Putting farmers back in the farmers’ market
Photography by Patrick Tregenza
Friday at MPC: from left, Catherine Barr, executive director of the MBCFM with
Rodoni Farms’ Donna Isle, MBCFM’s vice president; a vendor and market goers.
Spring is when our local farmers’ markets come alive. Strawberries and asparagus are in full swing, and stone fruits are not far behind.
“I love April and May because that’s when all the stone fruits start to come in. Cherries, pluots, peaches and Santa Rosa plums—my favorite!” says Catherine Barr, executive director of the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Markets.
This spring is especially sweet as Barr prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the MBCFM group, which includes year-round markets at Cabrillo College in Aptos and at Monterey Peninsula College, as well as seasonal markets at the Del Monte Center in Monterey and The Barnyard Shopping Village in Carmel. (See p. 31 for days and times of operation.)
To celebrate its Ruby Anniversary, the Aptos and MPC markets will feature a new series of food preservation workshops starting in May with Todd and Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen Co. Popular cooking demos with chef Anne Baldzikowski will be returning, and a beautiful 40th anniversary poster by artist Diane Devine will be on sale to commemorate the milestone.
A public anniversary party is planned for October, and at the end of the year, a big dinner will be held especially for all of the farmers and farm employees who have been part of the organization’s markets over the years.
Founded in 1976 at Live Oak Elementary School in Santa Cruz, MBCFM is the oldest farmers’ market organization on the Central Coast and much loved by its loyal customers, who frequently vote it to the top of polls by American Farmland Trust. The organization’s enewsletter and website, managed by marketing director Annaliese Keller, have also become much appreciated by market-goers.
“When I started, it was more like the hippy farmers’ market, with raggedy looking guys bringing food to the market,” recalls Barr, who has been managing the markets since 1993. Nowadays, Aptos market’s 80 vendors welcome up to 5,000 shoppers on a summer Saturday, while the Friday market at MPC sees as many as 2,500.
“The consumer has gotten a lot savvier in terms of food, and they want to connect with the person who is growing that food,” she says.
And that’s why the nonprofit MBCFM is run almost like a coop, with a board of directors made up of farmers who set the direction.
“We’re here to put the farmers back in farmers’ markets,” says Barr. “Some markets are more like food fairs. The first thing you see is prepared food items, so you’ll get a piece of chicken or a baked potato.”
“We only allow 15% non-farmers because we want to highlight the fresh fruits and vegetables. We want people to take their produce home and cook for themselves,” she explains.
Two-thirds of vendors come from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito Counties, with out-of-area farmers mixed in to provide a diversity of products and extend the season.
Chef Mark Denham of Soif Restaurant in Santa Cruz, who was buying romesco and looking for cheddar cauliflower at a recent Aptos market, says visiting with farmers is what he likes best.
“There are people here who we don’t see at any other place, like Marguerite from Belle Farms and Tom from Coke Farms.”
“We operate differently than other markets,” says board president Fred Minazzoli, an almond rancher from the Stockton area. “We try to keep a diversity of products and don’t want to let in everybody and his brother.”
Indeed, more than 200 farmers and food purveyors are on the waiting list for the lucrative Aptos market, but space is limited and only a handful of spots opens each year. Slots are so valuable that they are handed down as new generations take over the family farms or are included as part of the deal when a farm is sold.
The approach has created a community feel and resulted in supportive long-term relationships.
“We have a lot of farmers who have been with us for the past 30 years, so we’re really a family, and we help each other out,” says Barr. “The best compliment I can get is when a farmer says, ‘I love coming to your market and seeing my farmer friends.’”
For Windmill Farm owner Ronald Donkervoort, it’s all about the shoppers.
“What I really like about the Cabrillo market is that the customers are a little older and really know what it takes to grow food. We get appreciated for what we do and as a farmer you really need that, because it’s such hard work.”
“The same people show up a lot. You see deaths and you see births,” adds Donkervoort. “You have a heart connection with the people who eat your food.”
Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Markets
SPRING FARMERS’ MARKETS
Research by Amber Turpin
Deborah Luhrman is publisher and editor of Edible Monterey Bay. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.