By Professor Randy Ataide
Many of you know that prior to joining PLNU and the FBEI I worked in agriculture for 25 years, most recently as the co-founder and President of a diversified fresh fruit company in central California. However, before I ever thought of starting my own company, my wife and I worked for three summers at Farmer’s Markets in the Fresno area. I would go out each Thursday or Friday, load up my van with fruit from my in-laws farm, and on Saturday morning arrive with my young bride at the Vineyard Farmers Market run by the visionary Richard Erganian, a real pioneer in the direct to consumer marketplace. We would sell hundreds of pounds of farm fresh peaches, nectarines and plums, usually at .59 or .69 a pound, and make the astronomical sum of $150-$200 per week. These sales kept us “in groceries” for the first three years of our marriage, until I began to work full-time in the growing and wholesale fruit industry. It was a great experience of dealing face-to-face with consumers, watching them enjoy our fruit and get a good deal in the process.
But over the years, I noticed a significant change in Farmers Markets as I visited them in many towns. After a recent experience with two San Diego Farmers Markets, I have concluded that much of the time they are not a good deal for consumers. The quality of produce sold in proportion to the price charged is grossly unbalanced. But even more disconcerting is that often I believe that products are not in reality what are being portrayed to the consumer.
An example of this is tree fruit that I see sold at Farmers Markets portrayed as being local grown. For those of us in the industry, we know that peach trees have a nearly impossible time to grow and produce fruit in southern California. (How many of you have seen these scrawny little trees around San Diego with peaches the size of cherries?) The reality is that we are in a tropical climate and most deciduous trees need at least 800 hours each winter of sub 40(F) degrees to be able to produce, and we just don’t typically get that much cold weather here. In fact, 1,000+ hours is really ideal for trees and vines to rest enough to produce good crops each spring and summer. According to the California Tree Fruit Agreement Annual Reports, total production of fresh peaches in all of Southern California is only a few hundred thousand cases, a miniscule amount compared to the 50,000,000+/- cases grown annually in California.
But in several conversations with “Growers” at these Farmers Markets, they tell me as they dump boxes of fruit out of boxes originating in Central California how they are simply recycling cardboard from the San Joaquin Valley and hauling empty boxes hundreds of miles to the south. Laying aside the economics of hauling empty cardboard, even if it is free, when empty cardboard boxes worth .50-.75 each are just as easily available in the immediate area it just doesn’t make sense. From my experience much of what I have seen is actually cull fruit that is legally packed by legitimate growers 300 miles north of San Diego, sold to someone for the going rate of about $5-$6 per 25# box, and then dumped into a box or basket here and sold as “local grown” for $2.50 a pound typically. That is a profit of over $55 on each box made upon the hard work, risk and labor of the actual grower.
I also have grave doubts about much of what is presented as organic fresh fruit. To an experienced eye, organic peaches are fairly easily able to discern since organic orchards are more vulnerable to many hazards that may befall them, and often they show it in their overall condition. But what is an even greater “tell” to me is that I see “organic” fruit being dumped out of non-organic boxes, which is to my understanding a violation of the organic certification laws. And when I have engaged in conversations about their growing practices (not revealing my own experience) with these peach “growers” I am usually underwhelmed by their lack of knowledge of the products they sell. I do not believe that all of them are being deceptive, but a significant number of them appear to be something they are not to the consumer.
This was not the Farmers Markets of 30 years ago, nor was it in the spirit and intention of those brave growers who sought alternative markets for their produce. There was a very close connection between the growers, vendors and products. But as with most things that grow popular, abuse usually follows. I fear that has happened to many Farmers Markets.
What to do? Ruth and I have tried in vain over the past month to buy good quality watermelons and corn at local markets, but to no avail. The going rate for fresh summer corn is 3 ears for $2 at the Farmers Markets I have visited recently. Well, two local stores have been selling it in the range of 4-5 ears for $1, way under the Farmers Markets. The quality? Outstanding. And if it advertised as organic, with much regret, I have concluded that I have much more confidence in the store being truthful than I do someone who scrawls “organic peaches” on a piece of cardboard, stands back, and watches the consumers line up.