|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’
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
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.
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.
||"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
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.
“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.”
||"Here we had been flying by the
seat of our pants, and pretty soon, the state regulations
were based on our ideas."
“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
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
“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
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
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 www.newfarm.org.