History of Farmers’ Markets in San Luis Obispo
By Elizabeth Johnson
San Luis Obispo county farmers’ markets are modern versions of produce markets held all over the world for hundreds of years. Local farmers bring fruits, nuts, vegetables, berries, avocados, honey, chicken, beef, pork, goat, lamb, fish, cheese, bread, juices, and flowers to the twenty weekly markets from Nipomo to San Miguel. What could be simpler than buying food produced by farmers who are neighbors and friends? It seems odd that there was ever a time when farmers’ markets didn’t exist in California. Our first county markets began in 1977, just 33 years ago during an era of progressive change brought on by a number of political and cultural pressures. These markets continue to face pressures and challenges to their management, content, and even their right to exist.
The concept of direct marketing was explored during the 1970s in discussion groups at the Ag Extension department at UC Davis and in Sacramento. Direct marketing faced tremendous opposition from industrial agriculture and its representatives, the citrus and grocers’ lobbies, food processors, packers and shippers, federal food safety agencies, and health departments. Middlemen/brokers also opposed losing their profit from buying wholesale from farmers and selling high to processors. Even though farmers markets would not be even a remote economic threat to them, industrial ag fought against losing any control over the business. In the mid-1970s, Governor Jerry Brown asked his advisors to focus on ways to help small farms survive. One of those advisors, George Hellyer, was an early and important advocate for farmers’ markets. Since small farmers were not politically organized, Hellyer went to consumers who were organized and already sitting on fruit and vegetable marketing boards. Those consumers helped small farmers make their case as growers of quality fresh produce. Incremental changes in regulations resulted in the legalization of farmers’ markets in 1977. The law was based on the premise that vendors may only sell what they have grown.
Before open markets in San Luis Obispo began, Evelyn Fernamburg, an Arroyo Grande farmer locally famed for her dahlias and walnuts, received a visit from Scott Otto, director of the Equal Opportunities Commission. He wanted to know how EOC could help raise family incomes through direct marketing of produce from small farms and backyards. Evelyn gave him a list of small farmers and people with fruit trees who needed an economic boost. Under EOC, the first market assembled on Saturday mornings at the Young’s Giant supermarket – now Stanley Motors – on Broad Street in SLO. Organic farmer Jim Park says there was no starting and stopping bell, though it ended around noon; they just sold till they were out of produce. No certifications were needed then, and many sellers just brought a few items to sell at wholesale prices. As Cal Poly students, Ralph Johnson and his friend Dave Chapman brought their crop of sweet corn to the market and sold out instantly. Mike Cirone, another Crops Science student, showed up to sell whatever seasonal crops he had harvested. Anyone who had extra produce was allowed to participate. John and Charlotte Turner took over the market management from EOC in 1978 and a few years later created a non-profit, farmer-owned corporation with a board of directors known as the SLO Farmers’ Market Association. The first Board President, Elmer Mehlschau, sold lemons and garbanzo beans grown on his Biddle Ranch Road farm.
The city of San Luis Obispo struggled for years to create a revitalized downtown on Thursday nights until they finally closed Higuera Street to car traffic in 1983. Hoping to stir up some action, McLintocks asked to put a BBQ in the street for evening shoppers. Other vendors followed, and a few months later the city invited the newly formed SLO Farmers’ Market Association to sell produce downtown during the Thursday Night Productions. The presence of produce farmers gave the event a glowing reputation as a wholesome family activity. Though it is a street fair with many restaurant vendors, entertainment, and information booths, Thursday night in downtown SLO is now known internationally as Farmers’ Market.
Other markets soon opened around the county. The Saturday SLO market moved in 1990 to the old Gottschalk’s parking lot. The North County Farmers’ Market Association runs markets in North County and Baywood. The other 11 are independently structured or city-operated. Many farmers belong to two or more groups so they can sell at markets throughout the county. Some of our local farmers also sell produce in the Santa Barbara, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles farmers’ markets. One certified organic farm makes about 40% of its income in SLO county market sales and 60% in Southern California. Gross sales for the SLO Farmers’ Market Association were over $2 million in 2003. During the supermarket strike in 2005, shoppers turned to the farmers’ markets instead of the supermarkets and many remain faithful customers today, buying all or a portion of their weekly produce at local markets.
1983 heralded a new era in our county farmers’ markets. The strict rules that created them in California also created a bumper crop of paperwork for farmers. The simple transaction we experience as shoppers buying produce has many invisible bureaucratic layers underneath. The county Ag Commissioner must certify all market locations. Producers must be individually certified to sell what they grow. (This is not an organic certification.) Producers are inspected for growing techniques, pesticide use, and other regulations. Organic farmers must also keep their organic certification status in order. Producers are inspected a couple times a year by the SLO Department of Agriculture and county Health Department. Markets are inspected regularly by both agencies and scales are tested for accuracy by the Ag Commissioner’s office. If produce is in a bag, it must be labeled. Other rules from retail grocery guidelines also apply.
Direct marketing in farmers’ markets has been a success for 33 years. In California, it achieved a new modern model of farming that significantly differed from industrial farming. In many ways, farmers’ markets are a return to the roots of local foodshed marketing. To make it economically viable, each farmer has to decide what to farm, when to farm, and what diversity of crops and food products. They need to pay attention to consumer trends and lend an ear to gourmet chefs who lead the way on trends. Regular shoppers provide essential feedback on what they want to purchase. This list alone represents a challenging pressure on small farms. Other constantly evolving pressures come from the state of our economy, the never-ending push from industrial food sectors, an expanding list of regulatory minutiae, business organizations that want to share the reputation and dollars that farmers’ markets attract, and shoppers who patronize supermarkets instead of farmers’ markets.
How will farmers’ markets survive the next 33 years? More shoppers! Consumers who care about local fresh food! Small farmer stability will grow as the base of reliable shoppers grows. Many of us have developed a deep appreciation for and friendship with the farmers who supply us with excellent local produce week after week. Trips to our community farmers’ markets are both errand and social event. We respect our highly intelligent growers who must be quick and flexible to succeed in these times. We want our local farmers who participate in markets to thrive and be able to raise families here. We want shopper/grower relationships based on mutual respect, honesty, and trust. So shoppers, please get your dollars to the farmers’ markets and get to know the growers who feed your families.
Resources: mostly local news items, scrapbooks, and conversations.