Purity versus viability for farmers’ market?

11/23/2011

For years the Point Reyes Farmers’ Market has served as the sunlit visage of a region that prides itself in having championed a return to eating locally. But beneath its stalls, which are becoming progressively fewer in number, a quandary continues to brood: is such stiff provincialism economically viable?

The debate over how stringently the market is managed—it currently allows only vendors from within an approximately 20-mile radius, and only organically certified farmers with mostly non-overlapping crops—is nothing new. Some view regulation as a way to ensure quality and protect small organic farmers from getting out-competed by larger operations. Others feel it stymies competition and limits variety. Market organizers, including

Marin Organic, who serves as the fiscal agent to a separate steering committee, have historically stood by its policy.

But with declining participation, including some value-added vendors who canceled mid-season, the steering committee has once again begun evaluating old paradigms. “Should we stay local? Should we stay organic? Should we invite—we don’t have people who make crafts—should we have stuff like that?” asked director Allison Puglisi.

The principal issue is revenue. Fewer vendors means fewer booth fees, which means the steering committee must rely increasingly on fickle county grants for funding. That, and the ongoing difficulty and cost of fundraising, has made it a challenge to just break even.

Take, for example, this past year. Three of the market’s six scheduled row-crop producers were absent, for a number of reasons—the strawberries at Sartori Farms succumbed to an unusually wet late-spring; Peter Worsley, of Worsley Farms, was recovering from a months-long illness; Marin Roots Farm decided to focus on its Saturday morning stall at the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. That left just three growers who met the market’s rigid eligibility standards. “So there’s $1,800 in lost revenue right there,” Puglisi said.

Marin Organic Executive Director Adrienne Baumann explained that most people don’t realize that the market is not sustainable based on vendor fees alone. “[The Point Reyes market] is a cultural gem,” she said, “a wonderful size, wonderful feeling—but it takes resources.”

Most farmers’ markets, even large urban ones, need some amount of artificial capital infusion to survive, said market treasurer Jeff Shapiro. Last year Marin Organic hosted a successful dinner fundraiser with Alice Waters. This year, the planning fell through. “In the future,” Shapiro said, “we’ll need to have either an event or another sponsor.”

But some contend that athough that may be true, there are steps market organizers and Marin Organic could take to generate more revenue—and in the process create a fuller, more diverse market. “I’m of the thinking that more brings more,” said Inverness resident and fermented food vendor Maggie Beth Levinger. “So, the more vendors you have, even if they’re selling very similar items, the more people are going to come and shop, and it will all be okay.”

Levinger and her partner, Luke Regalbuto, have sold at the Point Reyes market for the last two years. This year, they agree, was worse. “It just felt sparse,” Levinger said. At a brainstorming session between organizers and vendors last week, she and Regalbuto proposed a number of ways to increase variety.

Regalbuto would like to see the participation of local growers who use most if not all organic techniques but who may not be certified. “I feel that having all organically grown produce at our market is a really great thing,” he said. “But I also think we could be more flexible on that without lowering the quality and standards of the actual produce.”

Woodside Farms owner Ed Pearson sold at the Point Reyes market until this year, when he was not invited back because his organic certification had expired. Pearson said he continues to use all organic practices, but has grown tired of the added paperwork and fees. “That’s not my pleasure in life,” he said.

Limiting produce to only that which is certified organic is a manageable way to ensure quality. But in West Marin, where many consumers are actively engaged in the dealings of their local foodshed, Levinger said that may not be as necessary. And, she added, the fact that none of the market’s value-added producers are required to have organic certification creates something of a double standard. “Here we are in a county that has voted against growing [genetically-modified organisms], and, obviously you can still buy and consume and sell them as prepared foods, but it seems pretty wild to me that those kinds of products can be sold at the exact same farmers’ market where all the produce has to be certified organic,” she said.

She and Regalbuto’s products use organic ingredients but are not certified because they can’t afford access to a certified organic commercial kitchen.

Baumann said that the organic stamp is not only a pillar of her organization’s mission, but a unique attribution that helps distinguish the Point Reyes market from the surfeit of other farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. Still, she agreed that it could be more diverse, such as including more crops whose provenance are hotter climates, and producers from Sonoma County.

Peter Martinelli, of Fresh Run Farms, who sells at the Point Reyes market and sits on the steering committee board, also favors loosening the market’s spatial restrictions. “I think it would be great to attract growers from a broader area to make it more appealing and interesting to the community,” he said.

Other changes, like accepting food stamps and selling more staple items such as eggs and dairy—for which Marin County is renowned—have been proposed, and Puglisi explained that the steering committee is open to all suggestions at this point. In the end, though, she and Martinelli described the steering committee’s decisions as a tricky balancing act. “If it can be opened up to looking at things on a case-to-case basis—people looking at what’s talked about being brought in, maybe even voting on it—that that would be the way to do it, rather than having either stringent rules or no rules,” Levinger said.