You won't find any box boys, piped-in background music or gold Cadillac giveaways. But you will find freshness, quality and bargains at certified farmers' markets throughout the state. The farmer-to-consumer certification in California was originated about 10 years ago as an outgrowth of a strike that shut down wholesale houses, Frank Bowring, manager of the Costa Mesa Farmers' Market, recalls. There are about 100 of the certified markets today (21 in Los Angeles County) that set up their booths in settings that include parking lots, parks, fairgrounds, community colleges and blocked-off city streets.
Before a farmer can sell at a certified market, the county agricultural commissioner checks to make sure that the seller actually grows the commodities that he sells, and the conservation department certifies that fresh fish were caught by the sellers.
For shoppers who are willing to buy their produce once a week and are willing to get up early to have the best selection, here is a sampling of certified farmers' markets in the Southland:
Santa Barbara: corner of Cota and Anacapa streets. Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to noon. Manager: Susan Pierce, (805) 683-3327.
This 8-year-old market, which has grown to about 45 sellers' booths per week, offers fruits and vegetables (many organically grown), plus flowers and plants and, in season, shrimp, crab and lobster. The market features miniature vegetables of the kind used in French nouvelle cuisine and other unusual produce, such as sweet potato leaves and the plant lamb's quarters, both used in Asian cooking. If you're not sure what something is, or how to prepare it, just ask.
Ventura: corner of Figueroa and Santa Clara streets, Downtown Ventura, in a city-owned parking lot. Saturdays 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Manager: Mary Leleiwi, (805) 654-7800, Ext. 630.
In operation since 1983, this market originally sold its goods on the grounds of a local drive-in theater. With city support, however, the market recently moved to its current location. In addition to fruits, vegetables and fresh fish, the 20 booths have such dried items as shallots and beefalo products (similar to jerky and brought in by a farmer who raises the livestock in the Fillmore area); plants and flowers.
Santa Monica: Arizona Avenue, between 2nd and 4th streets. Wednesdays 2 to 8 p.m. Manager: Laura DeVenanzio, (213) 458-8701.
The largest certified farmers' market in California, this two-block marketplace offers 65 booths per week. Besides seasonal fruits and vegetables, this market carries 50 varieties of cut flowers, honey and honey products, freshly baked goods, macadamia nuts (shelled or unshelled), herbs, sprouted seeds and beans, hard-to-find golden beets, plus such seasonal exotic fruits as cheramoya and sapote. One farmer specializes in flavored olives by the pint or quart. The market has Ridgeback shrimp in season, January through June.
Bellflower: Laurel Street and Bellflower Boulevard, half a mile north of California 91. Mondays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Manager: Hullie Hull, (213) 424-4753.
Newest of the Los Angeles County markets, this one began in mid-March with about 16 booths, but Hull plans to add more farmers. Along with seasonal fruits and vegetables, the market's more unusual items include Savoy cabbage, sugar peas, strawberries, organically grown walnuts, mulberries and snapper, rock cod, beefalo products and herbal plants. An information booth offers free recipes. Hull also managers a market in the East Los Angeles College parking lot at Floral Drive, west of Atlantic Boulevard, Monterey Park. Open Thursdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Fullerton: Woodcrest Park, at Orangethorpe and Richman avenues. Wednesdays 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Managers: Kae Thomas and Mona Amoon, (714) 526-5814.
Largest of the Orange County certified markets, the 5-year-old Fullerton bazaar consists of about 40 booths per week set up in a city park. Thomas reports that some produce is brought in by Orange County farmers but that it also comes from as far away as Fresno. Besides produce, the market carries fresh fish, eggs, honey, bedding plants, citrus trees and cut flowers. Also the market has "adopted" two nearby elementary schools this year. When the children tour the market, vendors answer their questions. The Fullerton Farmers' Market Board gives the children coupons to exchange for samples of produce. The market donates gift certificates with which low-income families can buy fresh produce, and it has contributed to scholarships for agricultural students.
Costa Mesa: Orange County Fairgrounds parking lot, 88 Fair Drive. Thursdays 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Manager: Frank Bowring, (714) 547-9026.