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Bearing fruit

Managers, like Mar Vista's Diana Rodgers, have to be part cop, part promoter. What they grow can be sweet indeed.

June 09, 2011|David Karp

Early on a recent morning, Diana Rodgers, manager of the Mar Vista farmers market, drove north for two days of farm visits in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, including to three berry growers in Nipomo. When she arrived, the farms offered gorgeous vistas of rolling dunes and sun glinting off the Pacific, with cool breezes, delicious raspberries and mind-bogglingly aromatic Mara des Bois strawberries.

Rogers chatted amiably with the vendors, some of whom she had known for many years, about their families and their crops. She also asked detailed questions about how many acres they farmed, who did the work, who owned the land and what were the seasons.

Over the course of a long day, however, she caught glimpses of a hidden scenario worthy of film noir. The farmers have also known each other for years, and some of them have nursed long-held, deeply felt grudges; some insinuated or accused others of cheating; one spoke of racism, another of dubious leases, hidden backers and poisoned wells.

"My head is spinning," Rodgers said that evening as she drove south to a motel in Santa Barbara.

Over the last 16 years, Rodgers, like every good farmers market manager, has had to use multiple skills and perspectives -- event organizer, farmer, therapist and detective -- to foster two markets: first Santa Monica Main Street, and now, under very different circumstances, Mar Vista. Experienced and thoughtful, she deals weekly with issues great and small, from expelling dog peddlers to advising the state farmers market program.

While far less celebrated than film directors or restaurant chefs, farmers market managers such as Rodgers are equally responsible for the identity, success and integrity of their enterprises, even if most shoppers don't even know they exist. They choose the vendors, set the tone and enforce the rules.

And though Rodgers is certainly not the only good farmers market manager in Southern California -- there are many who share the same joys and frustrations -- she is one of the leaders.

"Diana is one of the best managers in the business," says Mary Lou Weiss, veteran manager of the Torrance farmers markets. "She's a real mover and shaker."

About half of all new markets don't survive, but the Mar Vista venue, founded in 2006, has flourished, growing from 15 to 70 stalls, divided roughly 60%-40% between certified farmers stalls and food stands. After begging farmers to come at first, she now often has to turn them away. Just as important, the market has come to serve as a town square where residents meet their neighbors as well as buy produce.

Managing the Mar Vista market is close to a full-time job, says Rodgers, although much of her work is imperceptible to the public. For example, in recent weeks she has sought relief from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health from new rules that would have required her to replace new sinks, which she and many managers had just installed, at considerable expense.

When Rodgers first took over the market, she had to scrape by on a salary of $1,200 a month, drawn from fees paid by vendors (7% of sales for farmers), which also fund market expenses. Now that the market is thriving, she gets several times that, but a career in managing will never be a road to riches, she said.

Verifying farmers

Rodgers meets regularly with other local managers in a group, recently incorporated in a chapter of the California State Grange, to discuss a broad range of issues such as street closures, regulatory requirements and quarantines. And in January she was appointed as an alternate to the Certified Farmers Market Advisory Committee, which helps guide the state program.

Market integrity, always a concern for Rodgers, has become a priority since media reports last fall about vendors who sold produce they'd bought from the wholesale market rather than what they'd grown themselves. She evaluates farmers who apply to sell at her market by checking that they haven't been cited for peddling by agricultural authorities, by asking which other markets they sell at, by vetting them with other managers whose opinions she respects and by visiting the farms.

Verifying integrity can be tricky. Brief farm visits like the ones she recently did are enough to catch blatant cheaters, Rodgers says, but won't nail those who grow a plausible amount for show and then buy the rest. The new mantra for integrity-conscious managers is "do the math": check records of farmers market sales against estimates of production on the farmer's certificate, issued by county agricultural inspectors.

But the variables, such as crops, growing areas, seasons and sales to wholesale outlets are so complex that it's difficult for even a determined manager to catch cheaters, who have grown increasingly creative in exploiting the loopholes in market rules, Rodgers said.

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