A farmers' market offers much more than produce

Looking back on the whole thing, it was a pretty crazy idea to start a farmers' market in a small California mountain town that's nestled in the bottom of a canyon. Any farmer would starve down here. On the longest day of the year, we get 10 hours of sunlight; only six in the wintertime.

Our gardeners make do with shady terraced plots on sloping hillsides. We're at 2,200 feet and in snow country, so our vegetable-growing season lasts about three months. We don't see a ripe tomato until August.

The closest actual working farmers are in the broad valley to the north, 30 miles away. When I started a farmers' market in Dunsmuir 10 years ago, my thought was that it might stimulate our local gardeners to work the soil a little harder and come down to the market with their surplus. All in all, it stimulated three of them that first year.

Ginny, a hardy lady in her 80s, showed up regularly, lugging a few bags of produce from her garden high up on the hillside east of town. Every Saturday Ginny would share new tales of woe about the ravages of wildlife. The deer and bear who dwell near her and her husband Bob's home view their garden as a banquet hall.

The pear and apple trees were a virtual Garden of Eden for a fortunate family of bears. The bears simply ripped off branches if they had any trouble reaching the succulent fruit. The deer preferred to nibble away at the green beans. Sometimes all Ginny had left to bring to the market were a few potted plants.

Our struggling hillside gardeners - my wife, Sandra, and I included - didn't make for much of a market. Not only were there just a few of us, but garden hobbyists - as opposed to real farmers - don't always show up every week, not if cousin Gertrude is coming to visit that weekend. And their offerings tend to be sparse: The 10 bundles of chard we'd manage to rustle up didn't last past the first hour.

Fortunately, our limited offerings were augmented the first couple of years by a garrulous grower from the warmer climes of Redding, which is 50 miles to the south and nestled in the state's fertile central valley.

Bill grew an incredible variety of produce on less than two acres: He had tomatoes long before anyone here, and a dazzling array of exotic mushrooms, figs, squash, and leafy green vegetables. Because Bill was making a living from farming, he was serious about it. Despite early-morning picking and the 50-mile drive, he was right there on the dot every Saturday morning, watching our local growers straggle in.

He did it for the money, of course, but I'm sure he got a lot of gratification out of it as well. His array of produce, typical for a big-city farmers' market, was dazzlingly impressive in our little mountain town.

Bill also had the heart and soul of a farmers' market grower. He loved the direct contact with his customers, getting to know each one personally, and he loved bragging about the quality and abundance of his produce. Unfortunately, after the first two seasons, a divorce caused him to lose the farm.

Now in our 10th season, we're back down to three dedicated local growers, plus a couple of crafters and the woman who shows up loyally every Saturday with her homemade tamales. We like to boast that we're the smallest farmers' market west of the Rockies - and quite possibly in the entire US.

We get a trickle of customers - unlike the crowds that throng big-city farmers' markets - and they aren't really "customers" in the usual sense. They're certainly nothing like the hordes that get processed through the checkout counter at the supermarket.

Our customers typically spend more time hanging out and chatting than they do buying produce. Much news is traded along with the produce; it's all really just a way of connecting with the community. The fact that we are not a busy market leaves more space for the social side to thrive.

Over the years I've learned to appreciate our little mountain market. I do get frustrated at times at its failure as a commercial enterprise, and at the lack of support from our fellow townsfolk. But having failed in the hard world of commerce, our market has turned to poetry (or so I like to think).

Like good old Walt Whitman, it sings the song of connecting, of camaraderie among those who work the soil and those who come to buy from them.

In its humble way, the market sings a song of the earth - and of community.

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