson said.

Carpio writes for Times Community News.

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