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Products Ripe for Picking

Trends: Reflecting growing numbers nationally, Orange County now boasts 13 certified markets where farmers sell what they grow.


Farmer Joe Avitua brushes dust from the rough orange skins of tangerines he grew. He picks up each one in the bin, gives it a practiced swipe and places it in the front of the box--all the better to lure customers to his stall. His is one of many at the dozens of farmers' markets that dot the Southern California landscape each week.

With citrus piled high, fresh eggs, radishes and honey, home-cured pickles, Oriental vegetables, mounds of artichokes and fresh-picked strawberries, the markets are a feast for the senses.

There are 13 in Orange County that satisfy the criteria to be a certified farmers' market--that is, markets where farmers sell the food they grow.

The number of farmers' markets in California is nudging toward 300, where less than 20 years ago there were only four. And while California is the runaway leader, it is only one of many places in the nation where farmers' markets are thriving.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are more than 2,400 farmers' markets around the country, with more springing up. Department officials say there are surely many more in operation that have not been tabulated, simply because there is no central clearinghouse to track such businesses.

They have become such a phenomenon in recent years that the Agriculture Department began printing a thick national directory of farmers' markets in 1994, adding 750 to last year's edition.

In many cases the markets have been used as a way to prime the pump for communities in need of an economic fix. The proven logic is that markets attract people, which, in turn, helps other businesses in the vicinity.

So many markets now operate that some farmers gripe about the glut. They say the increasing numbers have thinned the customer base at older, established markets, forcing them to set up shop in more places to turn a profit.

Still, their popularity continues to grow, both in parking lots and in cyberspace. There are more than 200 farmers' market sites on the Internet where fruit and vegetable prices are listed.

What is drawing people to the stalls of these markets rather than the convenience of neighborhood supermarket aisles? The freshness of the food and the aromas filling the air are often cited. Beyond that, attending the market it is a form of urban recreation in which city dwellers get a chance to mix with farmers, to talk about crops and seasons and haggle over the prices.

There exists in these markets a kind of unhurried pace and feeling of community that are all-too-difficult to find in these hectic times.

For thousands of years, the marketplace was the heart of cultures around the globe, from ancient Greece to medieval Europe to Colonial America. It is no coincidence that so many of the major urban thoroughfares in the United States are named Market Street.

Those markets began to decline in the post-World War II years, spurred by flight to the suburbs from the urban core and a change in how food was grown, processed and sold.

Where in past generations food for the table was dependent on what was locally grown, processing and transportation advances have allowed food to be shipped to every part of the United States in all seasons. It is not unusual for produce to travel more than 2,000 miles before it lands in the supermarket, which itself came of age in the postwar era.

Those shipments are not limited to food produced in this country: Many of the vegetables found in today's markets come from other countries--strawberries from Mexico, asparagus from Peru, carrots from Canada, to name but a few.

California had its own set of circumstances that put a damper on the farmers' markets. As it moved into the lead in national food production, a number of laws were passed that imposed strict regulations on how produce could be sold. As a form of quality control, fruits and some vegetables had to conform to size, weight, container and labeling requirements to be marketed. The exception from the requirements for farmers was that they could sell from roadside stands on their own property.

Small farmers as a rule did not have the financing to get into the packing and sorting business. And it also meant they couldn't sell less than picture-perfect produce. The effective result was the demise of farmer' markets.

That changed in 1977, after a series of protests by farmers about the stringent laws. A set of direct marketing regulations granting farmers more leeway in how and what they could sell was issued by the Department of Food and Agriculture.

"There's a time when things get ripe, and the time then was ripe for the farmers," said Les Portello, director of the state farmers' market program after the regulations were passed. "The direct marketing concept was reborn."

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