It Only Took 40 Years to Get Here

Series: Part 1

It Only Took 40 Years to Get Here

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Market, an impressive milestone for any business or organization to reach. Today it’s difficult to imagine the world without farmers markets or organic produce. But in 1976, the food scene was very different. ‘Health food’ stores were small, few and far between. The mild coastal climate of Monterey Bay started to attract an influx of wide-eyed kids with big dreams and no money, who dreamed of a better world built on the principles of peace, love, and self-reliance. Many of the farms and farmers we buy our food from today got their start in the 70s, many with little or no experience in farming.

Live Oak School Farmers Market

Nick Pasquel and Jerry Thomas

Nick Pasquel and Jerry Thomas

After achieving modest levels of success in the fields, the fledgling farmers had more food than they could eat themselves. Some used chemical fertilizers while others strived for a more natural way to live, often out of necessity since they couldn’t afford to buy the fertilizer in the first place. From this nascent grower group came the idea of creating a venue, a ‘farmers market’ where they could sell their fruits and vegetables directly to the consumer. Four of these farmers, Jerry Thomas, Manuel Nieto, Nick Pasquel and Bob Harris, joined forces in 1976 and began selling flowers, eggs, fruits, and vegetables at the Live Oak school in Santa Cruz. A short distance away, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were launching Apple Computer, gasoline was $.59 cents a gallon, and the average price of a new home was $43,000.

“In those days, farmers markets were seasonal,” said Catherine Barr, Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets and de facto market historian. “The Aptos market got its start in Live Oak and was open every Saturday from May through November,” noting that it was “before my time” since she was just graduating from high school that year.

The vendors needed money to pay the daily rent at the markets, so they devised a plan to sell bread, supplied by Golden Sheaf, to cover the rental costs. Word of the farmers market began to spread among farmers and customers alike. It reached the point when a market manager was needed to handle the practical matters of running the market, such as managing requests from new growers to join the market, collecting stall fees to pay the rent, and making sure everyone had equal space to set up their displays. The market grew as more farmers wanted to participate, and people began to recognize the value of buying from a ‘real person’ rather than a corporate grocery store. New and unusual foods at the time, such as kiwi and heirloom tomatoes, could be found at the Live Oak market. The farmers began adding new crops to the standard mix of carrots, peppers and onions.

The Monterey Bay’s Mediterranean climate, technological innovations such as hoop houses, and new techniques for farming extended the growing season to the point that the market was able to be open year round. A solid nucleus of growers and customers formed.  Weekly stall fees collected from vendors began to exceed operating costs, and for a brief time, the vendors received money back at the end of the year. Bill Callahan (better known as ‘Bill the Oyster Man’) would cut the checks at the end of the year, a practice that attracted more vendors.

Farmers Market Moves to Cabrillo College

Tom Coke

Tom Coke

In 1989, a serious invasion of the Medfly (Mediterranean fruit flies) began devastating California crops. The infestation necessitated a quarantine on homegrown fruits and vegetables, and the Live Oak venue was in the middle of one such area. Since many of the farmers came from outside the county, the quarantine prevented them from bringing their produce into Live Oak, and a new home was needed for the farmers market.

The search for a new venue resulted in the market moving to Cabrillo College in 1989 to an open parking lot affectionately called “The Hole” due to its physical location. The number of vendors and customers continued to grow as consumers began to realize the importance of locally grown food.

In 1992, the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Market Board of Directors launched a search for a new market manager. Ninety-seven people applied for the position — eleven people were interviewed, and out of that group, Catherine Barr was selected.

Catherine blowing the whistle for market to start

Catherine blowing the whistle for market to start

One of Catherine’s first challenges was to get the word out to the community about the benefits of buying food for the family at a farmers market instead of a conventional grocery store. Catherine still laughs at some of the things she did to educate the community. “I went to schools with veggie pizzas made from produce from our markets. I handed out Market Bucks [coupons] to the students, and they took them home and gave them to their parents. The kids loved the pizza, and this naturally made a positive impression on the parents.”

Much of the first seven years of Catherine’s role as market manager was spent creating a culture of cooperation and support between the vendors. “There was a lot of bickering between vendors when I first got here, ” she recalled. She settled squabbles and instilled a culture of cooperation and support, a culture that exists to this day.

“All of our markets are ‘old school’ in that they were created-by–farmers-for farmers. Other farmers markets are all about the money. We’re all about the farmer.”

Next month: Commodity Control: Using Supply and Demand to Protect the Farmers