VISTA — What a difference a minute makes.
At 7:59 a.m. a crowd of more than 100 people has gathered between two rows of trucks and wooden stands on a dirt lot next to the Vista city hall.
As farmers and their families work quickly to unpack produce and arrange it neatly on the stands for sale, the people in the crowd banter and eye the fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers being set out on all sides. Many are local residents, and this is a good time to renew old friendships or establish new ones.
But idle conversation comes to a halt when the whistle blows at 8 a.m., signaling the market is open.
It's the early buyer who gets the best produce--or so everyone seems to believe. Within minutes, cash has changed hands in dozens of transactions and people are heading for their cars carrying bags full of fresh local peaches, avocados, tomatoes, peas, raspberries, roses and countless other products.
So goes market day--Saturday--at the Vista farmers' market, where people who grow food sell it directly to people who eat it. No frills, no gimmicks, no middlemen.
Founded in 1981, the Vista farmers' market has grown from modest beginnings into a lively business and social event. Its success recently helped inspire the establishment of a similar farmers' market in Del Mar, and there are plans to open another in Carlsbad later this year.
Roughly 50 growers come to the Vista market on an average weekend, up from only a handful when the affair first started. Gross sales have increased from $32,000 the first year to $164,000 last year.
"And it's a good social outlet for the community," said Bart Bollin, who manages the Vista and Del Mar farmers' markets for the loose group of farmers that participates.
"It's alive, it's friendly, and it's not commercial," agreed Carol, a thin woman with streaked gray hair who asked that her last name not be used. A 40-year resident of Vista, Carol said she buys produce regularly at the farmers' market "because of the quality of food. "They have excellent prices here, too," she added. "It beats the stores by half, if you consider the quality and the freshness."
Bollin said the markets are part of a statewide effort to help farmers sell their products directly to consumers. There are some 75 farmers' markets in California and the number is growing.
Only goods that have been grown in California can be sold at the markets, and growers who want to participate must pay $25 to be certified to sell their agricultural products. Inspectors from the county Department of Agriculture "have the option of inspecting your property to see if you're growing what you say you are," said Bollin.
In turn, the certificates--which growers are required to display at the markets--"ensure to the clientele that (the produce) is fresh, and that the seller really is the grower," Bollin added.
Growers who take part in the Vista and Del Mar markets range from retired couples who raise fruit and avocados in their backyards to professional farmers with more than 50 acres under cultivation. But most, like Roger Steeve, fall somewhere in between.
Protected From Fluctuations
Steeve, 26, who said he has sold produce at the Vista market nearly every week since it opened nearly six years ago, was at the market on a recent Saturday morning, offering eight-pound bags of small juicing oranges for $1. He and his parents farm 10 acres in Escondido where they raise peaches, apricots, oranges, plums, boysenberries and a variety of vegetables.
Steeve said that by selling most of its produce at the farmers' market, his family is protected from price fluctuations in the wholesale market. "When you sell to a wholesaler, if there are a lot of oranges on the market, you can't get anything for yours," he explained.
"This is a more (stable) marketplace, and that's important. It means we can hold our prices--in other words, we can make a living.
"We can also supply people with a product that's better and fresher than what you can get in the stores," he continued. "We pick our peaches and apricots when they're ripe, not when they're green. They're not always cheaper (than they are in supermarkets), but . . . they're the best."
Prices vary from grower to grower and from month to month, but Steeve said his family usually sells peaches for about 65 cents a pound, apricots for about 70 cents a pound. A local supermarket chain was recently selling peaches for $1.49 a pound and apricots for 98 cents a pound.
The local farmer's markets also attract larger growers such as Les Myers, 47, who has 55 acres in Fallbrook planted primarily with avocados and lemons. Myers said he sells most of his crop to packing houses, since he couldn't possibly sell it all at farmers' markets. But packers are paying only about 22 cents a pound for large Hass avocados, he said, and he can sell some of those same avocados directly to consumers at the farmers' markets in Vista and Del Mar for about 40 cents a pound.