No longer quaint hallmarks of rural America, farmer? markets in California have more than doubled over the past decade to 550, sprouting up in trendy urban enclaves, and becoming the resource of choice for consumers of fresh produce. Some however, worry that such rapid growth can result in market saturation, especially in communities where farmer? markets are in close proximity to each other. ?hen the customer base is the same, per customer sales drop when markets are too close,?said Dan Best, the head of the California Federation of Certified Farmer? Markets- a trade group that represents over 100 farmer? markets in California In Los Angeles County, the number of certified farmer? markets has grown by 30 percent in the past four years to 116, and in the San Fernando Valley there are at least a dozen certified farmer? markets operating on any given week. Stoked by a trend toward healthy eating, these farmer? markets have gained popularity as venues for small local farmers to sell directly to consumers without the added expenses of commercial preparation including packaging and labeling, according to L.A. County Deputy Agricultural Commissioner Ernie Banta, whose department regulates all certified farmer? markets in the County. While it? not the cheapest or most convenient way to shop – there are no packaged products, no comfortable shopping carts, and the vendors will not take credit cards- these markets where consumers interact directly with growers, have become increasingly appealing. Best calls it ? trend to get in touch with the food source.? ?eople want to know where their food is coming from. In this time of convenience, where everything is ready to eat, more people are looking to buy something that they actually have to wash before they eat,?Best said. Growing pains The proliferation of farmer? markets in the past decade has benefited people like Jeff Stein, who has been in the farming business for 23 years, and whose family owns Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. Right now, Stein says he has some 15 to 20 applications sitting on his desk of farmer? markets that have invited him to participate. Many of them are new. With more markets, Stein has more options of places to sell his produce. ? have three [applications] for new markets starting in Agoura Hills a day apart, two applications for markets in Hollywood one Saturday, one Sunday, one of them is just opening. I have another one for a new market in El Segundo on Wednesdays?This tells me people are opening markets because they see an opportunity to make money,?he said. But others have strong reservations about the growing trend. Mark Sheridan, market operator for the Montrose Park Association is one of them. ?here seems to be uncontrolled growth,?said Sheridan, who has worked as a farmer? market operator for 25 years, and has developed and run more than six different farmer? markets. ?y concern is there are too many farmer? markets potentially saturating the market,?he said. In the City of Glendale, where the Montrose Farmer? Market is held, a new farmer? market recently opened at the Americana ?a new commercial and residential development ?an example of how multiple markets are opening up in the same communities. ?e now have to sell in three markets to make the same money that we used to make at just one,?said Joel Cervantes, a vendor at the market at Montrose, who was selling high end produce including strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupe, heirloom tomatoes and Maui onions. Cervantes?family-owned farm sells produce at 12 different markets throughout California and also sells wholesale to restaurants. He said he was concerned with more farmer? markets opening in the area. ?eople used to drive 40 minutes to get to a farmer? market. Now there? one on every corner.? A changing market Traditionally, and under California Department of Agriculture regulations, Certified farmer? markets can only sell produce grown by local farmers. However, today the blanket label of ?armer? market?is used for many street fairs, festivals and bazaars that might only have a small farmer? market component. In other instances the name farmer? market is used for something that has little or nothing to do with a certified farmer? market altogether, such as the grocery store Henry’s Farmers Market, which opened last week in Woodland Hills selling swank health-food. Many of today? popular ?ybrid?farmer? markets are catering more to the urban elite in stark contrast to the markets that sprung up decades ago as a way to supply low-income residents with fresh fruits and vegetables. New markets, such as Gigi? Farmer? Market at the Americana in Glendale, brand themselves as specialty markets offering only the highest quality of goods and produce. With a French theme, visitors who stroll along the bright red and white colored stalls at Gigi?, can find French bakery products, gourmet blends of olive and balsamic oils and see many signs advertising organic fruits and vegetables and other products such as organic poultry, grass fed beef, organic lamb, and organic eggs. Jennifer Gordon, senior vice president of public relations and special events for Caruso Affiliated, the company that owns and developed The Americana at Brand, said Gigi? Farmers Market was created as a way of keeping up with the demands of the market for organic and natural products, and to provide something new and unique with a European feel to it that would also help attract foot traffic to the mall area. Sheridan, for one, says these new types of farmer? markets are undermining the original intent for these markets, which was as to provide a direct venue for the growers to offer their produce. ?ow people are opening farmers market for the wrong reasons, like to bring in foot traffic for a mall,?he said. Although consumers can get some great deals on fresh produce at markets like Gigi?, the idea that you can get food cheaper at a farmer? market is, for the most part, ancient history. ?eople here are more concerned with quality than price,?said Armando Aquino, a vendor selling leafy lettuce and salad mixes at Gigi? one recent Saturday. Vanesa Gomez, a vendor at the Burbank Farmer? Market held every Saturday behind Burbank’s City Hall at Third Street and Orange Grove downtown, had similar thoughts. She was selling an assortment of vegetables including large $4 artichokes and asparagus at $5 a pound (over 30 percent more than a pound of fresh asparagus would cost at a supermarket like Vons). ?his is expensive, but people buy it because they?e looking for organic and healthy food,?she said. ?his has no pesticides, no sprays.?She added that Lompoc based Sun Coast Farms, where the produce was grown, is not a certified organic farm under the USDA. ?t upsets me that sometimes people don? know where they are shopping,?said Irma Suarez, a vendor at the Montrose Farmers Market, and owner of Azteca Farm ?a 15 acre farm she operates with her husband in Filmore. ?hey come here thinking it? a swap meet, expecting really low prices. Quality over price They don? realize that some supermarkets buy produce based on price, not quality, but here what matters is quality.? She said her prices that day were pretty competitive. ?t Vons you can buy a handful of radishes for 98 cents, but here I? selling big fresh cut radishes at 2 for $1. Farmers, who often can? compete with the prices of major grocery chains say price is more than compensated by quality at a farmer? market. ?ere consumers can find produce that has been handpicked from the day before, instead of buying produce that has been sitting on the shelves of a supermarket for 3-5 days, said Francisco Samora, a farmer selling an assortment of berries and other fruits including fresh mandarins at $2 a pound, at the Burbank Farmer? Market. Stein of Scarborough Farms says consumers ultimately get more for their money at a farmer? market. In many cases supermarkets pick fruit well before it is ripe, which allows it to last longer, but which lessens the sugar content that makes vine-ripened fruit so sweet, he said. The taste of the fruits is what has kept many regular customers like Pablo Rivas, from La Crescenta, coming back over and over. ?he strawberries, and all the fruit, it just has a better taste,?he said. ? also know the vendors, I have built relationships with them through the years, so I keep coming back to them.? Farmer? markets are now competing more directly with supermarkets that are doing a better job at providing shoppers with locally grown and even organic produce ?some traditional supermarkets are even borrowing farmer? market techniques, slicing open apples for consumers to sample. But Banta, at the L.A. County, says demand for farmer? markets is no where near being met today and there is a lot more room to grow. Market saturation in L. A. County ?s really not a concern at this point, even though the numbers of farmer? markets seem high.? ?here really is a demand for it. Some cities are still in need for farmer? markets.?
Fertile Ground or Saturation?