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Food movement fuels growth of farmers markets

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As more people call for locally sourced foods grown through sustainable practices, farmers markets are taking off across the country.

The weekly open-air marketplaces offer produce grown locally, and often organically or using little to no pesticides. There are usually food stalls, crafts and live entertainment, as well.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists 7,864 farmers markets in the nation, an increase of nearly 10 percent in the past year. California, the country’s top agricultural producing state, has 827 of them.

Almost 60 farmers markets take place in San Diego County every week.

Paradise Valley Farms’ stand at the new San Diego Public Market in Barrio Logan offers fresh-squeezed orange juice along with locally raised fruits. The permanent, indoor market is one of several locations in the county selling wares from area farmers and food purveyors. Courtesy image

One of the newest, San Diego Public Market, hosts around 55 vendors at its Wednesday and Sunday markets in Barrio Logan. It opened in September in a 92,000-square-foot former boiler warehouse with plans to become permanent next year. When the site is fully occupied, it will accommodate more than 160 farms and small businesses on a regular basis, said Catt White, one of the founders of San Diego Public Market.

White and co-founder Dale Steele raised $146,000 in seed money through Kickstarter.com, a crowd-funding website.

“Having a built-in, dedicated base of almost 1,400 Kickstarter backers has been an advantage,” said White, who also manages the farmers markets in Little Italy, Pacific Beach and North Park. “Response has been a bit better than usually anticipated for a brand new market and the shopper base is growing steadily.”

She said Barrio Logan’s low, middle and higher-income residents are already shopping at the market and will continue to see their options increase as the market expands. Chefs and local foodies are also shopping, and she expects to see visitors from across the county and beyond once the market goes full-time.

White and Steele envision a vibrant marketplace and community gathering space such as Seattle’s Pike Place Market or San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

White explained the rising appeal of farmers markets: “People in all areas and all income ranges have an increased interest in knowing where their food comes from, and in making healthy choices for themselves and their children. This is beyond a trend, it’s a natural outgrowth of more information being made available on what’s in what we eat, and rising health care costs associated with food choices,” she said.

Farmers markets are part of a shifting perspective that recognizes the effects our food choices have on public health, the environment and animal welfare. For some, it’s a lifestyle change that counteracts fast food, the decline of the family meal and the disappearance of local food. Some see farmers markets as a way to support local small businesses over larger grocery chains and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels used during food transport. Others are concerned about the presence of pesticides and genetic modifications in their produce.

Most farmers markets feature smaller, local farms that offer organic or pesticide-free produce. According to the San Diego Farm Bureau, the county boasts more small farms than any other in the nation.

For some small farms like Eli Hofshi’s, farmers markets might be their primary or only distribution channel.

Hofshi runs Eli’s Farms in Fallbrook with his brother Daniel. For nearly 20 years, Hofshi has only sold his produce at a handful of farmers markets throughout San Diego and Orange counties. He is just beginning to try out CSA, or community supported agriculture, which allows consumers to buy a “subscription” to a farm and receive a box of produce each week.

“If we were to sell commercially on the wholesale level, we’d never be able to raise enough money to operate,” Hofshi said. “We’re doing all the weeding by hand, and pest control is very minimal."

The produce may not look as pretty as what is found in a supermarket, and the leaves may have a few holes here and there, but Hofshi said you can taste the difference when you buy sustainably grown foods that weren’t shipped across the country. In many cases, the fruits and vegetables you get at a farmers market were picked that very same morning.

At these markets, he said, “people are going for quality and flavor, not so much looks.”

People also go to reconnect with their communities and experience shopping in a different way, said Lisa Weir, marketing director for the Hillcrest Farmers Market.

“People that visit farmers markets really enjoy the experience of going to a farmers market,” she said. “It’s a very different exercise than going to a closed arena like a grocery store. You’re not just checking off a box doing an errand -- it’s about community. It’s interactive, there’s live music and activities, there’s always something new. You can taste different things, try artisan-based foods, see crafts; it’s very hands-on.”

Shoppers might also discover unique produce not found at the supermarket, since small farms are able to experiment with little batches of specialty crops. People feel more comfortable asking questions, and may even pick up a new recipe to go along with that unusual vegetable.

The markets give farmers the rare opportunity to educate buyers about their produce.

“We’re getting people to understand why our stuff is what it is, why it tastes this way,” Hofshi said. “We talk about its freshness, how it’s grown in a slower manner, instead of being pushed by nitrogen.”

“Sometimes it takes years to build up a good customer base,” he added.

The events also serve as a marketing tool for vendors.

Keys Creek Lavender Farm sells its lavender-based products at eight farmers markets throughout the county. Keys Creek is the only certified organic lavender farm in the region, but its location in Valley Center in North County is too far out of the way for many people.

“The customers that can’t get out to the farm appreciate it,” said owner Alicia Wolff. “They can get their order at the farmers market and save the driving and the gas, or save on shipping.”

Selling at farmers markets also “keeps us in front of people all the time, and it’s not very expensive” to participate, Wolff said.

Many farmers markets charge vendors a percentage of sales to set up a booth, usually between 5 percent and 10 percent. The percentage is usually lowest for farmers, since fresh produce is at the heart of the events. Prepared food vendors typically have the highest rate. Some markets charge a flat rate to participate, generally between $25 and $40.

At the newly opened San Diego Public Market, where all vendors are charged a flat fee, rates are based on the product and size of the space. “They’re lowest for local growers, a bit higher for artisan food producers and highest for resellers. Flat rates range from $25 to $100 weekly,” said co-founder White.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales at farmers markets are up 9.6 percent since 2011. White and others anticipate sales to continue rising.

“Currently, less than 5 percent of shoppers do the majority of their shopping at farmers markets, a number that is climbing as the number of markets increases and as people become more insistent on knowing their food sources,” White said. “As more fresh, local food at more days and times increases the convenience factor, even more shoppers will be able to shop locally.”

-Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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