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The Future of Farmers’ Markets:

Farmers’ Markets were the topic of a panel discussion March 29 at the Santa Monica Main Library. The panelists included Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers’ Market Association; Mike Cirone, a Blenheim apricot farmer from San Luis Obispo; Los Angeles Times food critic Russ Parsons; and moderator Evan Kleiman, chef, caterer and host of KCRW’s Good Food.

Kleiman began by asking the panelists if a Farmers’ Market, by definition, should include only the products of farmers or if it should allow other vendors and non-food attractions such as the Sunday Main Street Market’s pony rides.

Tumlin thought that the makeup of a Farmers’ Market should be 75 percent certified farmers. Parsons said that he was sympathetic to a “purist point of view. But I wonder how many of these people would be there in the first place if it were not for pony rides, kettle corn, et cetera.”

This segued into a discussion of whether there are enough farmers to provide for Farmers’ Markets.

Tumlin pointed out that as older farmers retire or die, their children are not always becoming farmers themselves, but now, “We’re seeing Hispanic farm owners [former employees or farm managers], some of whom are willing to operate at a scale that’s intriguing. They’re willing to work hard – they put their whole families to work.”

What about “value added” products made from farmers’ produce, such as jams or salsas – that can be sold for higher prices? Are farmers being pushed to create such products?

Cirone answered, “Yes, I think they’re being drawn into it. I would rather just sell the product.” Tumlin cautioned, “We take seriously the promise that the person you’re buying from actually grew the product. When it’s converted into something else, that confidence level is lost.”

The panel also discussed the way some foods become “trendy,” such as the way Heirloom Tomatoes, originally found only in Farmers’ Markets, have become a mainstream item, the appropriation of Farmers’ Market-type produce at other food outlets and the co-option of “organic” as a catch-phrase.

Laura Avery, Farmers’ Market Supervisor at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Association, decried the way “national organic standards have watered down the intent of ‘organic.’ ” She cited some ominous cases where national standards had allowed produce to be labeled organic despite exposure to impure substances.

However, Cirone commented, “I think organic should be the gold standard which farmers aspire to, but I think we’re moving toward regional food sources. People need to be more aware of where their food comes from.”

And how are Farmers’ Markets going to survive in the future?

Everyone noted that Farmers’ Markets are facing increasing competition from other food outlets, while land for farming is becoming scarcer. California provides 60 percent of the country’s produce, but California real estate is so desirable that some farmland is being lost to residential construction.

Tumlin spoke about a future where he sees each urban center having a “food pavilion open 24 hours” with farm-fresh produce – but it will be run by large interests and will lack the personal connection with the farmers who grew the produce.

Audience members who spoke agreed with the panelists that political action would help. While cities such as Santa Monica support Farmers’ Markets, the state of California, for example, has no regulatory board and contributes no money to the founding or upkeep of Farmers’ Markets.

“We should have a Farmers’ Market Czar,” joked Kleiman.

“Or a Czarina,” someone added.

The March 29 panel was the first of four that are being presented this year by Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Other panels will be held in May, August and November.

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