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Renewable resource?

Farmers markets are thriving, but the scene's pioneers are retiring. Meet the new generation of growers -- a rare crop.

May 07, 2008|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

THERE'S been a changing of the guard at the Coleman Family Farm stand at the Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesday mornings. Ask Bill Coleman a question and he's likely to answer, "Ask Romey."

Romey -- Romeo on his birth certificate -- is Coleman's son and though his eventually becoming the boss was expected, it nonetheless comes as a bit of a surprise to longtime market shoppers who might still think of him as the kid they watched grow up.

"I remember junior high summers, my dad would stuff us all in the front of the van and we'd drive to the Wednesday market," says Romeo, who is now 38 and sometimes brings his own two kids to the market. "This has always been a dream for me."

Though the handing down of a 6-acre farm is hardly newsworthy -- no matter how idyllic that spot might be -- the transition at Coleman Family Farm is part of a much larger picture.

One of the key questions facing farmers markets in the next decade is just who is going to replace the rapidly graying growers who led the green revolution of the last 30 years. Where will the next generation come from?

Will the markets, drawing on young farmers with new products and fresh ideas, continue to thrive and evolve as they have over the last 20 years, when the number of shoppers attending them more than tripled? Or, as more farmers hit retirement age, will the markets gradually dwindle and diminish?


More older farmers

In GENERAL, experts say, new farmers market growers tend to come from one of three groups: young idealists looking for a rural lifestyle, immigrants who use farmers markets to make money from small plots of land, and those like Coleman who inherit family farms.

The problem of aging farmers is not unique to growers markets. During the last quarter of the 20th century the percentage of all farmers older than 65 increased from 16% to 26%. That compares with only about 3% of the total American workforce who are that age. And fully half of all American farmers are older than 55.

But the trend is especially noticeable at farmers markets, because the generation of farmers who led their boom in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s still predominate.

Though new faces do show up, they are a definite minority. At the bigger and more popular markets, there might be only one or two new farmers a year.

Though scores of new growers were certified for farmers markets during each of the boom years, more recently that flood has slowed to a trickle.

According to the agricultural commissioners offices of San Diego, Ventura and Riverside counties -- the areas that supply the lion's share of Southern California market farmers -- the number of certified farmers market growers has stayed about the same for the last several years.

"Each year we pick up between five and 10 new producers, but we lose about the same number," says Ron Bray of the Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner's office.

Today the shortage of new farmers mainly means it's more difficult to open new markets, but the implications for the future are more serious as greater numbers of farmers hit retirement age and quit.

"It's crucial that we continue to find young farmers because many farmers are retiring and if we want to continue this wonderful thing we have going on at farmers markets, we need to recruit a new generation to continue what has been done," says Pompea Smith of the organization Sustainable Economic Enterprises of Los Angeles, which manages seven Southern California farmers markets, including the popular Sunday market in Hollywood.

Any newcomer who wants to enter farming faces sizable hurdles. First and foremost, of course, is the price of land. Then there is the inevitable learning curve that goes with any new profession.

And then there's the problem of getting into the larger, more profitable markets, which often have waiting lists that can be years long, particularly for farmers who grow commonly available produce.

Those farmers have to go to several smaller markets each week to make the same income they might generate from two or three big markets. Often that means five or six days a week of packing up before dawn and driving several hours into the city.


Greenhorns to green thumbs

Christopher and Johanna Finley of Finley Farms have grappled with all of those issues. They run a popular stand at the Sunday Hollywood market as well as at several markets in the Santa Barbara area and they are in the middle of the small-grower learning curve.

The couple, who embody the young, idealistic farmers market growers, met when they were both working at farmers market stands while attending UC Santa Barbara -- he was an environmental studies major and she studied ceramics. Finding their student jobs more interesting than their undergraduate training, four years ago they started to farm a 1-acre plot they rented north of Goleta.

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