Choice Talk and Good Food at Farmers’ Markets

By ALAN S. KAY Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 05, 2003

There is no more “Berkeley” topic of conversation than what, where and how we eat. Sure, the discussion may begin as a consideration of presidential candidate options or your feelings about Patrick Kennedy’s new building on University Avenue. But before long you’ll be discussing which Indian restaurant you like best, or Berkeley Bowl vs. Monterey Market, or gelato downtown. 

No wonder, then, that we love our farmers’ markets—perhaps a bit too much. We now have three, not counting the offerings in neighboring El Cerrito and Oakland, and now, I’m told, even Emeryville (real fruit on a fake Main Street!). Even the North Berkeley mini-market, which happens in too small a space on one of the Elephant Pharmacy parking lots for a scant four hours on Thursday afternoons, draws nearby residents and passers-by. (Why not four?—a Sunday market in West Berkeley, perhaps, on Spenger’s parking lot or near the waterfront.) 

The Tuesday afternoon market on Derby near MLK is as much a scene as a place to stock up on organically grown fruit—the local cherries are gone, but peaches and nectarines are everywhere, and the tomatoes and melons have finally come in. 

Topping the social as well as comestibles hierarchy, though, is the downtown Saturday market. At this time of year, it fills the Center Street block between Milvia and MLK, and you’re as likely to come across an old friend as you are to find some tasty snap peas. Families shop together, dogs and bicycles are everywhere (though officially dogs aren’t allowed in the market itself), and the offerings are far broader than at most outdoor markets.  

Walking eastward, you’ll wander past pretty good kettle popcorn and locally prepared ethnic foods, breads and pastries that rival any you’ll find offered in upscale food stores, artisan-roasted coffees, organic produce trucked in from Watsonville or the Foothills or exotic Bolinas, California oils and vinegars, seedlings and plants for your garden, and fish freshly caught off the North Coast. There’s also music, with buskers scattered about.  

Want to people-watch? This is the place to do it. Alice Waters has been spotted here, as have the mayor and his wife, the assemblywoman. Students shop alongside octogenarians, the strait-laced and the funky.  

Want to learn about the food you eat? Far more easily than can be done at most local stores, you can ask a question of someone who may actually have grown the unfamiliar leaf vegetable you’re curious about, or strike up a conversation about varieties of nectarines with someone who truly cares about that topic.  

There’s much to be said for allowing those of us who are city-bound to feel more fully the rhythms of nature. Shopping for produce in stores masks the local patterns of growing seasons—did that apple grow in Sebastopol, Boise, on Long Island or in New Zealand? It’s one the many subtle ways that helps us to live more sensibly in this part of the world. 

But oughtn’t it also to be the case that shopping at farmers markets would also allow us to live more economically? Anyone who’s shopped at a big Bay Area farmers market knows that’s not the place to find bargains.  

True, the produce is more likely to be organically grown, and that’s still a comparatively expensive way to grow things. Nonetheless, prices at the Berkeley farmers markets are likely to be comparable to the prices being charged for similar, if not the same, produce at high-margin local stores like Andronico’s and Whole Foods, and they’re often higher than at Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market. I can recall buying strawberries from one of the Saturday regulars, an organic, union-supporting grower down around Monterey Bay, only to find those same strawberries from that same grower in Monterey Market later that day for 75 cents less a basket.  

Some farmer-vendors say they set prices on a cost-plus basis, but that’s hardly universal. For a demonstration of how extreme pricing can be based on what the traffic will bear, check out the weekend market at the redone San Francisco Ferry Building—stone fruit for $6 a pound, for heaven’s sake! 

Many vendors decide what they’ll charge at the start of the season, then stick to it. That means prices become competitive for a given crop only at the season’s height, when additional vendors show up. Overall, though, pricing seems not to matter that much as a factor in shopping volume. People come and buy because the food is fresh, it’s healthily produced, its being sold by the people who grow it, and because the market is an event, a scene. They don’t come to buy food inexpensively. Which is a good thing, because often it isn’t.