Santa Cruz Community
Farmers’ Markets celebrate 25 years
Earth-shattering changes occurred on Oct. 17, 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake devastated Santa Cruz. But the bittersweet epilogue of disaster is rebirth, and many of those changes became great success stories. One of those is the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets.
In response to the earthquake, a group of local farmers came together to market their produce. The idea was to help rebuild the community by creating a place to gather and share the literal fruits of their labor. Many folks in this group are still familiar faces at the farmers’ markets, and certainly familiar names: Sandra Ward of New Natives Farm; Nancy Gammons of Four Sisters Farm; Greg Beccio of Happy Boy Farms; and Joe Curry of Molino Creek Farm. Eventually, they were joined by several more longtime Santa Cruz farms—including Swanton, Brokaw and Thomas—all of which still appear at SCCFM markets today.
“We’ve been there since 1990 and we still have some of the same customers, but it’s also a treat to watch the students come and go,” says Gammons. “The community has always been very supportive and really open to local food.”
SCCFM is not the oldest farmers’ market organization in the region—the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Markets, which operate in Aptos, Carmel and Monterey, and will be celebrating their 40th anniversary in 2016. But SCCFM’s network of markets has become an intensely beloved community institution and as much a support for Santa Cruz’s thriving local food scene as the community is for the markets.
“We’re here to support the neo-food movement in any way possible and be the voice for Santa Cruz’s sustainable farming community,” says SCCFM executive director Nesh Dhillon, who has led the nonprofit since 2003.
It’s been a busy time.
Over the years, the flagship downtown market has grown to occupy nearly an entire prime city block. At the same time, the organization has added markets in Live Oak, Felton, Scotts Valley and on Santa Cruz’s Westside.
SCCFM has also led an effort to certify organic producers, and it has expanded the communities it reaches by offering food assistance programs such as EBT and Market Match. EBT sales, in particular, have grown 17 times since they began—from $5,000 in 2000 to $85,000 in 2013.
And while many founding farmers still form much of the markets’ backbone, a new generation of participating growers, including Lonely Mountain Farm, Garden Variety Cheese and Fogline Farm, is ensuring the markets’ future.
In an important new direction, SCCFM now includes among the produce vendors an array of fledgling local artisanal food producers that purchase their ingredients locally and go about their businesses in sustainable ways.
“SCCFM is committed to assisting and incubating food businesses that represent our mission. Some examples are el Salchichero, Companion Bakeshop, Farmhouse Culture, Back Porch and Uncie Ro’s Pizza,” Dhillon says.
“Farmers’ markets are totally bad ass,” raves Chris LeVeque, who owns el Salchichero, the prosperous Swift Street artisanal butcher. “I started my business at the Scotts Valley market and got a chance to see whether the community would support a local butcher shop. Obviously, I decided to go for it!”
If the last couple of years are any indication of where SCCFM is headed, we are in for a lot of excitement.
Two years ago, under the direction of new education staffer Nicole Zahm, the organization launched its USDA-funded FoodShed Project. The outreach effort engages customers with their farmers and what they do by hosting interactive, family-friendly celebrations, each focusing on a different regionally significant crop.
In 2013, SCCFM started its hugely popular Pop Up Breakfast series, a tempting and informative multi-course, chef-prepared breakfast at the Westside and Scotts Valley markets. Also in 2013, the markets began a radio talk show called FoodSpeaks, on UCSC’s public radio station KZSC.
The goal of the program is to create a dialogue about food and agricultural issues, and it has featured many local food heroes such as Doron Comerchero, director of the Food, What?! youth empowerment program, and Kendra Baker, co-founder and owner of The Penny Ice Creamery.
Looking forward, Dhillon says the markets will continue along the educational track, developing programming to engage more of the public. Also in the pipeline are more farm-to-table events, micro-loans for growers via Kiva Zip and farm tours.
A vibrant success rising from the rubble, indeed.
Amber Turpin is a foodwriter who homesteads in Ben Lomond.