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Fresh Pickings : Farmers truck just-harvested produce into certified farmers' markets operating weekly around the Southland, where they sell directly to local consumers.

August 20, 1987|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

A fragrance of fresh produce, herbs and flowers permeates the air around the streets, parking lots and fields that weekly host certified farmers' markets here in the Southland. Since the first market, Gardena, opened in 1979, the number has grown to 37.

Freshness and lower prices top the list of reasons people give for shopping at these markets. Despite the drawbacks--absence of one-stop shopping, hours that are not always convenient, and purchases requiring cash--buyers interviewed had only positive comments to make about the markets.

The market managers we talked with were just as enthusiastic when discussing the advantages. Many noted the unique opportunity the markets provide for shoppers to talk directly to the farmers. Who better to ask about where or how the particular food was grown? This personal contact may also be used to advantage by those with allergies or concerns about pesticides.

Farmers were quick to tout the freshness of their products. Most told us it had been harvested the day before or even early that morning. This means their produce is allowed to ripen longer before harvest. One fisherman, just arriving as a market opened, explained he was late because the overnight catch was so good he wanted to stay out as long as possible. Shoppers claimed products purchased at farmers' markets last longer than comparable items from supermarkets.

As for the prices, studies conducted by the Center of Consumer Research, University of California, Davis, show an average savings of 20% to 30% at farmers' markets over local supermarkets.

During our investigation, it was sometimes difficult to confirm this by comparing prices because produce at the farmers' markets was often sold by container rather than in pounds. According to Romona Cortes Garza, director of Southland Farmers' Market Assn., the farmers sell by units to avoid paying the high costs of a certified scale.

Certified farmers' markets are part of a direct marketing program of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The program offers technical assistance to non-profit organizations, local government agencies and one or more certified producers who want to open and operate a certified market. All three types of markets can be found in the Southland. For example, San Fernando Valley is operated by a certified farmer; St. Joseph's Hospital sponsors Burbank, and Torrance is run by the City Parks and Recreations Department.

To be certified, farmers must meet the standards of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the same quality and maturity standards as for produce sold in supermarkets. Certification does, however, exempt the produce from normal standards for size and appearance as well as packing and labeling requirements, so some produce in the farmers' markets may be over or under normal size and might be blemished.

Buyers at a certified market are guaranteed they are purchasing from the farmer, a family member or employee. This certification is done annually by the agricultural commissioner of the county where the grower lives. If a grower lives in another county, a copy of the certificate must be endorsed by the market county.

The office of the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner explained that to be certified, a grower must file an application at the current fee of $10. (This fee will soon be increased to $30.) An appointment is set for an inspector to view the growing grounds to ensure it is where the food is grown. Since only crops growing at the time of inspection can be certified, it may be necessary to update the certificate three or four times a year for other short-term crops.

Certified producers that participate in the markets range from backyard gardeners to large-acreage farmers. Some farm locally, but it's not unusual for others to drive four or five hours to reach a market.

Here's a listing of the area markets, divided by county. Some are farmers' markets in the strictest sense, where the sole purpose is the direct sale of farm products. Others expand the concept to include educational demonstrations, entertainment and booths selling prepared foods.

LOS ANGELES COUNTY

Alhambra--Chico Street (east of Garfield Avenue, north of Main Street). Open every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Market manager is Steve Ackers, (818) 798-2133.

The blocklong street between Garfield and Stoneman avenues is closed to traffic during market hours. An average of 32 farmers park their trucks on the street and offer a variety of fruit, vegetables, cut flowers, plants, herbs, honey and eggs. Currently Asian pears, melons, figs, daikon and basil can be found. Kiwi and persimmons are available when in season. Although a farmers' market in the strict sense, it does have periodic festivals highlighting community groups and services.

Bellflower--at Laurel Street and Bellflower Boulevard (half a mile north of the 91 Freeway). Open every Monday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Market manager is Hullie Hull, (213) 424-4753.

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