Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Patt Morrison Asks:
By Patt Morrison
July 2, 2010

The way this story usually works, an unassuming youngster from a placid little farm finds his way, or hers, to the big city and makes a splash. Laura Avery's story is the switcheroo. She's a big-city girl -- well, Cleveland -- who winds up in a job one step removed from being a farmer herself: nearly 30 years as supervisor of Santa Monica's farmers markets, which now number four. In 1982, when the city's first farmers market was in its infancy, Avery trundled her child's stroller among the stalls as a buyer. Before the year ended, she had been hired to run the fledgling program. Now she can shoot the breeze about fertilizer and late frosts, and sounds less like she grew up in the hometown of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and more like she grew up in 4-H, beach chapter.

Farmers markets as we know them have only been around for a generation -- how did they come about?

It was a direct-marketing program in 1977 which allowed farmers to sell their produce, to get the middleman out and let farmers and consumers meet face to face. It had to be run by a municipality, a farmer or a nonprofit. Big Ag and retail growers were against it because they had control over the packinghouses, and this allowed farmers to go directly to the public and sell. But [then-Gov.] Jerry Brown signed [an executive order] to start certified farmers markets. [Farmers] would come down here and people would buy everything on their truck and they would go home with a pocketful of cash. The cash flow kept them going, they got to meet happy customers; they weren't just shipping stuff to a packinghouse and waiting two years to get a payment or sometimes a bill.

A bill?

They'd send their fruit to a packinghouse and then a year later the packinghouse [might] go, "We had to pack, we had to store, had to refrigerate, we didn't sell it, so you owe us $10,000." That's why farmers markets were a good idea. Clearly it was something people were ready for.

Why did you need the governor?

The [state] Department of Agriculture [had] all these packing and container requirements. It was literally not legal to sell fruit unless it came from a packinghouse in a standard-pack container, standardized so it could be shipped anywhere and buyers could know exactly what they were getting. The direct marketing program exempted growers from standard-pack requirements, because they were selling to the person who was going to take it home and eat. The county ag department had to go to the farm, look at what the farmer was growing and [issue] a certificate. And with that [the farmer] could go to a certified farmers market.

In spite of farmers markets opening early on in communities like Compton, it seems like it's hard to keep them going in inner cities.

It is. You've got to look at it from the farmers' point of view. They've got to load up their trucks, drive an average of 175 miles, stand behind a table for five hours, pack up, drive 175 miles back. And if they're not making $1,000, they're losing money. We were invited to open a farmers market in Panorama City, across from a Food 4 Less. The [farmer] was charging $1.50 for tomatoes and the customers were saying, "Hey, I can get tomatoes at Food 4 Less for 49 cents a pound. Why am I paying you $1.50?" There are other models that would work better, like market basket programs, to get food to these food deserts. Gardena, the first [Southern California farmers] market, was started by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition. A lot of early markets were started by groups trying to bring food into low-income areas.

Do farmers markets take food stamps?

Yes, they do. And WIC [California's Women, Infants and Children vouchers].

You go out in person to the farms and make sure people are growing what they're selling. Have you caught any cheaters?

We have. People get produce they don't grow, and show up at a farmers market and sell it. The hardest ones to catch are the ones that grow a little bit of stuff; they have a certified producers' certificate [that] says, "We grow apricots [or] peaches [or] beans [or] carrots, blah-blah-blah." Wait, you've got a quarter-acre of carrots and you go to 10 farmers markets? How are you getting all those carrots? Where do they come from? I want to come see the ground that's producing all these carrots. We did catch one guy selling the machine-harvested ones, like horse carrots, the tops whacked off, all scarred. I said, "OK, dude, you've got a quarter-acre of carrots. These are commercially harvested [by] a machine that's about a quarter-acre long. We don't think these are your carrots." We put them in a box, shipped them to the [ San Luis Obispo County agriculture] inspector, and said, "Would you please go find out if these carrots are growing on the farm?" The ag inspector went out, showed the farmer the carrots and said, "Where are you growing these? I'd like to see your field." And the farmer didn't have a field.

You're really vigilant.

And you have to learn. The big knock in the early days about farmers market managers was, What do you know? You're just a college kid. Or you've never been to a farm. It's true, we'd never been to farms, so we learned a lot. Every time I go to a farm and see what they have to do to raise this food and bring it to market, I am so profoundly grateful and appreciative of how hard it is.

The name "farmers market" has become such a valuable brand. How else are people abusing it?

As long as there's one farmer, you can call it a farmers market. I think a lot of people have their token farmer, just so they can run a swap meet. I think that's too bad. To quote David Karp, "You can get everything from condoms to car batteries at a farmers market."

Incidents like the salmonella-spinach scare -- does that freak out people at farmers markets?

What freaks people out is how tenuous their relationship is to where their food comes from. They traced [the source of the salmonella] to runoff from a salmonella-infested feedlot, animals creating salmonella in their intestine because they're fed grain that they can't digest. [The tainted spinach] was [from] big aggregating facilities that take spinach from hundreds of producers and stick it in a bag. It never came from a farmers market. Customers at restaurants would say, "I don't want any spinach." The restaurants would say, "We get it at the farmers market," and people said, "We don't care. We don't want it." But at the farmers market, the farmer could say, "Look, you know us, we don't grow near a place where there's commercial runoff."

How about making you secretary of agriculture?

I'd be so anti-Big Ag. Look at the farm bill -- guess who's calling the shots? There's been a small gain for fresh produce, non-industrial [produce], but it's a constant battle and the entrenched interests are so big. I think farmers markets are going to be the only way to maintain genetic diversity of crop material and diversity of land use. We need to start valuing farmers and the land they grow on as something that needs to be protected. There needs to be legislation to preserve farmland and farming as a way of life. The more we lose diversity, the more we lose farmers, the more we're concentrated on mono-cropping and genetically modified seeds. If we only have one kind of corn and that becomes infected, we have no food.

The low point for the Santa Monica market must have been the 2003 crash, when an 86-year-old man plowed his car through the market and killed 10 people.ƒo

It took place 15 minutes before the market closed, so the crowds were definitely not at their peak, thank God. We were just talking about it -- the amazing thing is how quickly the farmers wanted to come back. [Three days later] they had a kind of interfaith [blessing], the mayor came out, and we welcomed back the farmers and the customers.

What is the biggest threat to farmers markets now?

The threat of Big Ag imposing quote "safety practices" that apply to all farmers in the wake of the salmonella debacle. This legislation [would] basically mandate how all produce is grown. It will be very damaging to small farmers. We're trying to exempt farmers who make less than $500,000 a year from having to comply with these ridiculous quote "safety standards." If the regulations apply to him, a little farmer in Ventura is not going to be able to have any natural habitat for beneficial insects. He's going to have to cut down tree rows because an owl might crap in [the] field. [No] water habitat, because a frog might hop through. They don't want any animals, any insects. They might actually make this pertain to everybody, not just the big [growers] it should pertain to. It's terrifying.

What was the first thing you bought at a farmers market?

Probably peaches. I just had a peach for breakfast. I like a good, meaty yellow peach. A June Lady is one of the best.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.


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