Veggie of the Week - Farmers' Market
sponsored by Coleman Farms
When I lived in a large city, I used to go to street markets regularly. They were a good place to find produce, and the aesthetic and social stimulation was much different from what one found in a supermarket, where everything was super marketed and the customers tended to act as if they were in the artificial environment they in fact found themselves in, focussed on goods to the exclusion of anything else. The street market was, by contrast, about as natural an environment as a city has - open to the frequently wet and cold weather, the gutters as filled with leaves as with human leavings and birds - gulls and sparrows, mostly, and the occasional crow - helping with the garbage collection. The customers shopped, but they also socialised, with neighbors and sometimes with utter strangers. The sellers sold, involved with their goods and their public, working quietly or with a busy patter or with street cries.
As I wandered through these places, I often wondered what it would be like to work in one, arriving early, setting up the tarp, then the stand, then arranging the produce, standing there selling it, and at the end of the day, taking the whole effort apart, stowing it in the van and driving off. A few years ago, a friend who sold at the Santa Barbara Farmers' Markets was shorthanded, and I got the opportunity to find out.
I didn't live on or near the farm, so on the afternoon before a market day, or suite of market days, I'd get myself there and stay the night, or nights. I stayed in an outbuilding a couple of hundred yards from the house. There was no electricity in or near it. This was no problem for afternoon markets, nor for the Friday and Saturday markets, except in Winter, when it was still dark as I'd go to the house for breakfast. So I'd dress in the dark, then feel my way around the old water tank and through a thicket of bamboo, having learnt which bamboo stalks were useful for navigation and for support when stepping off the pad the tank was on. Once clear of the bamboo, it was fairly easy, even in starshine, to make out the sandy path leading between an orchard and oaks lining the canyon on the left. I carried on down the path until I smelled mint, turned left twenty paces and when I could feel compost under foot, and smell it, turn right, and another twenty paces to the driveway.
I went into the house, greeted my friends, got something to eat and, if I was doing the market alone, instructions. We were fortunate in having only about a twenty minute drive to the Saturday market, so we could leave at about seven. A lot of the growers have to travel much further, from places like Hanford and Bakersfield and Atascadero. If they come over just for the Saturday market, that means leaving home as early as three a.m. - and then driving back afterwards. Some of these growers stay over, coming for the Friday and Saturday markets, or the Saturday and Sunday markets, but it's still about as much time driving as selling.
Setting up our stand takes forty minutes to an hour of concentrated effort. The tarps and tables have to be set up, then the produce displayed. This means offloading 20 to 40 pound crates - which mustn't touch the ground, that's a health code violation - then unpacking them and laying the produce out so that it's nice to look at, the different items are easy to recognize, and there's room for all the different things. To aid recognition, product placement follows a fixed pattern, to the extent possible given the changes in produce available from week to week. There's also an element of design involved, as the overall effect should be attractive when seen by the passing customer. Both the order and the design also help the seller pick items faster and keep track of what needs to be restocked. Restocking and tidying up the display are a constant part of the morning's work.
And then there's selling. I had a background in retail, as the ads say, but one in selling and repairing durable goods, in a position where a busy nine hours' work might involve dealing with three dozen people. By contrast, in a good Saturday morning market I might deal with several hundred customers, often several at once, if I did the market single handed. Doing this requires knowing the produce intimately - not just being able to distinguish an item when asked for it, but being able to concisely illuminate for the customer the differences between six or a dozen varieties of the same type of produce, and if asked, to tell them how it's grown, stored, and prepared. It also means being able to see which customers know just what they want and which could use a suggestion or two to help them decide, which ones would appreciate what kind of humor and which none at all, keeping several running tabs going and being very quick at making change.
In general, people are sociable animals so, given the large number of people in a relatively small market, there's a lot of social interaction going on. Parents of very small children often stop and talk, forced to, as much as anything, by the mutual attraction of their offspring. There's talking about food, of course. For me, one of the nicer parts of selling produce is introducing customers to something new to them, either the produce itself or a novel way to prepare it. Often, too, I learn from a customer, and sometimes a discussion with one customer will draw in one or two others, with such discussions continuing as the customers walk away, having made their purchases.
And there's a fair amount of the Circus Maximus effect (spectatum veniunt, veniunt spectatum ut ipsae "they come for the spectacle, they come to be the spectacle", as Martial said), too. Standing behind the counter it's possible to learn a lot about the fashions in everything from hats to hair to cell phones to figures of speech. There's spectacle properly so called, too: remember the bilingual troupe of acrobats? They attracted crowds large enough to block the aisles, but no one, not even growers, minded, as they held an audience of all ages transfixed. More recently, there's the pair of musicologists (I think they are) playing guitar and Mexican harp and singing with an immediacy and authenticity - even of setting, notice - you can't find in a music store. I love to have these guys, or a performer like Billy Max, pitch near the stand.
And, finally, there's packing up. One of the marvels of one of the city markets I once frequented was that in the space of fifteen or twenty minutes all the vans lining the narrow lane the market was held in could start up and drive off, and no trace of a traffic jam. The nearest the Santa Barbara markets offer to this is the Montecito market, where the agreement governing the use of parking space for the Market stipulates that all market-related vehicles and effects must be gone by a certain time. The urge to keep selling to the rush of late-arriving customers meant I'd have to start packing while still selling, then strike the tarps and tables and get the van loaded in ten or fifteen minutes. Santa Barbara has no such limit so, absent other obligations, one can pack at leisure and hang around afterwards talking to other growers and trading left over produce. This is one of the tangible perks of working the markets, bringing back apples and stone fruit or other produce we don't grow
- winter squash, heirloom tomatoes, melons, citrus and sprouts come to mind.
Back at the farm, tired and hungry - standing for five hours is hard work - I'd unpack the van, stacking the empty crates and putting the remaining produce in the cooler, park the empty van some distance from the house, and go in for lunch, having thought on the ride back how I'd prepare some of the stuff I'd just got in trade.