|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.
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.
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 flyers, 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
“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.”
“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
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, Myer 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
“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.
“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,”
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. Frank 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 Frank who sold it to him. My parents kept it in the back yard
for several years.
This week Frank 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
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
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 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.