Thursday, August 11, 2011

Celebrating 30 Years!

Wrote an article for the SM Observer on the Santa Monica Farmers Market Celebrating 30 Years!


Celebrating 30 Years!

Santa Monica Farmers Market Quarterly Library Panels Series

The Santa Monica’s Farmers Market turned 30 this year and in celebration its Quarterly Library Panel Series decided to focus on the past, present, and future of good food in Santa Monica.   The August panel consisted of the normal medley of chefs and farmers this time focusing on Santa Monica Farmers Market pioneers. On the cooking sides chefs Mark Peel of Campanile and Josie Le Balch of Josie and upcoming Next Door by Josie (which was just approved this week, new more casual restaurant that will be offering both lunch and dinner that is, appropriately, next door to Josie).  These taste making chefs were joined by farmers market stalwarts “celebrity potato farmer” Alex Weiser of Weiser Family Farms, and Molly Gean of the flavor astounding Harry's Berries.  Laura Avery, the Santa Monica Farmers Market Supervisor and Wednesday Farmers Market Manager, was the night’s moderator.  

Although the Farmers Market now brings farm fresh local produce to some 900,000 customers a year in the beginning it was a little different.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market began on July 15th 1981,” explained Laura Avery.  “At that point Santa Monica was famously profiled in 60 Minutes as the “People's City.” “Then-Mayor Ruth Yanatta-Goldway a one term Santa Monica mayor, said ‘I want to start something downtown.  So with the help of the Department of Agriculture the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  The Santa Monica Farmers Market doubled in its first year, and then doubled again in its second year when I started working for it.”

In the beginning people weren’t quite sure what a Farmers Market was supposed to be.  “I remember when the Farmers Market started because the business was commercial,” noted Gean.  “Many big farms thought it was a great place to dump their seconds, those that were the wrong sizes or had bumps or bruises.”  “But then came the revolution.” “Bring back the flavor.  Flavor is the most important thing to us.  It’s seven or eight on the list in the world of commercial food.”

“For years, we shipped through the normal shipping channels, and we grew the commercial strawberries because they ship well.  We were always on the brink of disaster.  Farmers are optimists; they are able to think ‘there’s always next year.’  But, our commercial sales were getting worse and worse.  But with the Farmers Markets we could control what we wanted to grow.  We could grow “bad” commercial brands that don’t ship well, but taste better and were much sweeter.  It went from the place where you sell your seconds to a place where you sell the best quality.  I can say Farmers Markets saved our farming business.  We are exclusively at Farmers Markets since 1993.”

Avery asked how each person on the panel how they came to the Santa Monica Farmers Market.  “When I was asked to talk on this panel my husband and I realized, ‘Gosh that was the long time ago,’” noted Gean.  “Many of the people we started out with have passed, retired, or, like us, now have our kids are behind the tables.  Harry’s Berries has been at the Farmers Market for twenty-five years.  The way we got started was we heard on local NPR that they were starting these things called Farmers Markets.  I called Laura up and she said ‘we already have too many berries, we don’t need anymore!’  But what got us in at Santa Monica was the Seascape Strawberry (a berry that is now a capstone of taste at the Farmers Market) because it’s an off-season variety.  That got us in the door in.  But Laura told us we had to leave once the season really started because they already had too many berries.  But luckily they let us stay.”

Weiser’s story is even more humble; “I remember being in the double wide we were living in when we got a knock on the door and a man said, “I want to tell you about this Farmer’s Market I’m starting.”   My Dad said, ‘that’s good because Alex is starting college in the fall maybe this can help pay for college.  Initially my family had apples; we had bought 160 acres of Rome Beauty Golden Delicious and Red Delicious for process.  At that time, you grew for the table market or the process market so the apples were being used for baby food and apple juice. It wasn’t the dream my family thought it would be.   We were trying to figure out how to survive that is until we got the knock on the door.  It was great.  I employed all my friends, put them through college.  I learned as much at the market as I did in college.  Communication is not something you get on the farm.”

For the chefs going to the place where the best quality is sold was a no brainer. Le Balch noted how she was first introduced to the seasonal concept while working for Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison.  “Wolfgang was the first person I met who had no idea what he was going to make for the specials that night.  In the beginning I was like, ‘what am I doing working for this guy?’ But it was great.  It taught me the freedom to experience what’s fresh.  Going to the market is like a candy store for us.  At Josie people will call us to find out what is going to be on our Farmers Market menu and I have to say, ‘I have no idea.’”  Peel didn’t remember the exact experience of the first time at the market (or the exact amount of parking tickets he’s accumulated over the years).  “We opened in June 1989.   I don’t really remember what brought me first, but I remember seeing what was available and thinking ‘that’s good, let’s try that.’ Nancy, my ex wife, she starting going first (Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bread Bakery, Pizzeria Mozza, and Osteria Mozza).  Then we just started planning seasonal menus.”

Avery noted that according to the Chef’s Collaborative the food industry is a 385 billion dollar industry.  “If people are going to hear about anything, you’re going hear about it from a chef.  I was thinking about the power of food.  Chef’s are tastemakers that create people’s eating habits.”  “We have to give Alex his due,” declared Peel.  “We depend upon the farmers to bring us the best of what’s available.  We don’t always know what’s going to happen next.   What’s coming up next.”

“In the beginning, people would go to other restaurants and the food would have no flavor,” expanded Le Balch.  “It was an evolution, making people understand you might be paying more, but the experience is better.  Just look at the evolution of the heirloom tomato.”  

Purslane, Fuji Apples, Kiwis, Dandelion Greens, these are all things that were introduce to eaters through chefs through the Farmers Markets.  Many of these “non commercial items” created uneasy waves when they were first introduced (reintroduced) to the dinning market.  “Lamb’s Quarters is a delicious herb/vegetable that we serve at Campanile, but it’s a weed,” noted Peel.  “It actually grows in the alley in the back of restaurant, but I swear I don’t harvest it there.   We had a waiter who was from Minnesota and he said ‘you have to take Lamb’s Quarters off the menu because my mother is coming into town and she will have a heart attack that you’ve got a weed on our menu.’” 

“I will be interesting to see what the next 30 years are,” noted Peel.  “The Farmers Market went from mom and pop to much bigger.   Now people complain about chef’s scooping things up.”   “I think it’s inevitable,” stated Avery. “The chef’s have been our biggest collaborators.   My sales are the same but now they’re now sixty to seventy percent chefs so I ask ‘where did my table customers go?’”  The discussion then slid into now ubiquitous specialty food companies that buy the market’s produce for high priced restaurants in Los Angeles along with further places like Las Vegas and Arizona.  

Peel continued, “the produce companies are here to stay, they’re the life blood.  Most farmers now sell about fifty percent of their produce not on the street but on the sidewalk behind it.” “We’re the victim of our own success,” noted Gean.  “At one point I stopped wholesale sales because the mom’s at the market deserve taste too.”

Opinions on what to do about this today and how it will affect the future were offered.  “It’s interesting that now everyone wants a Farmers Market in their city,” noted Avery.  “But in most cities they’re not Farmers Markets they’re Swap Meets.  The Department of Agriculture will call it a Farmers Market if they have 2 farmers and 40 people selling ceramic butterflies.  So I think the next big thing is a growth, growth in wholesale.”   Everyone wants to copy the Santa Monica Farmers Market template.  “The commercial growers want to lower the standard, to have unsanitary produces,” explained Avery.  “We need to protect our farms from the legislature pushed by BigAg.  They want to allow dirty farming practices and irradiate all the food.”  “Wal-Mart trying to lower the standard of organic so it’s easier for them to sell it at their stores,” chimed in Le Balch.  

“We’re a niche,” noted Gean.  “But we’re such and important piece of the puzzle because we’re the flavor.”  “What is needed is a massive amount of growth,” observed Peel.  “The Santa Monica Farmers Market is very small potatoes compared to what a single Ralphs will do.   If they are going to be important in the next thirty years this needs to become the standard.  It’s important to figure out this model and increase it by ten times.”

But it was the near future that these farmers and chefs focused on at the end of their panel discussion.  Next month, the Santa Monica Farmers Markets will be a holding a five-day Good Food Festival and Conference, held September 14th through 18th.  The event is billed as an “unprecedented multi-day event” bringing together famers, sustainable food advocates, chefs, food businesses and “people who care about good food.”  Events will include a good food street fair, cooking demonstrations at Santa Monica High School and programs focused on school food at Santa Monica College. The event is sponsored by Chicago-based, which trains farmers, promotes local sustainable food and is leading a national effort to improve food safety on small farms.  Brochures describing the festivities can be found at the four farmers market in Santa Monica. 

Kat Thomas is a writer in Santa Monica who is very very happy 30 years ago the Santa Monica Farmers Market was born.  You can check out more of her writing at her food blog

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