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Sacramento’s under-freeway farmers market thrives despite increased competition

There’s nothing pretty about Sacramento’s Sunday farmers market. Trucks line the parking lot where sellers of fruits, meat and vegetables set up their wares, and cars passing overhead on the W-X freeway produce a constant rumble.

And the place is packed.

Crowds swell with the spring temperatures. By summer, 10,000 people of all ages and ethnicities will be streaming in on Sundays, said market coordinator Dan Best.

Despite competition from scores of new farmers markets opened in the past decade, the Sunday market at Eighth and W streets continues to grow, according to shoppers and vendors.

The reason, Best said, is sheer focus.

“It’s a real market,” said Best, who manages 11 farmers markets in Sacramento County. “No ones hangs around, drinks coffee. People come, buy their stuff, and they go. And that parking spot is taken up by somebody else.”

Shoppers won’t find craft vendors, food trucks or picnic tables at the Sunday market, which is one of nearly 800 Certified Farmers’ Markets registered with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. That number jumped from 360 in 2000 to 835 in 2012, said Steve Lyle, Food and Agriculture spokesman. It slipped to 734 in 2013, possibly signaling a saturation point, he added.

State farmers market regulators rank the Sacramento under-freeway market as one of the four largest in the state, along with major markets in Santa Monica, Santa Clara and Marin, said Lyle.

Farmers say the W-X market is consistently crowded. “We’re getting a little overwhelmed on some days when two guys can’t even handle the stall,” said Chris Hoover of Hooverville Orchards in Placerville. “We have to bring in three people because we’re that busy. … (On) sunny days, everybody seems to come out.”

Hoover, who kept an eye on employees as they sold Asian pears and pink grapefruit to a short line of customers on a recent Sunday, said he brings his mountain-grown fruit to the Sunrise market on Saturday and the Florin market on Thursday, but always does his best business at the Sunday market, where crowds are the biggest and most diverse. Hoover makes about $400 an hour on an off-season Sunday and about $1,000 an hour in the summer, he said.

Best has built a reputation of dealing only with agricultural vendors who are inspected and certified by the state, resulting in a standard of quality that customers have come to trust, he said. And even with strict criteria, he has more applicants than he has space.

About 75 of the market’s 120 stalls are occupied during the winter, and remaining spots will fill quickly as early summer crops such as asparagus and tulips arrive, Best said. Some farmers hold their spots and switch out their produce, while others leave the stall in the off-season, creating an opening for a new grower. Best deals with about 200 farmers throughout the year, from as far north as Chico and as far south as Fresno, he said.

Rob Montgomery, of Rob’s Natural Produce in Chico, has been selling at the Sunday market for 10 years and said he has seen about a 20 percent increase in the number of vendors in the last five, largely due to the addition of meat, cheese, milk and oil vendors. Last year, Best added Heringer Estates Winery in Clarksburg under the condition they sell wines made from grapes grown on their property.

Stall spots at the downtown market cost $15 to $20 per day depending on size and location and are awarded based on seniority to those who apply, said Best.

“People look to us as a conduit to help the farmer survive,” he added. “We don’t try to just fill the stalls with stuff to make money. It’s to provide a place to connect the consumer with the farmer.”

The large outdoor market model is a smart financial move for local farmers, who gain direct access to a niche consumer base without the middleman costs, said Juli Jensen, Sacramento County agricultural commissioner. It is especially beneficial for producers who lack connections with large processing plants, or whose commodities cannot be easily shipped.

‘A good market’

As farmers markets grow in popularity, shoppers are demanding more direct access. Best said he receives 10 or 15 calls per year from residents who want a market in their neighborhood, mall or church parking lot.

Sacramento County currently has 26 Certified Farmers’ Markets, according to the agricultural commissioner’s office. Best manages 11 of them.

Carmichael nonprofit Be Money Smart USA, which began opening farmers markets in spring 2011, is poised to open two more this season, said Executive Director Marie Hall.

Hall’s eight current markets, which include the recently opened Midtown Farmers Market and the UC Davis Medical Center market, all feature local musicians and craft vendors. This May, she intends to launch a Land Park market across from the zoo and a market in the parking lot of Unity of Sacramento church on Folsom Boulevard.

“ Making local fruits and veggies available in different areas in Sacramento … creates more of a community gathering place,” said Hall. “The more access people have to it the more often they come. … It can feel like there’s a saturation, but what we’re noticing is there are different experiences people are looking for.”

While these neighborhood markets may offer more from a social or aesthetic standpoint, farmers said they are too small to be financially lucrative.

“That’s all fine and dandy, but I’m driving down from Chico,” said Montgomery as he rubber-banded bunches of golden beets in the downtown market. “This is a good market, and it’s worth the drive. I lose two days for a market, (days) that I can’t grow, I can’t weed. I need a good market.”

The Sunday market took root in its downtown location in 1980 after a conversation between the California Hunger Action Coalition, the Interfaith Service Bureau of Sacramento, state Food and Agriculture and a group of local farmers about how to best serve the Southeast Asian refugees who had settled off of Broadway and senior citizens who had moved into the area, Best said.

In the past five years, the crowd has changed to include more young families who want to “see the people that grow their food and have more confidence in it,” said Best. About five years ago he decided to widen the aisles to make room for more strollers, and in the past two years he’s added seven multi-spot bicycle racks.

“The families we’re seeing are very health conscious,” he said. “It’s become part of a general culture rather than an ethnic and age culture.”

‘Cold, dark concrete’

Even if the crowd has changed, the ambiance (or lack thereof) has not. Local mural artist Hennessy Christophel, who said she has been going since she was a small child, described the market as “dark and damp.”

She and fellow artist Sofia Lacin are in talks with Best and the state Department of Transportation about creating a 70,000-square-foot mural on the freeway’s underside and supporting pillars to give a more atmospheric feel to the utilitarian space, she said.

“It’s almost like it’s not deserving of such a wonderful market,” she said. “You’ve got all this beautiful color and these wonderful smells encapsulated in cold, dark concrete, and it doesn’t make sense to us.”

Lacin and Hennessy co-founded their business, L/C Mural & Design, and will fund the farmers market project with the help of the Sacramento community, corporate sponsors and art promoter Tre Borden, they said. Their largest public work to date is the “Same Sun” mural on the 4 million gallon east area water tank in Davis. Borden intends to raise $150,000 for the farmers market project, he wrote in an email.

The artist duo hopes to start the farmers market mural in late summer and work on it over a span of three months, during which customers can watch the progress from week to week. The mural will include market-related themes such as the changing seasons and area birds in order to “enhance the momentum and energy that’s already there,” said Lacin.

For Best, the murals would be a way to enliven the space without interrupting the market’s fundamental purpose, creating a way for farmers to “share the bounty” while making a decent living. Though customers occasionally complain about the aesthetics of the under-freeway lot, Best insists that it is perfect due to its parking capacity and the shelter from weather that the overhead freeway lanes provide.

“We don’t feel we’re in a drab space as we are,” he said. “Our focus is on the fruits and veggies and the people that come here. But we don’t mind accessorizing it a bit with color.”

The mural will also give a sense of permanence to the market, which Best said he has no intention of moving unless the state, from which he subleases the lot, decides to force him out.

“There’s no way I can move that market,” he said. “It either exists where it is, or it dies where it is.”

View the original article | Author: Sacramento Bee