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Market Day : The Market Economy

COOK'S WALK: SANTA MONICA. One in an occasional series.

August 12, 1993|RUSS PARSONS

Irene Burkart began doing business at farmers markets after going in the red selling oranges.

"I had some fruit that I sent to the packing shed," she says. "After they sold them, they sent me a bill! With their packing costs, I came out in the red. You cannot believe how many farmers end up in the hole that way. I knew I had to do something different and that's when I started going to farmers markets."

Now, Burkart makes the four-hour drive to Santa Monica every week from her farm near Fresno, getting up at 1 in the morning, hitting the road at 2 a.m. and arriving at the market at about 6. "It's hard work," she says.

Of course, farming is hard work, but given the reality of agricultural economics these days, more and more small farmers are turning to farmers markets as their main, and even only, way of selling their crops. At the market, they say, they get paid immediately, they get paid in cash and they have a chance to sell the produce directly to the customer.

Bob Polito, of Polito Family Farms, says less and less of his citrus fruit is going the wholesale route. "Last year, the price was so bad we sent less than ever before, and we'll probably send less than that this year," he says. "The return we can get at farmers markets is considerably more than what we can get through the wholesaler.

"As years go by, more and more of our product goes through the farmers market, and our whole farming operation seems to be orienting itself to farmers markets. It's a lot more work on our part, but it's worth it."

Donna Sherrill, of Sherrill Farms, says: "With farmers markets, we have to have vehicles and insurance, it takes more labor, and we have to spend more time on the road. We not only have to contend with Mother Nature, market prices and competition from other countries, we have the freeway to deal with too. That's very stressful."

Still, she prefers farmers markets. "I like the concept of a farmers market, for one thing," she says. "It's a place we can go with our fruit a little riper, a little more into its full potential as far as flavor goes. I can talk directly to consumers and answer questions. I grew up with Gravenstein apples, yet probably 75% of my customers at Santa Monica have probably never heard of them. I can explain what the variety is and give them recipes.

"That, and we get paid immediately, which helps cover expenses. And there are always plenty of those."

Contact with his customers is also crucial to Polito's business. "When you put in a tree crop, it takes a long time to mature," he says. "And it can be a real risky venture to put in something you're not sure you can sell. With farmers markets, if I know it's a good product, I'm pretty sure I can sell it."

His wonderful Oro Blanco grapefruit--giant fruits with low acidity--have particularly benefited from farmers market exposure. "No one knew what they were," Polito says. "But we told people about it and they tried it and they bought more. As it caught on at farmers markets, it also caught on at the supermarkets."

And, of course, there are the old-fashioned rewards of selling directly. Mushroom farmer David Mountain has gotten a lot of regular customers over the years. "I get to see their kids grow up. I've seen women meet men at the market, get married and have kids, and now they're bringing their kids to the market. It's a really neat thing to have regular customers you share your lives with. It's special, a real feeling of community."

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