It was like the opening scene in "My Fair Lady," and it got started with a cowbell.
It wasn't quite London's Covent Garden, but all along a green strip of Fullerton's Woodcrest Park, crates were being unloaded and tables stacked with the kinds of fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants that surrounded Eliza Doolittle and that no supermarket can offer. The kind of stuff that looks as if it's still growing when you pop it into your shopping bag. Simple and elegantly unadorned. And fresh.
Nearly 40 farmers, some of whom had come from as far away as Fresno, Tehachapi and Bakersfield, were starting to bait the hook, pushing all their wonderful-smelling wares as far out under the noses of the waiting customers as possible before Mona Amoon, the co-manager of the market, stepped out on the porch of her mobile office and rattled the cowbell.
On that signal, the Fullerton Certified Farmers Market sprang to chattering life, as it does every Wednesday of the year, rain or shine, at 10:30 a.m. No selling goes on before the sound of the bell, but as soon as the tinny clanking is heard, money and merchandise change hands with sometimes surprising speed.
The market--and another such operation that operates Thursdays at the Orange County Fairgrounds--is part grocery operation, part agricultural display.
It is mostly a seat-of-the-pants affair, with the farmers setting up stalls and tables out of the backs of trucks and vans, but it is also a bright showcase for plants, edible and otherwise, that have come very recently from the tree, the vine or the earth.
The farmers make up a kind of agricultural gypsy caravan, said Amoon, traveling from farmers market to farmers market throughout Southern California to sell produce directly to the public.
In addition to the two in Orange County, there are 24 certified markets in Los Angeles County, two in San Diego County and one each in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
A market's certification is given by county agricultural commissions throughout the state. It assures that the farmers who sell at the market have themselves grown the products they sell.
The Fullerton market is operated by the nonprofit Fullerton Certified Farmers Market Assn. The Costa Mesa market is sponsored by the nonprofit Orange County Farm Bureau, said Frank Bowring, the market manager.
Both markets regularly offer such items as fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh fish, honey, decorative plants and flowers and fruit trees. And, Amoon said, there is the occasional seasonal or "exotic item that might not be found elsewhere."
On a recent Wednesday at the Fullerton market, one such item in great demand was the Asian pear, a type of hybrid of an apple and a pear. Two stalls that sold them almost exclusively were nearly swarmed by eager shoppers looking for bargains on the unusual fruit. "The kiwi fruit person is coming next week," Amoon said, "and he'll probably be mobbed."
The attraction of the markets, he said--apart from the availability of the freshest produce--is the price of the items.
"They're higher than wholesale," she said, "but they're lower than retail. Also, there's direct contact between the customer and the farmer.
"So that if you want to know about pesticides or what's the best way to cook something, the farmer can tell you right there."
And, she said, the markets remain for many a well-kept secret. "People come here all the time," Amoon said, "and say, 'We never heard of this.' They think it's so exciting to have a real farmers market."
ORANGE COUNTY FARMERS' MARKETS AT A GLANCE
Where: Woodcrest Park, 450 W. Orangethorpe Ave.
Hours: Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Information: (714) 535-5694 or (714) 526-5814.
Where: Orange County Fairgrounds, 88 Fair Drive.
Hours: Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Information: (714) 547-9026 or (714) 835-4103.