The Davis Farmers' Market, thirty years on
One of the original producer-only markets in California shows how it's done

By Don Lotter


Buying local: Californian olive oil makes a comeback

Mike and Diane Madison sell their olive oil and dried lavender at the farmers’ market, as well as apricots and Clementine mandarins. Their livelihood until recently was cut flower production on their farm near Winters, ten miles west of Davis where the coastal foothills meet the valley. However, the nature of that business has prompted them to diversify into growing olives and several other crops. “We wanted to grow something less perishable than cut flowers. With cut flowers you have a one-day window to move the product or it is unsaleable,” says Madison.

Growing olives for oil has made a resurgence in California in the last ten years. In the late 1980s, California-grown olive oil began to show up in farmers’ markets and small shops. According to Mike, the olive oil industry in California has taken two routes since then. One is boutique oils that sell in places like the Napa Valley for $40 a bottle. The other is high density olive plantings that are mechanically harvested for lower-priced oil. The Madisons decided to take a route in between those two and produce medium-priced olive oil for farmers markets and small outlets.

After hearing Mike describe how the supermarket olive oil that I buy is made—basically cheap Middle Eastern oil sold by Italian companies—I’ll never buy it again, even the 'extra virgin'. “Extra virgin simply means that the oil has less than one percent free fatty acids,” says Mike. “The producers can still harvest sub-standard olives off the ground, heat them to high temperatures in the extraction process, and sell it as extra virgin olive oil. That’s basically what you get when you buy the cheap extra virgin olive oil in the stores.”

The Madisons take their olives to two pressing facilities for oil extraction. One is a granite press that uses 19th-century methods to extract the oil. The other is a state of the art centrifuge-type extractor. Either way, the oil extracted is high quality. “Olives are sensitive and oil quality declines when they are bruised,” says Mike. “They need to be picked like peaches. That's why the harvest is so labor intensive.”

Families on bicycles, complete with trailers for the youngsters and for carting home bags of fresh produce, are a regular feature of the bicycle-friendly streets of Davis, Calif., on Saturday mornings. And they are usually heading to the Davis Farmers’ Market in Davis’ Central Park.
Dianne Madison and her husband Mike farm cut flowers, transitional olives, Clementine mandarins, and apricots in Winters, where California's Central Valley meets the coastal foothills.

The market operates year-round, and even in winter it's colorful, with navel oranges, Satsuma mandarins, and other citrus as well as greens, cole crops, apples, and nuts. Southern California specialties like dates and avocados are on sale, as are local olive oils, wines, and jams. Musicians play in different parts of the market. Hot coffee and baked goods are also available.

Now nearly 30 years old, the Davis Farmers’ Market has become a fixture of Davis and a prime community gathering spot. It attracts 6,000 to 8,000 people each week and features nearly 100 vendors from all over California. Annual gross sales top $1.5 million.

The town of Davis, population 65,000, located 80 miles north of San Francisco in the great Central Valley, has a long association with agriculture. The University of California at Davis is one of the top agricultural universities in the world. Until the 1950s it was known in the region as the “University Farm.”

Over the years a strong organic and sustainable agriculture community has developed in Davis, despite being a minority within the conventional agriculture programs at UCD. Many former students have stayed in the area to farm, and it was from this group that the DFM got its start. In 1975, a few local, mostly young organic farmers—Martin Barnes, Jeff and Annie Main, Henry Esbenshade, and others, some of whom were recent graduates of the UCD agriculture program—had the idea of starting a farmers’ market.

"Davis Farmers' Market attracts 6,000 to 8,000 people each week and features nearly 100 vendors from all over California. Annual gross sales top $1.5 million."
The neophyte organic farmers were coming up against the hard reality of the wholesale produce industry and desperately needed to connect directly with consumers. They went to the Davis City Council and asked if they could sell their produce somewhere downtown on Saturdays. The council liked the idea and gave them space in Central Park.

Martin Barnes was one of those young farmers. Talking about developing the farmers' market, Barnes says, “We were operating by the seat of our pants. We didn’t know whether it would work. We put out fliers, had some newspaper coverage, and got the word out via the Davis Food Co-op."

"I remember driving from our farm to the first day of the farmers’ market. I had this gnawing, worried feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering if any farmers would show up. When I came around the corner to Central Park I saw half a dozen farmers. We all sold out that day. It was great.”

The Davis Farmers’ Market was one of just four producers' markets in California in the mid 1970s. Today there are 400.

Getting a boost from local stores and restaurants

One innovative feature in the inception of the DFM was the support of the then-young Davis Food Co-op. For the first six months, the Co-op bought any unsold produce from the ten local farmers who participated. According to Ann Evans, one of the founders of the DFM and later mayor of Davis, this was an insurance program for the participating farmers and was a major factor in getting the DFM off the ground. The Davis Food Co-op is now in a former Safeway store and is one of the most successful commercial ventures in town, as well as one of the best stores of its kind in the country.

In the early 1980s, another outside force gave the struggling organic farmers a boost. Says Barnes, “We were called by a woman by the name of Sibella Kraus, from Greenleaf Produce in San Francisco. She wanted us to grow this and that odd variety of vegetables. Well, it turns out that Kraus was working with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley—the now-famous prime mover behind California Cuisine—on sourcing fresh, local, organic foods for the new California Cuisine movement. Tapping into that helped get us on our feet.”

“We then formed Yocal, an organic food marketing co-op. We grew over 50 different fruits and vegetables. Heirloom tomatoes really took off,” says Barnes.

Barnes, who publishes and edits the local alternative newspaper, The Flatlander, is still involved in the family farm and still sells at the DFM.

"Here we had been flying by the seat of our pants, and pretty soon, the state regulations were based on our ideas."
“Sweet pea flowers were another of our niche crops. Sweet pea flowers are too delicate for the wholesale flower industry to deal with. It was perfect for us. You could make $20,000 from an acre of them. Ambrosia melon is another one of those crops—too fragile for the wholesale business, yet unsurpassed in its quality. It’s perfect for direct marketing.”

“In 1978 the state government in Sacramento, under Governor Jerry 'Moonbeam' Brown, wanted to set up laws on direct marketing and farmers’ markets. Where did they look in developing their regulations?” asks Barnes rhetorically. “They came to us and basically had us develop the state direct marketing regulations. Here we had been flying by the seat of our pants, and pretty soon, the state regulations were based on our ideas.”

California now has the most comprehensive—some say the only—direct marketing laws in the nation. All sellers have to be a certified California farm or facility. The core of the law is, “to sell it, you have to grow it” (or make it). It protects farmers from competition from re-sellers of wholesale goods.

Jeff and Annie Main, two of the farmers who helped organize the first DFM and were part of the alternative agriculture community at UCD, started with a three-acre co-operative farm in 1976. They now own a 20-acre organic farm, run a successful CSA called Good Humus Produce, with 150 subscriptions, and continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

Over the course of the year the Mains grow over 50 different crops. “We don’t produce a lot of anything,” says Annie. The winter produce offering includes cabbage, carrots, broccoli, lettuces and other greens, mandarin oranges, Meyer lemons, leeks, winter squash, and cut flowers.

“There are other farmers’ markets where we could make more money, like in San Francisco,” says Annie, “but we’ve developed relationships with people at the DFM. We feel a loyalty to the DFM, so we keep coming here.”

Land value inflation is a persistent problem for farmers in this area. Jeff and Annie are working on putting their farm into a land trust so it stays as an organic farm. “Farmers can’t buy land here anymore, it’s too expensive. We want to ensure that our farm will keep producing good food for the local communities,” says Annie Main.

Involving the community is key

Randii MacNear, DFM director for 25 years and counting, has been instrumental in turning the market into more than just an outlet for local farmers. Over 500 non-profit groups run promotions at the DFM each year, and school and community arts groups give performances. Monthly events co-hosted by the DFM include 4-H animal shows, exhibits from the Davis Science Center, and the Soroptimists pumpkin patch for kids.

“Fifty percent of my job is reaching out to the community to foster partnerships with the DFM,” says MacNear.

The non-profit Davis Farmers’ Market Association governs the DFM via a board of directors.

With California land values skyrocketing, suburbia spreading into farmlands, cheap food coming from Mexico and Chile, and food production profit margins diminishing, farming in California is getting harder and harder. The DFM works to counter these trends.

“We promote family farms, local food production, and sustainable agriculture, but we do it in a way that isn’t pushy or overtly political," says MacNear. “We try to gently educate people about the importance of buying local and fresh. Even though shopping is a political activity, we don’t want people to feel like it is when they shop at the farmers’ market.”

Local supermarkets are making attempts to lure customers away from the DFC with store themes that in some ways mimic the farmers’ market experience—organic foods, chefs’ demonstrations, seating areas, espresso bars. “But supermarkets don’t offer the farmer-to-consumer experience,” says MacNear.

"Shopping at a supermarket is not fun, but shopping at a farmers’ market is."

“When people buy at the farmers’ market year after year from the same farmer, they can ask things like ‘Why are the oranges a little bitter this year?’, and the farmer can tell them it’s because they had a cold autumn, or they had a drought. The consumer gets in touch with the natural cycles of farming—and can actually experience farming in a small way.”

“Shopping at a supermarket is not fun, but shopping at a farmers’ market is. That is the experience we try to give,” says MacNear.

Of the 60 farmers at the DFM, around 15 are certified organic. In addition, there are about a dozen processed food booths—breads and baked goods, wine, olive oil, cheese, salsas, jams, etc.—and another dozen craft booths.

The DFM donates food to local food banks and soup kitchens. MacNear estimates that 95 percent of the fresh fruits and vegetables served at the local soup kitchen are from DFM donations.

Another of MacNear’s projects is to connect local restaurants and grocery stores to farmers at the DFM. She gets local chefs to do cooking demonstrations at the market. The chefs get the opportunity to test produce from the local farmers and in return are able to promote their business. Producers of local value-added and packaged foods depend on the DFM to test their foods on the public.

Innovative farmers, memorable characters

One of the more colorful farmers’ market characters is Frank Maurer, a 25-year veteran of the DFM. Maurer is always selling something exotic. I’ll never forget the spring day around 1980 when my dad went down to the farmers’ market to buy strawberries and came home—to a house in a suburban cul-de-sac—with a llama. It was Maurer who sold it to him. My parents kept it in the back yard for several years.

This week Maurer is selling red and yellow pussy willow shoots.

Maurer has a number of endeavors to make a living from his 37-acre farm. He stocks his ponds with tropical fish in the spring and sells them later in the season to wholesalers as well as at the farmers’ market. “The camouflaged species are best, otherwise birds prey on them. Black mollies are what we stock now, mainly.” Mosquito fish are another pond species that Maurer raises and sells to wholesalers. He also raises catfish for market.

Maurer grows water chestnuts and wild rice around the edges of his ponds and in the shallow areas. In October the ponds are drained and the fish, water chestnuts, and wild rice are all harvested.

Maurer, who has a Ph.D. in zoology from Yale University, has also formed the Environmental Education Farm Foundation, based on his farm. He leads group tours and has educational events relating to farm education.

David Fiddyment, another DFM regular, farms pistachio nuts near Roseville, ten miles from Sacramento. One of the first pistachio growers in the state, David has seen pistachio farming grow to over 100,000 acres and 150 to 250 million pounds of in-shell nuts per year in California. Pistachios are a biennial bearing crop—the 2002 crop totaled over 240 million pounds, while the 2003 crop was 144 million.

The inexorable suburban growth around Sacramento and concomitant inflation of land values and property taxes have driven Fiddyment to sell his Roseville ranch and buy land in the San Joaquin Valley to the south in order to continue growing pistachios.

"The Davis Farmers’ Market was one of just four producers' markets in California in the mid 1970s. Today there are 400."

The growth of pistachio production has prompted the industry to initiate a vote on whether to develop a marketing order, in which growers would be assessed a percentage of their gross receipts for developing and improving the pistachio industry. Fiddyment firmly opposes the marketing order and will vote against it. “There’s too much control of our lives, too much regulation,” he says.

Dynamic farmers’ markets will be an important part of small-scale, organic, and diverse farm survival in California in the future. However, until more people in the state begin to put greater value on local, quality foods, and on densification rather than sprawl, farmers will continue to be pushed away from cities, and food will have to be shipped in from farther and farther away.

Don Lotter is a native of Davis, California, and a regular contributor to