Farmers markets, the next generation

Romeo Coleman of Carpinteria mans the Wednesday Coleman Family Farm stand. He is taking over from his dad, Bill Coleman.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There’ been a changing of the guard at the Coleman Family Farm stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesday mornings. Ask Bill Coleman a question and he’s likely to answer, “Ask Romey.”

Romey -- Romeo on his birth certificate -- is Coleman’s son and though his eventually becoming the boss was expected, it nonetheless comes as a bit of a surprise to longtime market shoppers who might still think of him as the kid they watched grow up.

“I remember junior high summers, my dad would stuff us all in the front of the van and we’d drive to the Wednesday market,” says Romeo, who is now 38 and sometimes brings his own two kids to the market. “This has always been a dream for me.”

Though the handing down of a 6-acre farm is hardly newsworthy -- no matter how idyllic that spot might be -- the transition at Coleman Family Farm is part of a much larger picture.

One of the key questions facing farmers markets in the next decade is just who is going to replace the rapidly graying growers who led the green revolution of the last 30 years. Where will the next generation come from?

Will the markets, drawing on young farmers with new products and fresh ideas, continue to thrive and evolve as they have over the last 20 years, when the number of shoppers attending them more than tripled? Or, as more farmers hit retirement age, will the markets gradually dwindle and diminish?

More older farmers

IN GENERAL, experts say, new farmers market growers tend to come from one of three groups: young idealists looking for a rural lifestyle, immigrants who use farmers markets to make money from small plots of land, and those like Coleman who inherit family farms.

The problem of aging farmers is not unique to growers markets. During the last quarter of the 20th century the percentage of all farmers older than 65 increased from 16% to 26%. That compares with only about 3% of the total American workforce who are that age. And fully half of all American farmers are older than 55.

But the trend is especially noticeable at farmers markets, because the generation of farmers who led their boom in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s still predominate.

Though new faces do show up, they are a definite minority. At the bigger and more popular markets, there might be only one or two new farmers a year.

Though scores of new growers were certified for farmers markets during each of the boom years, more recently that flood has slowed to a trickle.

According to the agricultural commissioners offices of San Diego, Ventura and Riverside counties -- the areas that supply the lion’s share of Southern California market farmers -- the number of certified farmers market growers has stayed about the same for the last several years.

“Each year we pick up between five and 10 new producers, but we lose about the same number,” says Ron Bray of the Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner’s office.

Today the shortage of new farmers mainly means it’s more difficult to open new markets, but the implications for the future are more serious as greater numbers of farmers hit retirement age and quit.

“It’s crucial that we continue to find young farmers because many farmers are retiring and if we want to continue this wonderful thing we have going on at farmers markets, we need to recruit a new generation to continue what has been done,” says Pompea Smith of the organization Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, which manages seven Southern California farmers markets, including the popular Sunday market in Hollywood.

Any newcomer who wants to enter farming faces sizable hurdles. First and foremost, of course, is the price of land. Then there is the inevitable learning curve that goes with any new profession.

And then there’s the problem of getting into the larger, more profitable markets, which often have waiting lists that can be years long, particularly for farmers who grow commonly available produce.

Those farmers have to go to several smaller markets each week to make the same income they might generate from two or three big markets. Often that means five or six days a week of packing up before dawn and driving several hours into the city.

Greenhorns to green thumbs

Christopher and Johanna Finley of Finley Farms have grappled with all of those issues. They run a popular stand at the Sunday Hollywood market as well as at several markets in the Santa Barbara area and they are in the middle of the small-grower learning curve.

The couple, who embody the young, idealistic farmers market growers, met when they were both working at farmers market stands while attending UC Santa Barbara -- he was an environmental studies major and she studied ceramics. Finding their student jobs more interesting than their undergraduate training, four years ago they started to farm a 1-acre plot they rented north of Goleta.

Because farmers markets were already full of growers selling the same mix of tomatoes, peppers and herbs that they had, the Finleys had to chop up their produce and bottle it as salsa to secure a spot selling at even the smaller Santa Barbara area markets.

“It was a lot of work but we liked it,” says Johanna, who is 29. Christopher just turned 30. “We could see the potential but we didn’t want to do salsa anymore.”

They decided to expand to grow a wider range of crops. They moved to a 1 1/2 -acre plot in the Santa Ynez Valley and bought their first tractor. The next year they started leasing more land from a neighbor, adding another 4 acres. The third year they added a little more leased land to bring them to a total of 10 acres.

Now, the Finleys grow kale, chard and mustard in the winter. There are peas in the fall and spring along with lettuce, arugula and spinach. Summer is sweet corn, melons and tomatoes.

“Anything we could grow in season, I think we’ve tried it,” she says. “We’re still in that phase of wanting to grow everything to see what sells and find out what our particular niche is. Everything we grow, we try to specialize in varieties that not everyone is doing.”

It’s a long and sometimes bumpy road. Some problems are mundane: Finding the cheapest top-quality seeds was one hurdle. Finding out where to buy produce-shipping boxes was another.

But sometimes they’re more serious. A couple of weeks ago, a sudden frost killed all their zucchini plants. “We woke up and they were gone,” Johanna says. “There’s not anything we can do about it. We’ll just have to get more seed and start again.

“With farming, there are always mistakes but there is always another season to get it right. And having a variety of products, if one fails, you’re not wiped out because you’ve put everything into one product.

“It’s a struggle, but we’re lucky enough to be able to make ends meet,” says Johanna, “We don’t own our own land or any of those other things, but it’s just a great way of life. I don’t think I could be working for someone else right now.”

For Juan Garcia and his son Armando, farmers markets allowed them to create a business of their own rather than just work for other people. Juan immigrated to north San Diego County from Michoacan in 1975 and went to work for Durling Nursery, a first-rate grower of fruit trees. Today, he’s a foreman there supervising 50 workers.

But at the same time he was learning that job, with the help of his son he was striking out as an entrepreneur. Starting with just 9 acres purchased in 1990, he and Armando have gradually put together a farm near Fallbrook that now totals 27 acres of citrus, avocado, tropical fruit and mulberry trees.

“We basically just started putting some money aside,” Juan Garcia says. “It was a lot of hard work, I’ll tell you. But because I was working at the nursery I was able to get informed on everything coming out that was new. We’ve really concentrated on getting our hands on the good stuff.”

Armando Garcia is a 29-year-old spark plug who practically chases customers down to get them to taste his Page tangerines. “You’ve got to try this, man, it’s the bomb!” he says. And he’s right. The fruit has the kind of flavor that only comes with great land, the best varieties and careful farming.

But even with all of that going for them, it might have been a different story had Armando not gotten a part-time job working for another farmers market grower while he and his father were establishing their orchards.

When the trees matured and produced fruit, Armando sold it at his friend’s stands. Eventually, he took them over, and today Garcia Organic has coveted spots at Santa Monica’s Sunday, Wednesday and Saturday markets.

But in most cases, a new farmer doesn’t necessarily mean a new farm. Instead, especially at the more profitable markets, established growers pass along their sweet spots to their kids.

At Santa Monica’s Wednesday market, right next to the Coleman’s stand is Coastal Farms, where Mark Carpenter is working alongside mother Maryanne and father Paul, selling lettuce, squash and grape tomatoes.

A little farther along is Gloria Tamai, part of a farmers market family that is going on four generations (her sister-in-law Daisy is usually helping out at Green Farms on the other side of Arizona Avenue).

The chain started with their father, Jim Tamai, who, along with Bill Coleman, was among the first farmers at the Santa Monica market. He passed away last spring and now, in addition to the two daughters and a daughter-in-law, there are eight grandchildren in the business as well.

Also nearby is Maggie’s Farm, run by Dennis Peitso and his son Nate.

And just up Arizona Avenue is Harry’s Berries, run by the combined Gean and Iwamoto families and named for the late patriarch, Harry Iwamoto, who got them started growing strawberries for the farmers markets. Today Kaz and Yoshiko Iwamoto run the business side, and Molly and her husband, Rick Gean, supervise the farming and the selling. In addition, there are five assorted children and grandchildren working the markets.

A successful handoff

As with all family businesses, the transition from one generation to the next isn’t always seamless. Molly Gean says the secret to Harry’s Berries’ success was each person focusing on what he or she does best and staying out of the others’ ways. “I’d say we try to avoid conflict by staying in our own corners.”

“It’s funny how attached we get to doing something the way we’ve always done it,” says Bill Coleman, whose gruff demeanor is legendary. “I finally came to the realization that I’m not that important anymore. There’s somebody else who is doing what I used to do and he’s doing a really good job, too.

“And I’ll tell you what, the first time someone came up to me and asked me how it felt to have my son following in my footsteps, I almost cried. I’m so lucky, so very lucky.”

For Romeo, the future is a little more mixed. As in love as he is with the farming life, he also realizes “my longest vacation from now on is going to be six days, and I’m never going to have another Wednesday off.”