Growers’ Pains

Farmers Market's Identity Crisis

Balancing Act

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 businessgrowers_pains.jpg 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

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

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.


Locals Only?

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 ( — 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

Sticky Wickets

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.”

triptic_farmersmarket.jpgAnd 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

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?


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