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THE PRODUCE PARADOX : What's in Store : Shopping for freshness and price at local roadside stands.


Every good produce shopper knows there's more to selecting the right fruit or vegetable than just picking it up and paying for it. With so many options it takes some squeezing, pinching and thumping to find the best product.

The same theory applies to markets. There are so many around the county that it takes a little comparison shopping to determine the best ones.

In addition to the many supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores, there are, depending on the season, 25 to 30 roadside stands where farmers sell their own produce and another two dozen or so stands where the owners sell produce purchased wholesale.

There are also two farmers markets in the county open once a week, with a third expected to open early next year. The farmers markets allow various local and out-of-town growers to sell their goods in a central location. In the past, these markets have attracted up to 65 growers in one day, ranging from the largest growers around to the next-door neighbor with the lemon tree.

The biggest difference between stands run by the actual growers and supermarkets is that the produce is grown in Ventura County, stays in the county and is sold in the county, without any middlemen.

"A lot more consumers are being attracted to roadside stands and farmers markets for freshness and price," said Prof. Desmond Jolly, an agricultural economist at UC Davis. "The growers, strangely enough, can often get a higher price selling direct and the consumer can get a lower price than buying in a grocery store."

Donna Tamai of Tamai Farms in Oxnard said the price of produce at her roadside stand depends largely on the size of her father's crop.

"Sometimes they are very competitive with grocery store prices, and sometimes they cost more," she said. "If we have a lot of a crop and we have no outlet for it, we will sell it cheaper. If we don't have that problem, we'll try to get as much as we can for it."

As for produce prices at farmers markets, Tamai said a lot depends on the price at which the competition is selling its product. "At the roadside stands the prices are more stable than at the market," she said. "If someone comes into the market with cheaper tomatoes you have to be flexible and lower your prices."

Mary Shore of Timber Canyon Ranch of Santa Paula sells lemons, limes, blood oranges and avocadoes to the chains and at the farmers markets and pomegranates at a self-serve roadside stand. She said she can sell her produce at a lower price at the farmers market simply because there are fewer costs.

"When we bring it to a market we eliminate the packing fee, the transportation fee, the packaging fee and the supermarket fee," she said. "All of those things are added onto the price."

However, Karen Wetzel, market manager of the Ventura farmers markets, said smaller growers may have to charge higher prices to offset their cost of operation and the smaller size of their crop.

"The smaller farmer has really exorbitant costs. Like any small business, it's really hard for them to make a living," she said.

While some prices may be higher and some lower than those at the supermarket, everyone agrees that the produce is as fresh as it can be, when it is sold at the stands owned by the farmers.

"Many times a product is pulled from the ground or from a tree that morning or the night before," said Wetzel. "If you bring home a head of lettuce that was pulled that morning, you can keep it in your refrigerator for five to 10 days."

But produce at the roadside stands run by someone other than the grower may not be as fresh. It may not even be fresher than produce sold at supermarkets.

"We get our produce from local farms and from the terminal in L.A.," said Gladys Kohatsu of the Somis Farm produce stand. "Usually California farmers truck the produce to the terminal overnight and we are there the next day."

She said the produce she buys from local farmers--strawberries, mushrooms and celery--comes to her straight from the field.

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