Farmers market management shifts out of local control

05/05/2021

For 25 years, the Point Reyes Farmers' Market has been run by a steering committee of local volunteers. It has developed into a major community hub in the summer, featuring music, a kids’ zone and tantalizing samples from a rotating cast of chefs outside Toby’s Feed Barn, as well as fresh vegetables, eggs, olive oil, fermented foods, jams, artisan bread and more.

But this year, due to a suite of issues including the ramifications of Covid-19, marks a turning point: The market’s management is transferring to the Agricultural Institute of Marin, a nonprofit that runs eight farmers markets in Marin, San Francisco and the East Bay. 

Andy Naja-Riese, the chief executive officer of AIM, said the organization has been approached by seven or so communities since the pandemic hit, asking for AIM to either take over or start a farmers market. So far, Point Reyes is the only one the group has added. 

“Obviously, we can’t do all of those, so we look at all the opportunities and see what makes the most sense,” he said. “Point Reyes makes sense. It’s in our backyard. We feel a really deep connection in Point Reyes and West Marin. A lot of our farmers and ranchers are based there.”

Luke Regalbuto, a co-chair of the steering committee and co-owner of Wild West Ferments, itself a vendor at both the Point Reyes market and AIM’s Sunday market in San Rafael, described the many colliding struggles that spurred the committee to reach out to AIM.

The pandemic was the most significant, he said. The steering committee typically fundraises through chef and food-related events, using that money (along with booth fees) to pay a part-time market manager, fund the physical infrastructure and more. Those events, of course, came to a halt. “We didn’t do any fundraising, so our financial resources were pretty limited,” he said.

Filling the market with vendors has also posed a challenge. Longtime row crop vendors, like Wild Blue Farms and Paradise Valley, have left the market over the past few years for various reasons, including retirement. In response, the committee brought in Shao Shan Farm, run by Scott Chang-Fleeman in Bolinas, in 2019, and Hicks Valley’s Moon Fox Farm, run by Annie Izaki, a year later. 

Still, the market struggled last year, largely due to Covid. Major elements that make it a community hub—the music, the children’s programming, the chef’s booth—were nixed. And wildfire smoke, which closed the market for four weeks in a row, didn’t help, either. Wild West Ferments itself left the market early last year because sales were so low. 

This year brought more challenges. The extreme drought has severely curtailed Shao Shan’s operations, leaving it with not enough produce to participate. The market manager also left for personal reasons.

Meanwhile, Mr. Regalbuto said he was impressed with AIM’s management of the Covid crisis. In March 2020, he said, “when everyone was having an apocalyptic moment, when grocery stores were emptying out and everything was closed, AIM was resisting calls to shut down. They were impressively organized in the way that they spaced out the booths and with all the safety protocols. The way they navigated it with the county and city and different organizations to make sure it was safe—I found that very impressive, as a vendor.”

Additionally, the Point Reyes market’s steering committee has struggled to bring in hot-weather crops from further away, as it sought in recent years to add diversity to cooler coastal offerings. Yet AIM has the relationships to pull in those kinds of vendors, Mr. Regalbuto said. Diverse offerings and the ability to fill spots in the market is important for both shoppers and vendors, “because that brings more people to the market.”

AIM already has a presence in Point Reyes. The nonprofit operates the Rollin’ Root mobile farm stand, which sells vegetables at stops around Marin, including in Point Reyes Station, Tomales and Forest Knolls on Mondays. AIM also brings educational children’s programming to farms in West Marin, including Bivalve Dairy and Gospel Flat, as part of a program it took over when Marin Organic ceased operations in 2015.

Mr. Naja-Riese said that AIM’s first priority is to “stabilize the market.” 

That includes an increase in vendors; this year, there will be 35. That’s up from 21 in 2019 and 17 last year, though Mr. Regalbuto said there were as many as 30 at one point. 

The nonprofit also wants to diversify options in order to fill in gaps, so to speak. “We want to bring in some new categories of products that haven’t been represented,” he said, particularly more fruit, which has been in short supply at the Point Reyes market largely because little fruit is grown in Marin aside from strawberries. AIM will also bring in more prepared food vendors, who could benefit from another change: The market’s hours are being extended in response to feedback from some vendors, so it will now run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

So far, AIM has not finalized a list of vendors, though many will be returning. But the expansion gives AIM an opportunity to implement an initiative it started last year: a focus on racial equity. “People who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color are often under-represented at farmers markets,” Mr. Naja-Riese said. “We’ll be working on bringing in more diversity” in terms of producers, though there’s no specific quota or benchmark.

AIM prioritizes organic producers, though being organic is not a requirement. Organic certification was necessary at the Point Reyes market until last year, when the steering committee relaxed the rules to allow for a vegetable vendor who had organic practices but not official certification.

Another big change: AIM will accept E.B.T., or electronic food stamps, which the Point Reyes market stopped accepting in 2018 due to the difficulty of managing the program. AIM also offers what’s called a “market match,” which gives those shoppers up to $10 in matching E.B.T. tokens for fresh fruits and vegetables.

As far as the non-edible draws of the market, Mr. Naja-Riese said there will be music. Food sampling is still prohibited at markets, so the chef’s booth remains on pause until rules change.

Mr. Regalbuto acknowledged that the change is significant. “The Point Reyes Farmers' Market has such a special place in my heart, and I know a lot in the community feel that way, too. I think that’s largely due to the truly grassroots community effort that birthed it. There’s really a lot of cool history behind the market. I know a lot of it started with those farmers,” he said. 

He added, “This is a new chapter. There will be a little bit of a transition to something slightly different.” 

But that doesn’t mean the community won’t have a say. Plans are in the works to turn the steering committee into community advisors focused on outreach and special events at the market. Mr. Naja-Riese said AIM wants to ensure the market is relevant to both locals and tourists; to that end, AIM is working on a survey for the community. Why do you come to the market? What are you excited to buy? 

“You have to first say, what’s most relevant to community?” he said. “What do people want?”