Jul 7, 2022
Farmers’ markets rebound, but effects of pandemic linger

Michael and Nancy Neils knew exactly what they wanted – and where to find it -at the certified farmers’ market at Arden Fair Mall in Sacramento.

The Sacramento couple marched from booth to booth at the outdoor market, purchasing $70 in fruits, vegetables and eggs in a mere 15 minutes, while chit-chatting with their favorite farmer vendors.

“We’ve been coming to this farmers’ market for many years,” Michael Neils, a retired electrical engineer and entrepreneur, said. “Everything here is fresh, and we’re supporting the local farmers.”

These days, California’s farmers’ markets depend on loyal customers like the Neils to navigate through difficult times. Many vendors at the markets are recovering from early months of the pandemic in 2020, when markets closed. The closures hurt many farmers who were cut off from customers. Now, farmers face a third year of drought and sky-high fuel and fertilizer costs.

But the farmers-market sector is rebounding, reaffirming its place in California agriculture and its appeal with the produce-shopping public.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state boasts 750 certified farmers’ markets and 2,700 certified producers. Sixty percent of the markets are year-round, and most seasonal markets operate from April to October.

Crowds are now peaking with summer’s arrival, along with popular seasonal items such as watermelons, peaches, oranges and cherries.

“We’re doing very well right now,” said Amy Arnold, who manages four farmers’ markets in Los Angeles County’s San Gabriel Valley. “All the summer fruit is out, beautiful stone fruit, cantaloupes, watermelons, nectarines, and everybody’s looking.”

Despite being declared essential businesses during the pandemic, many farmers’ markets collapsed as produce-buying customers vanished or as cities imposed restrictions.

Three of Arnold’s farmers’ markets were shut down in March 2020 as a precaution by the cities of Monterey Park, Covina and Rosemead. All reopened two months later with COVID protocols in place. Arnold’s West Covina market, which had set protocols in place, never closed.

“COVID was very hard,” Arnold said. “We had to follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines. Everybody had to wear masks. We had caution tape, signs with instructions for people to follow.”

The pandemic cut some of her vendors’ profits, to the point they are still trying to recover, Arnold said. “With the higher price of gasoline and the water shortage,” she said, “they hate to raise their prices for customers, so that makes it even harder, trying to balance between the farmers making a profit and providing affordable fruits and vegetables to the community.”

Leonard Lozano, who runs four farmers’ markets throughout Los Angeles County, is seeing a business resurgence – though challenges remain.

All four of his markets closed as customers scattered in the early days of the pandemic. One in Torrance reopened after being closed five months in 2020 and the others in Glendale, Sylmar and Downey came back to life in ensuing months.

“COVID hit us pretty hard,” said Lozano, who noted that three of his markets are doing well now that customers have returned. The exception is the Glendale market, where sales are down 90% in a financial center that formerly bustled with workers.

“People continue to work at home,” Lozano said. “Right now, it’s also a transition from COVID to high gas prices.”

In Sacramento, the transfer of workers, including thousands of state employees, from offices to work-at-home setups, severely impacted farmers’ markets.

In 2019, the capital city had four successful weekday farmers’ markets downtown. Three of the four closed in 2020 and 2021 as critical crowds of lunchtime customers vanished, said Dan Best, coordinator of the Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County, or CFMS.

Today, CFMS has two weekday markets and four weekend markets, including the one at Arden Fair Mall, which currently boasts almost 100 farmer vendors, many of them organic growers.

Arden Fair has hosted the Sunday market since March 2021. Before that, the market was under the elevated Interstate-80 Business Loop until a freeway expansion project forced the vendors to move.

The market is expected to return to the freeway location this fall, once construction finishes, Best said. Though the Arden Fair location drew steady crowds, Best said, attendance there is 25% lower than the former site.

Jim Simi, who shops at the Arden market with his wife Elizabeth, said the personal touch offered at farmers’ markets will keep bringing people back. He said he appreciates personal tips from growers on how to make the best meals with their produce.

“They give you a flavor profile,” Simi said.

One vendor, Soo Kim, offered some tips after selling him Nameko mushrooms, which were grown in a Vacaville greenhouse.

“He (Kim) said these mushrooms have a butterscotch taste. He said they would be great in pasta,” Simi said, adding, “Sometimes it may cost a little more to buy from your local farmers’ market, but it’s always better.”

Norman Choy, who was at Arden Fair selling zucchini, tomatoes and other items from his in-laws’ Orangevale farm, said people appreciate buying produce that “hasn’t been in a train or truck for four days.”

“The customers like to keep their money local,” Choy said. “And they trust the fruit because they talk to the guy who grew it.”

For the Neils, a favorite Arden vendor is Chris Hoover, who sells fruit from his 70-acre farm in Placerville.

“He’s a big San Francisco 49ers fan and so are we,” Nancy Neils said of Hoover. “We appreciate talking to him. We like his products.”

Wearing a 49ers cap, Hoover ran back and forth under his blue canopy, attending a steady stream of customers. One employee helped him.

Soaring gasoline prices concern Hoover, who grows tree and vine crops, including apples, cherries, blueberries, mandarins, peaches and pears.

He and his roaming crew of several workers are on the go, driving four trucks almost daily from his spread to farmers’ markets throughout Northern California, then back again.

“I’m spending $400 to $500 a week for gasoline for my truck,” he said. “For all my trucks, it’s costing about $2,500 a month.”

Still his enthusiasm didn’t dim as a recent farmers-market workday wound down. Thirty-five minutes before close, Hoover took things up a notch.

“Everything is now $1 a pound,” he boomed, like a carnival barker. “That’s right, folks, you heard it. Everything is $1 a pound. That’s a heck of a deal.”

Hoover repeated his spiel until the market closed for the day, having succeeded in bringing farmers and the public back together once again.

– Edgar Sanchez, California Farm Bureau Federation


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