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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Fruitful Marketing : Popularity of Fresh-Picked Goods Causes Many Farmers Markets to Sprout Up Locally

July 03, 1994|SUSAN STEINBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Westwood on a recent Thursday, a crowd gathered in the shadow of the Bullocks department store. But this was no pre-sale positioning for Waterford crystal.

The occasion was the grand opening of Westwood's farmers market, and the merchandise--piled high on tables set up in the street--included fresh-picked strawberries and purple basil.

Growing faster than summer squash, farmers markets have blossomed on the Westside. In 1990, there were three local open-air markets. Now there are seven--three in Santa Monica and one each in Hollywood, Venice, West Hollywood and Westwood. And more are on the way: Beverly Hills is scheduled to open a farmers market in August, Culver City plans to start one in 1995, and Malibu is discussing plans for one.

The growth comes amid a statewide boom in farmers markets. Since 1978, the number of certified farmers markets in California has climbed from four to 250, according to Southland Farmers Market Assn., a nonprofit group that assists in organizing and operating farmers markets in Southern California.

Farmers markets are not for everyone. Sometimes the prices exceed those of supermarkets, and some competing merchants consider them a business threat. But such concerns have not stopped the markets from proliferating.

On the Westside, evidence of their popularity--and appeal--abounds.

Residents and visitors flock to the weekly markets, buying such products as seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh bread, exotic herbs, houseplants, aloe vera or even oat grass grown to aid cats' digestion.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 customers usually turn out for the Wednesday farmers market in Santa Monica, the state's biggest certified farmers market. That market's 85 growers grossed $3,839,321 in 1992, according to the farmers market association. (The other two Santa Monica markets, held Saturdays, together brought in $791,016.)

Westside-wide, farmers markets grossed more than $6 million in 1992, the latest year for which annual figures are available. That compares to just under $5 million the year before.

Such results have stirred strong interest in cities looking to boost downtown business--and community spirit. "A lot of cities are picking up on farmers markets to return to the concept of the urban gathering place," said Laura Avery, farmers market coordinator for Santa Monica.

Farmers markets, which are certified by the counties, require that all items grown by the farmers be sold directly to consumers--no middlemen involved. The farmers must also be certified by county agricultural commissioners. Farmers who sell in Westside markets typically pay "space fees," amounting to 4.25% to 5% of their gross sales, to the host city or its redevelopment agency, and an additional 1% to 1.5% to the farmers market association.

Important to the markets' appeal, customers say, is the accessibility and helpfulness of the growers. Whether the issue is the cooking time of bok choy or the drought resistance of certain shrubs, the growers give the answer--and often seem to enjoy doing so.

"The honeydews need about four days (to ripen)," grower Nina Vedder Ames instructed a customer recently at Santa Monica's Wednesday market. "But if you need a good melon right now, try the canary melon. They taste a lot alike."

The buyer sampled the canary melon, then asked Ames to pick out a few of the ripest ones. Said another shopper, John Watkins: "I rely on the salespeople, and they're always honest. I like the personal aspect: You're talking to the person who grows the vegetables. You get to know the farmers, and they know who you are."

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The appreciation runs deep.

According to Steve Cancian, assistant manager of Santa Monica's Wednesday farmers market, a vegetable grower who was having financial problems in 1991 told his customers that he would have to raise his prices in order to stay in business. His customers rallied, continued to patronize his stand, and the grower survived--his clientele intact.

Perhaps the key drawing cards of farmers markets are the quality and variety of the produce. In many cases, produce is picked within 24 hours of going to market.

Ames says that on Tuesdays this time of year, she takes to the fields in the mornings to pick corn with the farmhands at her family's 2,000-acre Imperial Valley spread. The trimming and bagging come next. Then the corn is placed on ice to take out the field heat, she said. Other produce, including cantaloupe and bright-yellow canary melons, is also harvested and crated in the dizzying Imperial Valley heat.

On Wednesday morning, Ames is typically in Santa Monica by 7:30 a.m., sipping a cappuccino in a 2nd Street coffeehouse as her pickup truck and trailer--loaded with a ton of vegetables and fruit--sits parked at the curb. At 9:30 a.m., a blast from an air horn signifies that the market is open.

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