The rise of the farmers' market

Backing their well-worn, dust-covered trucks into a circle at a local park, bands of agricultural gypsies unfurl bright canopies, flip open their tailgates, stack their colorful produce before a gathering crowd, and transform the weekday calm into a festival.

If it's Tuesday, this must be Pasadena.

Wednesday? Santa Monica.

Friday? Long Beach.

A simple and ancient concept nearly plowed under by the rise of the supermarket, farmers' markets--the real ones, where farmers sell their goods directly to the consumer--are experiencing a resurgence nationwide, injecting fun and community spirit into a basic lesson on free enterprise.

The California direct-marketing program, which allows only state-certified farmers or their employees to sell produce at the local farmers' markets, was designed to rescue the struggling small farmer. But more than just a successful marketing technique, the program has ballooned into a social force too - bringing troubled urban neighborhoods closer together, changing consumers' eating and buying habits, creating jobs, and sparking a farmer-shopper dialogue that has extended growing seasons and reduced the use of chemicals.

Prices are the most noticeable draw at the markets. Farmers coming from counties up to 400 miles away to do the circuit of weekly markets in southern California offer prices roughly 30 percent lower than supermarkets, explains Vance Corum of the state's Department of Food and Agriculture, which has helped boost the number of markets to 40 from only one just 10 years ago.

''If I send [my cabbage] to the [commercial] market, we're at the mercy of the middleman,'' explains Masato Takahashi, who farms 14 acres with his wife, Margaret, in San Fernando and sells exclusively at farmers' markets. The couple sit on the tailgate of apickup spilling over with huge, solid heads of cabbage. ''If I make $200 here, it would be (equivalent to) $100 for wholesale,'' he says.

Between conversations with some of his regular customers at the Pasadena market, Mr. Takahashi explains that he can sell his cabbages to consumers for 70 percent under supermarket prices, while keeping 100 percent more profits. By eliminating the middleman, he says, he can sell four-pound cabbages for 50 cents apiece, instead of 39 cents a pound at a grocery store.

Mr. Corum explains that the prices are cheaper because farmers who market their produce can bypass the packing, sorting, and grading requirements of commercial markets, as well as the costly borrowing they must do to finance their operations during the lag time between sale and payment in wholesale deals. While wholesalers usually name the price a farmer will get for his produce, the farmers at the local markets set their prices below supermarket prices while maintaining competitive prices among themselves.

Lower prices and higher profits attract shoppers and farmers alike. But a stroll through any of the markets reveals a mid-week circus of activity that can only be described as fun.

The Pasadena market, for example, sets up weekly at Villa-Parke in the heart of a struggling integrated neighborhood. Betty Hamilton, executive secretary of the Villa-Parke Neighborhood Improvement Association, says the program has been ''so popular everyone claims they did it.'' She adds that even the local ''homeboys'' (gang members), whose territorial claims are scrawled in graffiti on nearby walls, have allowed the two-year-old market to exist trouble-free.

The European-style market has also pulled the community together in Santa Monica, where the city subsidizes the market. Market manager Sue Mullin, who collects a fee of 4 percent of the farmers' daily take to help maintain the market and the Southland Farmers' Association, says the mayor backed the program to bring more business to the downtown business area. The Wednesday markets have pulled in so much business--$12,000 on a good day--that she says,''I'm afraid to do too much advertising because there might be lines.''

The influx of shoppers--up to 2,000 at times in Pasadena - brings businessmen from downtown; housewives with smiling, berry-stained babies in tow from all neighborhoods; and senior citizens, who rest their bulging shopping bags on the ground to chat with neighbors. The farmers are a mix of backyard gardeners, family farmers, and farmers with million-dollar operations who enjoy socializing in the sun every week.

''I just come out to meet people,'' says Ken Harris, a southern California beekeeper, who sells enough honey commercially that he doesn't have to sell at the Pasadena market.

''It's just the highlight of the week to go by and say 'hello,' '' says John D'Meyer, a Northridge resident who drives 20 miles to the Pasadena market. A regular at the Pacoima farmers' market, he describes the goodwill between farmers and their customers: ''You could just squeeze them (the farmers) instead of the fruit.''

His daughter, Joan, says that more important than prices is ''being able to talk to the people who've grown the produce. If there's any question about pesticides, they'll even invite you to their farms. And if you don't know about a certain vegetable, like Kohlrabi . . . if you saw that in [a supermarket] you wouldn't know if you should peel it, or what. You can find out how to prepare it from the farmer.''

This dialogue has become the farmer's direct line to the demands of the marketplace, explains Mr. Corum.

''We used to have a six-month berry season, but because of the [demand from] farmers' markets we go 10 months now,'' says Jim Tamai, an Oxnard farmer whose whole family helps with the picking, packing, and selling. Also, because of the demand for organic produce, he claims he has dropped 75 percent of the sprays he once used, thus eliminating annual chemical costs of $15,000 to $20,000.

The availability of the fresh produce has also changed consumers' habits. For example, says Betty Hamilton, her family has quit eating desserts. The Hamiltons now are satisfied with fruit for dessert. She says fruit from the farmers' market is much sweeter than that sold in supermarkets because it is always fresh--usually picked less than 24 hours before being marketed--and not subject to preservation methods used in large commercial marketing operations.

Also, adds Miss D'Meyer, ''I don't overbuy any more because I'm not worrying if this (the cheap price) is a one-time deal. I know I can get this big head of lettuce every week instead of a dinky head of lettuce that's rust-eaten in the grocery.''

And the markets create jobs. In Santa Monica, Ms. Mullin says, farmers pay members of local boys' clubs $3.50 an hour to help set up the stands and sell produce. Senior citizens volunteer to sell shopping bags and maps. And a local fisherman comes up from a nearby pier to help close off the street and direct the 30 to 40 farmers as they drive in to set up their stands.

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