The Santa Monica Farmers Market – Where Every Farmer Has a Story to Tell and Bounty to Share
September 19, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
The Santa Monica Farmers Market is celebrated throughout metro Los Angeles as perhaps the best, most family-friendly and most diverse of markets in the county. Launched in July, 1981, the beachside town’s farmers market began with a mere 23 vendors. Since then, it has grown to include some 85 farmers from as far north as the Oregon border all the way down to Tijuana, and has expanded to run four days a week in three different locations across the city.
Laura Avery has been running the market almost since its inception and said she has been feeding her own family, her children and her grandchildren on the bounty found in the colorful market stalls.
“We started this market through a program then administered through the California Food and Agriculture Department, and they went out and recruited farmers for us,” Avery said. “It’s thanks to Jerry Brown, who was governor then and who passed the Retail Marketing Act that allowed us to operate, even though all the big retailers and shippers were totally against it.”
It was new territory back then and Avery found herself riding herd on entrepreneurs who saw a new opportunity and applied for booths in the market despite having no agricultural background at all.
“They would go buy produce in downtown Los Angeles, and then bring it out to sell at our market,” she said. “They would Xerox certificates showing they were certified by the state and get away with it. Farmers liked the opportunity of direct-to-consumer markets.”
New regulations were passed to avoid scam artists, but the farmers are just as enthusiastic. While not all the representative farms are certified organic, most follow sustainable agricultural practices on farms that have been longtime family businesses. And even if it’s a drive from field to Santa Monica, farmers welcome the opportunity to hawk their heirloom tomatoes at $4.00 a pound rather than make do with the eight cents a pound they receive from chain grocery retailers.
Santa Monica is known for its resident-friendly embrace of sustainable practices, and the growth of their farmers markets shows it. The first market that opened in 1981 steadily built crowds on Wednesday mornings till Pico area residents demanded their own market in 1982. Then working locals demanded a Saturday market in 1991, featuring a raft of organic growers; then a Sunday market opened in 1995.
Crowds just expanded with market growth and the Santa Monica Farmers Market became a sort of neighborhood block party. Pony rides, chef demonstrations and prepared food became part of the weekly event. Chefs of some 100 restaurants started to purchase their produce four days a week at the market, pushing their carts from vendor to vendor, loaded with brightly colored fruits and vegetables. They even instituted “Follow That Chef!” – a free program that allows foodies to accompany a restaurant chef from booth to booth as he elaborates on the miracles soon to be created from his purchases that morning.
Michael McCarty, owner of Michael’s Santa Monica, has been patronizing the market from the beginning. When he opened his eponymously named restaurant in 1979, he saw a wasteland of drab storefronts.
But McCarty’s vision of a revitalized downtown Santa Monica included restaurants that helped educate a new generation of fine diners. He founded a duck farm nearby to provide foie gras and brought heirloom vegetable seeds from France to give to local restaurateurs.
Today, he strolls genially amongst an enlightened crowd perusing purple Brussel sprouts and popalo (a Mexican watercress “but with more spice”), his lectures interrupted with greetings of camaraderie from other local chefs picking up supplies. McCarty’s own kitchen star, Executive Chef John-Carlos Kuramoto, follows along, pushing a large cart that will be groaning under kale, berries and onions on the return.
“This is our go-to guy for squashes and root vegetables,” McCarty (a Cordon Bleu graduate himself) said, pausing at Weiser Family Farms’ booth. “They’ve got watermelon radishes and 20 kinds of fingerling potatoes. He’s the most educated, informed provider here.”
Avery credits the growth of the market to an increasingly food-educated populace.
“Look, if farmers do well, the state will do well, and the planet will do well,” she said. “Agrarian societies bring people together. Santa Monicans are educated people and it reflects in their purchasing of quality, fresh food.”
The Santa Monica Farmers Market presents a colorful explosion of produce not always seen at local markets. Rainbow-hued carrots, bright green mustard frills, delicate pea tendrils – even truffles.
“We have a guy who forages for them wild in National Parks,” Avery said. “We can’t even list them as agricultural products because they are harvested on open land, not a farm. He has to sneak into the forest because people know he knows where to find truffles.”
The Santa Monica Farmers Markets are so popular, parking spaces are at a premium on market days. But shoppers are good-natured about any slight inconvenience.
“Every farmer here has a story,” Avery said. “And this is a happy place to be. There’s a lot of bounty to share.”
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