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The idea that shook the world

Straight from farmer to customer, with no middleman? The very best fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods? Twenty-seven years ago these were radical notions. My, how things have changed.

May 24, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

ON a lazy Saturday morning behind a mini-mall between Compton and Hawthorne, the Gardena farmers market unfolds to the tinkling beat of a Caribbean steel drum. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about it -- about a dozen farmers selling greens and root vegetables, nopalitos and radishes. It hardly looks like one of the birthplaces of a revolution that has changed American agriculture and even, to an extent, our relationship with food.

But that's exactly what it is. In 1979, the Gardena farmers market was the first to open in Southern California and one of the first half a dozen in the state.

And if today we tend to think of farmers markets mainly in terms of celebrity chefs seeking out the most exquisite produce, or as a place we can meet to socialize with other food-obsessed friends, the Gardena market is a reminder that when the movement started, the goals were much more modest.

Back then, farmers markets were intended simply to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to shoppers who might otherwise have a hard time finding them, and to help small farmers stay alive in what even then was an increasingly hostile world of commercial agriculture.

Not only did the markets succeed at those twin goals, but they also ended up changing the way farming and the produce industry work. Along the way they became not only gourmet bazaars but also social centers and engines for urban redevelopment.

Today, farmers markets seem to be everywhere -- there were almost 500 in the state last year, more than 80 of them in Los Angeles County. And although the farmers market movement is closely identified with California, it has exploded into a national phenomenon. There were more than 3,700 farmers markets in the United States in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than double only a decade before.

Who would have dreamed such a thing could come from what started out as four farmers in a church parking lot?

"This whole thing started with a small idea, but it put into motion something that turned out to be much bigger when others heard about it," says Ida Edwards. She and her husband, Leroy, were customers that first weekend; now they manage this market and another one at Adams Boulevard and Vermont Avenue -- and they even do some farming themselves, raising aloe vera that they turn into soaps and lotions to sell at the markets.

To appreciate what the movement has accomplished, you have to look below the surface of what's going on at the Gardena market now. That stand with the bags of cute little citrus? That's Friend's Ranches from Ojai, and those Pixie tangerines are similar to the ones served at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. That stand over there with the great-looking strawberries and mixed vegetables? That's Tamai Farms from Oxnard and right across is Ha's Apple Farm from Tehachapi -- their produce is served in some of California's finest restaurants.

Even more to the point: that funny-looking money that so many customers are using to pay? That's scrip for federal and state anti-hunger programs and accounts for as much as half of the market's sales.

From at one time not having access to fresh produce, low-income customers at the Gardena market -- and many other small markets -- now can get the same ingredients as are used by some of the best chefs in the country.

That is surely well beyond the dreams of even the most optimistic of the markets' founders. The first five farmers markets in Southern California were sponsored by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition, a project of the Southern California Ecumenical Council, with the simple idea of bringing fresh food to the poor.

"We were really addressing questions of food access, because at that time some of the supermarkets had fled the inner city," says Vance Corum, who organized the first half a dozen successful markets in Southern California. "At the same time, we were also very aware of the plight of farmers. That was the start of the tough times in the farm economy around the country. Things were tight."

Sea change

UNTIL just a couple of years before, there had been no way to bring farmers and their customers together outside of a commercial market because of state regulations. Designed to smooth transactions between growers and the produce industry, these rules specified exactly how fruits and vegetables were sorted, packed, transported and sold.

But in 1977, after a peach harvest with prices so low that some farmers protested by dumping excess fruit on the state Capitol lawn, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed an executive order exempting farmers from those restrictions if they would sell their produce at farmers markets.

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