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FARMER’S MARKET REPORT: Destination Shopping:

I was standing in line last week in front of Fitzgerald’s Premium Fruit stand, Fitz Kelly proprietor, and all I could see was the back of some sturdy legs protruding from a van. It was the lower extremities of himself, rummaging about for the one box of a fabulous interspecies “nectacot” — part nectarine part apricot — that he had brought to market the week before. The lucky few who had tasted it, including myself, were back and clamoring for more. Fitz finally produced the box of fruit and opened it up, carefully doling out the individual pieces of fruit. They were selling for $4 per pound — my four nectacots set me back $4.80. Some of the onlookers who were not in on the secret expressed surprise at the stated price, but I was happy to have my fruit and glad to part with five bucks to get it. You just don’t come across fruit with flavor, texture and aroma like that very often.

I haven’t done a scientific study to track the eye movements of farmers’ market shoppers, but I would bet that, like me, they are looking at produce and not at prices. Farmers are required to post prices, but customers have pretty much made and bagged their selections before they hand it to the farmer to find out “how much?” The value of premium summer fruit one can get fresh at a farmers’ market takes price as only one variable. When I buy produce directly from a farmer, I take into account things other than price per pound. Farmers who sell direct to customers select pick their orchards and fields to get the best size and ripeness in their fruits and vegetables. Fruit orchards are picked several times to get the best-tasting specimens, leaving the others to develop their best flavor. Commercial fruit is picked all at once to save time and money, and while a chilled grocery store nectarine may looks and smells like a summer fruit, the flavor is invariably insipid and flat.

Santa Monica’s perennially perfect weather bubble does not expose its residents and market customers to the rigors of a California fruit season up in the San Joaquin Valley. Farmers from Fresno and Reedley heave a sigh of relief when they roll into Santa Monica’s sub 70-degree weather first thing in the morning after having spent days in 102 degree heat, picking and packing fruit for market. Ripe fruit must be picked and handled carefully to avoid damage.

Art Lange grows a variety of large white peach that comes to market with a paradox — picked ripe, it bruises itself just sitting in a box in the truck on the ride down from the ranch. There is simply no other way to enjoy this fruit, which Art steadfastly refuses to pick until it is fully ripe. I’ll take it, spots and all, mostly for the flavor but also to thank Art for going to the trouble to pick and handle it so carefully.

A new farmer, Organic Pastures from Fresno, is bringing a truly unique product to the Wednesday and Saturday downtown markets – raw, organic, grass-fed milk, cream, cheese and butter. Raw milk is one of nature’s perfect foods and a true staple of the “real” life on a farm that many Americans wax nostalgic for without having ever experienced firsthand. I remember the smell and taste of raw milk from my brief visits to the family farm in Michigan, when we would go into the cooling room during milking time and dip out a cup of fresh, whole milk straight from the cow. Organic Pastures state of the art refrigerated van carries the dairy products to market fully refrigerated and ready to sample. Customers who are not raw milk afficionados are tentative at first. Their reaction to tasting raw milk for the first time is often less than enthusiastic, but as they learn more about the benefits of grass-fed dairy products they are usually ready to buy. Organic Pastures’ affable and knowledgeable salesperson, Josh, never tires of talking about the dairy, the cows and the value of maintaining a raw milk supply. Organic Pastures’ owner, Mark McAffee is doing work he believes in by guaranteeing a healthful product from healthy cows. I am pleased to be able to buy my raw, organic butter for $10 per pound — a bargain compared to what the health food stores charge and money well spent for a product I am grateful to have.There is an old saying that nothing costs too much when it is valued. There is also some useful budgeting advice from a financial guru that admonishes us not to spend money on something we don’t need simply because it is a bargain. I like to think of my shopping trips to the farmers’ market as shopping with a purpose. While taking in all the sights and sounds I am also engaged in an activity I find both fun and meaningful. There are bargains that I can use and there are also some pricey things that I truly appreciate. I am shopping with purpose, for value. It is a shopping trip I will always enjoy taking.

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