Unwittingly, these out-of-town customers have touched upon one of the more sensitive issues currently facing what is arguably Santa Barbara’s most beloved institution. After 23 years of doing business and offering locals fresh-from-the-field fruit and vegetable options, the Santa Barbara Farmers Market is at a crossroads: looking for an identity that balances the needs of local farmers and a community-at-large with the realities of running a successful business that can survive in the 21st century. In a day and age when the average piece of produce travels 3,000 miles before it reaches your plate and gas prices seemingly climb higher and higher each hour, the importance of striking this balance — especially in a community where a farming career has become borderline financial suicide — has never been more apparent.
Last year, like it has been for the past century, agriculture was Santa Barbara County’s major producing industry, bringing in a gross fiscal impact of just under $1 billion on the county’s economy. The usual suspects of strawberries, lettuce, lemons, cauliflower, and cut flowers, as well as more recent endeavors like wine grapes, are without a doubt a fundamental piece of the financial fabric of Santa Barbara. Similarly, the Santa Barbara Farmers Market — with its eight weekly markets from Carpinteria to Solvang — is not only an essential part of the Santa Barbara experience, but also an integral piece of local agriculturists’ survival pie. The nearly quarter-century-old market has become a beloved haven for casual cooks, professional chefs, social butterflies, and health-conscious eaters. And as consumer demand for organic and fresh food has grown, so has the spectrum of growers coming to market. Like so many farmers’ markets throughout California — and the rest of the United States for that matter — the once quaint regional operation that rose up out of local farmers’ simple need to have a selling place has grown to include harvests from farms several hundred miles away. The end result is a local marketplace that Santa Barbara Farmers Market Board President Molly Gean recently characterized as being a “big business.”
But with fruit from Fresno, nuts from Yolo County, dates from Riverside, cheese from Sonoma, melons from Kern, and pears and peaches from Los Angeles, the definition of “local” seems a far cry from the early days, back in the mid ’80s, of dusty pickups making weekly pilgrimages up from family farms in Carpinteria and down from Gaviota to peddle the fruit of their labor at San Marcos High School and in front of the Mission. In those early days the market was little more than a few local farmers hoping for the best. Today it is an approximately 130-member nonprofit association with roughly half of the membership — and four of the nine-member board of directors — coming from beyond county lines. The markets are also — for the first time in recent memory — turning a decent profit, with a vast majority of the individual farms enjoying marked improvements in their yearly sales totals. As Gean explained it last week, “We’ve had some rough times but right now I would say it’s the best it has ever been.” And as a former board member of the Ventura Farmers Market and wife of one-time S.B. board president Rick Gean — she has been bringing product from her family-run Harry’s Berries farm in Ventura up to S.B. for more than two decades — Molly is in a good position to know.
But the president’s feelings of success are not shared by everybody. Though it is hard to argue with financial gains and the fact that product diversity is necessary for the markets to compete with monsters like Trader Joe’s, Lazy Acres, and Ralphs, there are grumblings from the community of small local farmers who make a living outside the association, who question the price paid for the current upswing in financial stability. “It has become larger growers from farther and farther away who are running this thing solely as a commercial operation. It is turning the Farmers Market into a business that cuts out the small local farmer,” lamented Larry Saltzman earlier this summer. Saltzman, co-founder of Santa Barbara Organic Garden Club, is one of the organizers behind the Relocalizing Food Circle (forthefuture.org) — an S.B.-based group that brings together growers and consumers concerned with where their food comes from. To him, the Santa Barbara Farmers Market board’s policies are walking a dangerous path. The fact that local farmers are given no special priority forces young growers and farmers new to the area to either produce things that are not currently offered by existing members or wait for the rare occurrence of a member dropping out in order to be allowed into market. Either way, it is a serious stumbling block for newer local farms looking to survive. Faced with a future of soaring gas prices and global warming, Saltzman sees this decision to not give the local little guy a helping hand as “messing with our own food security.”
Though not coming from as much of a doomsday perspective, Loren Luyendyk — who has farmed his fair share of row crops, citrus fruits, and cut flowers in his 30-some-odd years living locally — feels similarly cut out of the equation. “Growing what I’ve grown, I don’t even consider applying for market,” said Luyendyk, “because I would never get into a day [i.e. the Saturday or Tuesday market] that would allow me to make a living.” The Farmers Market’s General Manager, Sam Edelman, regretfully agreed with that assessment: “The new applicant with basic row crops, avocados, or oranges probably won’t make it into our markets.”
But, given that many of the markets take place on public Santa Barbara taxpayer space, the feeling of entitlement seems destined to remain. Though Mayor Marty Blum admitted to having no specific knowledge of the priority issue she did offer, “Farmers Markets are just wonderful … and they are even better when the produce is grown in our county. We all like to support the locals.” City Councilmember Das Williams took it a step further, echoing the feelings of many small local farmers when he said recently, “It’s not that there should be just local farmers. I just don’t think locals should be turned away when the space available is being taken up by out-of-county farmers. … There really needs to be some kind of preference given.”
Even more telling is the fact that the concern isn’t just coming from folks on the outside looking in. Former presidents of the board, past and present board members, and growers who have been bringing their product to markets for years are also cautious about the market’s current situation. Until the mid ’90s the Farmers Market’s board of directors was — by law — comprised entirely of in-county residents, but as the market grew, more and more farmers were coming from out of county and eventually the rule changed. Fast-forward about eight years to the spring of 2003: The board — which is voted into office for two-year terms by the members of the association who have been coming to market for more than a year — gained a majority of out-of-S.B. County representatives.
It was also around this time that Laurence Hauben — a French-born food critic who got her start at The Independent, accomplished chef, and all-around intellect — was hired on as the board’s new executive director. With a distinct vision of what the Farmers Market could become if it reached out to the local community, Hauben immediately set about expanding the advertising budget, getting salaries and benefits for the association’s few full-time employees, and trying to grow the market into a community resource for sustainability despite a preexisting tight budget. “My vision was to ensure the continuity of a locally based food source. … I wanted the association to be more than just overseeing the smooth weekly running of the markets. I thought it should be reaching out to the community.” But there were some serious bumps along the way and, despite a general consensus that Hauben’s idea of the markets as a steward of local agriculture was a good idea, her position was terminated in March 2005. Amid the resulting swirl of controversy the then-president and two-decade local veteran of the of the markets, Tom Shepard — who has achieved local legend status for his famous Shepard’s lettuce mix — and board member Barbara Spencer from San Luis Obispo both resigned.
There were certain indisputable facts surrounding the firing that Hauben and the board all freely agree to: The association was losing money at an alarming rate; unprecedented wet weather had canceled way too many markets; association-owned vans had broken down and were in need of repair or replacement; and two veteran staff members had departed for personal reasons and new help was needed. Facing these realities, the board needed to save money and cut costs, and in Hauben’s opinion this was all they cared about at that time. As a result, the standard 5 percent fee that the association charged all its vendors was bumped up to 6 percent in November 2004, a move that had hard-working farmers just scraping to get by, up in arms. As Hauben put it, “If the farmers aren’t making any money — which they weren’t — then the association isn’t making any money either and then you run into sticky wickets.”
And the wickets only got stickier for Hauben when she objected to various policy changes on the board that took place during the crisis. Particularly contentious was the board’s decision to remove the language in its bylaws that gave wait-list priority to local farmers over out-of-county farmers. It also did away with a rule that allowed for only up to two local community members who were not growers to be on the board. “I thought since it is the Santa Barbara Farmers Market it should privilege local farmers … but that didn’t go over too well with the board because most of them then were out-of-county.” But to current board President Gean, who was on the board as a general member at the time, Hauben’s firing was about the association’s financial survival and nothing more: “It was a tough time — we were in a real money crisis — and in my opinion [Hauben’s] concepts of the market didn’t meet the exact needs of the association.” Or as an unnamed board member at that time famously observed during the fallout, “When we hired Laurence we got a BMW, when all we really needed was a work truck.”
After Hauben’s firing, Sam Edelman — a born-and-raised Santa Barbara local with nearly a decade of experience working at the markets — was hired as the new general manager, a leadership role with a lower salary and lower level of expectations than Hauben’s previous title. In the 18 months since Edelman’s hiring, the 6 percent fee has gone back to 5 percent, the money has begun to flow, once-slow markets like Solvang’s have been on the upswing, and a general sense of the farmers’ good will toward the board has returned. But still the hangover from the “rough times” remains. Ironically, it is Spencer — who attends the Saturday Farmers Market every week with her out-of-town, family-run Windrose Farms — who perhaps summed up the feelings of concern best: “The issues of the past have been resolved for many, as the markets are now stable and staff are taken care of under Sam’s leadership … but there are those of us, farmers and customers, who believe in the need for involvement in the communities in which we make our livelihoods. Only time will tell if there has been something lost in the trade-off.”
Seeds of Success
At a recent board meeting of the Farmers Market Association, indicators of the organization’s current financial health were abundant. The board discussed the possibility of closing the customer-challenged, money-losing, Wednesday-afternoon market at La Cumbre Plaza, but — after Edelman made an eloquent argument as to the importance of subsidizing the smaller markets as a means of promoting smaller local farmers — the market was saved by a 5-2 vote. A lengthy conversation followed about what the appropriate course of action should be with the association’s current surplus of cash. Savings accounts, money markets, and various CDs were talked about at great length, something that never could have happened a few years ago. The board also voted to turn down the offer from an outside party to perform an audit of its finances because they felt it wasn’t necessary at this time.
But the meeting also had the telltale signs of some problems that it seems simply cannot go away. Edelman’s and the board’s repeated position is that Saturday and Tuesday markets are simply too full to fit in new sellers, no matter if they are local or not. A position at either of the downtown Santa Barbara markets — the crown jewels of the system — garners an average of $900 per grower. For comparison’s sake, positions at the La Cumbre market and the Thursday Goleta market — where most new applicants wind up regardless of where they grow their crops — average $370 and $375 respectively. At August’s meeting, all of the new applicants attending specifically requested the prime days, including a small-scale Santa Ynez grower who has been selling at smaller markets for five years. As Gean put it, “We have to protect our current members. It’s our responsibility to those who have been with us for 20 years. … The reality is not everyone is going to get in. Certainly some competition is good, but glut is a totally different thing.” However, when an out-of-county grower with a “unique” variety of table grapes applied last month, he was set up at the Saturday market within a week. But perhaps the board is also beginning to respond to the longstanding criticism, because the small-time Santa Ynez grower was also bumped up to Saturday status before the end of the month despite Gean’s contention that “just because you have put in your time in the smaller markets doesn’t mean you’ll get in.”
Though her involvement with the market is purely as a consumer these days, Hauben strongly disagrees with the board’s approach, “Farming is hard. I get it: There is always going to be that fear of, ‘Oh my god, what if they bring in another strawberry grower and I cannot sell mine anymore?’ But as a customer, if you don’t have a selection you are going to feel like you didn’t have a choice, and you’re not going to go back.” Santa Barbara Pistachios’ Gail Zanen, who is a current member of the board, also agreed: “Limiting the product coming in keeps people from spreading their wings and being creative. … I say bring it on; the cream will rise.”
It remains to be seen how the future will play out. Certainly the wholesale rebuking of non-S.B. County-based farms cannot happen if the market hopes to continue with its current success. With that said, the need to support local farmers will only grow in the coming years of oil crisis, global warming, and high property values. People will always want delicious and fresh local food; the question is, though, will they always be able to get it?