Paving the Way
Downtown Ventura Certified Farmers’ Market was county’s first
Editor’s Note: The Downtown Ventura Certified Farmers’ Market was the first farmers’ market in the county when it opened in 1986—the same year Frito-Lay released Jalapeño and Cheddar Potato Chips, and a Food Marketing Institute spokesperson said nutrition awareness had “become less trendy” because “nutrition-minded eating habits are more engrained as part of people’s everyday lives,” according to an article in The Washington Post. In honor of the market’s 30th anniversary, we asked Miriam Mack, who was instrumental in its launch, to share her recollections.
I feel so lucky to have been part of the establishment of the Ventura Certified Farmers’ Market. Through the hard work of a lot of people, it’s become a Ventura institution.
The idea began in the mid-’80s when several farmers who were selling at a flea market at the drive-in on Telephone Road got notice that they had to move to make way for a new development. They came to the city for help.
I was assistant redevelopment administrator at the time. We were hearing from other communities that farmers’ markets were attracting shoppers, and we were desperate to find ways to bring people back to the downtown area. A farmers’ market seemed like a promising project.
John Baker, who was the city manager, gave us a mandate: The City would kick-start the operation, but the market needed to become self-sustaining within four years.
He gave us a budget to hire our first market manager, Mary Leleiwi. Priscilla Holmes, graphic designer for the City, created the beautiful logo that is still in use today. Tom Buford, an attorney who went on to be elected to the city council and later served as mayor, volunteered his services and helped get the market incorporated as a nonprofit.
The market’s first location was at the corner of Figueroa and E. Santa Clara streets. Mary had to hustle to find at least 20 farmers to make the market viable. It wasn’t easy. Farmers needed to be educated about the benefits of direct marketing. She used to drive around the county talking to farmers at their roadside stands.
She and my mother, Dorothy Kadansky, even trekked to the Ventura Harbor at 4am to talk to fishermen about selling their catch at the market. After Mary left, we hired Sue Hayes as our second market manager. Later we hired Karen Wetzel Schott, who’s been with the market 26 years and manages it along with the Midtown Ventura, Thousand Oaks and Santa Clarita markets under the umbrella of the Ventura County Certified Farmers’ Market Association.
Eventually, the downtown merchants, who were at first suspicious that the market would unfairly compete with them, especially florists, came to understand how the market’s customers could also be their customers. They successfully convinced the City to relocate the market to California and Santa Clara streets, closer to the heart of the downtown. The market moved to Palm and Santa Clara when the parking structure was being built in 1997.
Few people realize how much goes into managing the market. Staff needs to comply with the state’s direct marketing rules and make sure that all sellers are farmers who grow the crops, not resellers who buy from wholesale markets. There’s a need to balance the kind of produce that’s offered so that customers have variety. There’s an opportunity to educate the public about the value of eating nutritious food. And there’s a responsibility to keep the market viable because a lot of the farmers depend on direct market sales for a good portion of their incomes.
I had no idea how important the farmers’ market would become to the city. It’s a place to bump into your neighbors, make plans to meet friends or ask people for signatures on a petition. Most importantly, it’s a place where tomatoes and lettuce and Fuyu persimmons smell and taste like they came out of the earth, instead of out of a cellophane package. I didn’t know that, until I shopped at the Ventura farmers’ market.
The Ventura County Certified Farmers’ Market Association is holding a birthday celebration for the Downtown Ventura Farmers’ Market on June 4. For more info, see the event listing.