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Farmers markets thrive in Marin

The farmers market in San Rafael is one of nine available in Marin. Growers are benefiting from a growing demand for food that comes directly from the farm. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)

Rob Rogers
Marin Independent Journal
August 18, 2007

You won't find Mutsu apples on the shelves at your local grocery store. Nor will you find Pinova or Jonathan's pride. The crisp, sweet apples don't travel well, have a short shelf life and are only around for a few weeks every year.

Those who want to enjoy their flavor - a list that includes chefs, gourmands, restaurateurs and more than a few casual shoppers - have to wake up early on a Saturday morning and travel to the farmers market in Point Reyes Station, one of nine markets operating throughout the county.

"Many of these are Japanese varieties. You won't see red delicious or gala or Fuji apples here, even though they're good," said Mike Gale, who has sold apples, peas and eggs at the market for the past two years. "I grow 12 varieties, so two or three of them are always ripening at a time."

Gale, president of the Marin Farm Bureau, is a beef rancher with a herd of about 100 Angus cows and calves. When the Point Reyes Market opened six years ago, Gale decided to diversify his operations, planting more than 220 trees. While he sells some apples to customers who visit his Chileno Valley Ranch and others at the organic farm stand at the Marin Art and Garden Center, the Point Reyes Market is what keeps his orchard in business.

"It's crucial," Gale said.

Economic impact

Gale and other growers are benefiting from a growing demand for food that comes directly from the farm. The United States is home to 4,385 farmers markets - up 18 percent from 3,706 markets in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Marin Farmers Market Association, which operates four local markets - in Fairfax and Novato and two in San Rafael, as well as three others in the East Bay - estimates that farmers at its markets earn about $46 million in sales each year, with individual growers taking in $300 to $2,000 a week.

"The market has a strong economic impact," said Brigitte Moran, who serves as executive director of both the Marin Farmers Market Association and the Downtown San Rafael Farmers Market Festival, a separate organization. "It varies every week, depending on the season and the weather, but the market has grown. People are shopping at the market more."

Lynn Bagley, founder of the Marin Farmers Market Association and executive director of the Golden Gate Farmers Market Association, agreed.

"Most farmers don't go unless they expect to make at least $300, and consider not going if they'll

make less than $500," said Bagley, whose annual budget for the Golden Gate markets is about $90,000. "Corte Madera makes the most money (of the Golden Gate markets), and there are two or three there who top $1,000 on a regular basis. For a weekday market, that's good. A weekend market is capable of making even more."

Local growers

Much of that money flows outside the county, to growers from surrounding areas who bring their produce to Marin shoppers. The Marin Farmers Market Association, for example, regularly hosts 16 farmers from Marin County, 32 from Sonoma County, 25 from Fresno County and 14 from San Joaquin County, as well as many others from throughout the state.


"In the Sacramento Valley, Yolo and Santa Barbara counties, these guys are going full tilt," said Steve Quirt, sustainable agriculture coordinator for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Novato. "Some of them do six markets a week, driving their refrigerated trucks to the San Rafael market because it's so large. Marin guys are small at that market. It's mostly guys from out of town."

The all-local Point Reyes Farmers Market needed the sponsorship of Marin Organic, the county Board of Supervisors and Point Reyes Books - as well as free space provided by Toby's Feed Barn - to stay afloat from 1996 to 2005, when a visit by Britain's Prince Charles gave it a much-needed boost.

"This year, for the first time, we're going to break even," said Helge Hellberg, executive director of Marin Organic. "The market runs on a really small budget of $12,000, which covers hiring a manager, all promotion, and our cooking demonstrations. Our farmers make, depending upon the product, a range of $250 to $600 on a good market day, which is less than larger markets like the Civic Center or the (San Francisco) Ferry Building plaza. But not having to drive for an hour to get there and paying less in booth fees makes it less expensive for them to be there."

Yet the incentive for local farmers is growing. In 2005, Marin producers of field, fruit and vegetable crops - for which the farmers markets are the primary outlet - earned nearly $7 million, according to the county Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures. That's a fraction of the $42 million Marin ranchers earned for livestock and livestock products, which account for more than 80 percent of the county's agricultural sales. But it's enough to make some farmers take notice. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 94 percent of farms with annual receipts of less than $250,000 benefit the most from farmers markets.

"I think the demand for locally produced food is a real and growing trend," Quirt said. "Conventional beef ranchers are waking up to that and slowly getting on board. These guys have the resources, they have the land and, more and more, they're looking at alternative ways of farming."

One West Marin rancher has begun growing artichokes, Quirt said. Another in North Marin devoted 20 acres to blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes. Still another struck a bargain with a local potato farmer.

"He made a deal to lease part of his pasture to grow 20 acres of potatoes," Quirt said. "After the potatoes had gone to market, the grass grew back over the potatoes, and the cows came back over the winter. That was once a traditional aspect of farming in northwest Marin. Now we're seeing more of those kinds of enterprises showing up because of the market."

The county's variety of climates encourages a diversity of crops, Hellberg said.

"The phenomenon of microclimates means that we can grow both pinot noir and corn, bell peppers and grains, artichokes and every kind of livestock," Hellberg said. "We have an amazing opportunity

here in Marin to make agriculture the basis of a flourishing economy."

An old idea reborn

The idea of buying fruits, vegetables and other farm products fresh from the men and women who grew them is as old as farming itself, said Marin Agricultural Commissioner Stacy Carlsen.

"Back in the '30s and '40s, all of the Marin farms that are solely dairy now had alternative production: potatoes, artichokes, peas, beans and fruit trees," Carlsen said. "Diversifying, organic farming, the production of 'grass-fed beef' - in some ways, this is just relabeling of things that used to be done routinely."

Ironically, it was the move toward large-scale, single-crop farming that set the stage for the modern farmers' market.

"When the movement toward the processing of foods came along, farmers abandoned diversification with the idea of efficiency," Carlsen said. "The model was a single commodity - dairy or livestock - at the cost of some of these other activities."

By the 1970s, small, diverse family farms were finding it increasingly difficult to compete with large, single-crop growers. California law made things even more difficult by creating packing and labeling requirements that many small farmers found too expensive.

In 1977, however, an amendment to the state agricultural code allowed growers to sell fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables directly to consumers at a farm stand or certified farmers market. According to state law, only a certified farmer, local government or nonprofit organization can operate a farmers market.

"We certify the markets, and we also certify individual farmers," Carlsen said. "We guarantee that what they sell at the market is what they grow. We regulate having commodities only recognized when they are in season. You can't sell peaches year round because you happen to have a peach tree. This allows for the integrity of the market to be maintained, as well as its original intent: to supply wholesome food, grown seasonally, by the people who actually grew it."

Resistance at first

Only three major farmers markets - Alemany, Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek - served the Bay Area in 1983, and few Marin farmers were producing the kinds of crops sold there. Nevertheless, entrepreneur Lynn Bagley believed a market could flourish in the county.

"I was interested in holistic healing and how food can play a role in healing," Bagley said. "I was volunteering at the Santa Rosa Farmers Market, and my mother said, 'You spend all your time talking to farmers. Why don't you start a market of your own?' So I did."

Bagley, who would found Marin's annual Farm Day event a year later, said county officials were resistant at first to the idea of a farmers market near the Civic Center - even though architect Frank Lloyd Wright had included plans for one in his design.

"The county wasn't sure they wanted it at first," Bagley said. "They were afraid it would become a flea market."

Farmers, however, were behind the idea from the beginning, she said.

"We had one meeting for Sonoma farmers, and 17 showed up," Bagley recalled. "Farmers don't

normally go to meetings. When I started the Thursday market, 30 farmers signed up. Two months later there were 60."

To make the market take off, however, Bagley had to convince Marin consumers to shop as their grandparents had.

"It's a big commitment," Quirt said. "You have to pay more. You can't shop any time you want; you have to know the schedule. You have to change your menu to deal with seasonal issues. There's a change in lifestyle involved."

That educational process continues today, as market staff explain to puzzled shoppers why they can't find bananas or pineapples at Marin markets (they're not grown locally) or why fruit from the market might be softer than they expect.

"Fruit should be really ripe," said Leah Smith, outreach director for the Marin Farmers Market Association. "It's not a bad thing for it to be picked ripe. People are used to hard, firm fruit, which is what you get when you put an apricot in the fridge. So a lot of what we do is letting customers know that today and tomorrow is the best time to eat our fruit."

Strategy pays off

To promote the market, Bagley assembled a staff and used every possible venue to spread her message.

"We had people handing out 100,000 fliers at the county fair," Bagley recalled. "We had ... ahem ... illegal highway signs. We had eight people on the phones running for two or three days. And we had word of mouth at the farmers market."

The strategy worked. By 1997, the Marin Farmers Market Association operated nine markets throughout the county and the East Bay, with an annual budget of almost $1 million.

"Lynn Bagley did an excellent job establishing the market and educating the public," said director Moran. "Over the years, it developed. The market has grown."

With growth came conflict. In 1997, a group of market employees asked the association's board of directors to fire Bagley, claiming that they had worked hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime. Bagley, in turn, filed suit against the market and 14 individuals, arguing that they had attacked her reputation in order to take over the nonprofit association. When the dust settled, Bagley had won tens of thousands of dollars in damages from her former co-workers, but had lost control of the organization.

"It was character assassination," Bagley said. "They came to the board and said they would leave if the board did not fire me. É I felt abused. It hurts to have a friend do that to you. Most of them have been ousted since then, so it was all for nothing."

Within a year, Bagley had returned as manager of the Corte Madera farmers market. Her Golden Gate Farmers Market Association now operates markets in Corte Madera, Larkspur and Sausalito.

"Each of the markets has its own individual personality," Bagley said. "People get a different feeling, a different experience. It's part of the fun, with people treating them as an adventure and experiencing each of them for its own unique qualities."

What the markets have in common, say growers, are shoppers who know what they like and aren't afraid to ask questions about what they're eating.

"There's more awareness on the part of the consumer," said Ed Pearson, a grower from Novato's Wood Farms and a regular participant at the Thursday morning market in San Rafael. "They ask us about where the food was grown. There's an emphasis on locally grown and organic foods."

That personal contact is one of the reasons farmers markets tend to attract regular customers. After all, even the most detailed nutrition label can't compete with the opportunity to talk with the person who grew your food.

"People think that something labeled 'organic' means all organic, but it doesn't," Moran said. "To be judged 'organic,' a product only has to be 80 percent organic. When we call something 100 percent organic, it's totally organic. If you go to the farmers market, you know what you're getting."

Social event

For growers, the market is also a social occasion.

"When you work as a farmer, you spend so much time by yourself," said Mimi Luebbermann, a Chileno Valley farmer who spins and sells wool at the Point Reyes market. "This keeps you in touch with the world."

While individual markets continue to attract customers, and farmers, most observers don't expect the number of farmers markets in Marin to grow.

"I think the market is saturated," Quirt said. "There's a certain number of consumers who are savvy to what farmers markets have to offer, and that number has plateaued in this area. To support the growth of the markets, there needs to be another breakthrough in public consciousness."

Bagley, who limits the number of vendors who can participate in her markets, agreed.

"You don't want to overexpand the market and hurt people's sales," Bagley said. "The more vendors you have, the less well they do. You don't want people out there making only $200 or $300 a week."

So market managers are finding other ways to expand. The Marin Farmers Market Association has begun working with Marin General Hospital and local schools to deliver fresh produce. Both the Sunday Civic Center market and the Point Reyes market host demonstrations by local chefs using items purchased at the market.

"The Farmers Market Association is helping out what we're doing, which is trying to encourage kids to eat fruit and vegetables," said Miguel Villerreal, director of nutrition for the Novato and San Rafael school districts, who has worked with the association and Marin Organic to bring farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to school menus. "As a nutritionist, their produce has the highest-quality nutritional value, since in most cases it was literally picked on the farm the previous day and delivered to the school the next day."

Civic Center location

The Marin Farmers Market Association is also working with county officials on plans to establish a permanent home for the Civic Center market. Association members are hoping to build on property near the center that is currently used for annual Christmas tree sales. The site has also been considered for a commuter rail station under the Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) plan.

"This would fulfill Frank Lloyd Wright's original design for the center," Moran said. "It's an institution

in the community."

To date, the largest number of Marin's agricultural producers - its dairy farmers - have found it difficult to use farmers markets. That could change as some dairies begin producing products, such as cheese, that can be more easily sold at markets, Quirt said.

"For a dairy to sell outside of a creamery is almost impossible to do, because of state regulations," Quirt said. "One trend for dairies is to look at farmers markets not as a place to sell fluid milk, but commodities. Those value-added products could be, for dairies, a means of survival."

Marin Organic's Hellberg agreed.

"We lose 400 family farms every week in the United States, about 56 farms a day," Hellberg said. "There are still economic pressures faced by farms in Marin, but we are adding new farmers about every three months or so. We have new operations every year, like organic goat cheese and organic lamb. People are producing artichokes again, heirloom varieties of apples, peas and even grains. These are crops that were always grown here but had been lost over time because people had forgotten them."

The county's markets do more than help keep farmers in business, Hellberg said. They also help keep the community alive.

"It's a gathering place for the community," Hellberg said. "When I come to the market every Saturday, I get the feeling of home, the feeling of belonging that we're all so desperate for. If I miss a Saturday market, I really miss it. It's where I really want to be."

Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at rrogers@marinij.com