As you might already know, I religiously wake up on Sunday mornings and walk down to the Temescal Farmer’s Market. Though some think it’s small, it’s the perfect size for me, and I can almost always find what I need (except on those days I sleep too late and arrive when the best stuff has already been snatched up).
Well, today I happened to be near Jack London Square so I thought I’d check out the market. It’s been 2 or 3 years since I’ve been there, but I remembered it as a very long market with dozens of stalls. I remembered crowds of people picking up produce, breads, prepared foods, soaps, and crafts.
Either my memory’s a bit off, or the market has significantly declined over the past years. Today it seemed to be but a shadow of my memory. It was still long, spanning several blocks, but the stands were spaced fairly far from each other, and on the last block their were only four or five stands.
As I walked into the market, I quickly spotted Happy Boy Farms and snagged some lettuce, since I know they always have the best selection. I passed up their tomatoes though, thinking there would be at least a few other farmers selling tomatoes (I like to spread my money throughout the market). As I walked through the market though, I started to realize that spending money at various stands would not be an easy task.
Besides Happy Boy, there were about three other stands selling organic vegetables. One of them had tomatoes, but they didn’t look very good. The rest of them featured squash, peppers, greens, broccoli, etc. Most of it looked pretty good, but none of those items were on my short shopping list, which consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, basil and pears.
I kept my eye out for basil (an item I sometimes miss at Temescal when I sleep in). I found some conventionally grown basil and some organic basil, but the bunches were all wilted, severely sunburned and full of holes bugs had chewed in them. Now, I’m a forgiving shopper at farmers’ markets, but this was a bit much for me so I ended up skipping that purchase.
Two stands sold pears, but they were conventional and didn’t look very appealing so I skipped those too and opted instead for some plums from Kashiwase Farms (only one week before the season’s over!). For the tomatoes, I ended up backtracking to revisit Happy Boy and pick up some beautiful organic heirlooms.
The market wasn’t a total waste though. I did pick up some yummy Beckman’s bread (local, not organic) and some Jasmine incense, neither of which I ever would have found at Temescal or any of the other markets I frequent.
This experience got me thinking and brought to mind an excellent blog post on The Ethicurean by Marc R. aka Mental Masala, discussing an SF Chronicle article about how farmers’ markets can sometimes hurt farmers and discussing the exodus of many farmers from the markets. The Chronicle article centers on the experience of the San Francisco Ferry Building market, which now is full of tourists who may want to purchase a couple prepared items but aren’t interested in lettuce, tomatoes, and kale.
As I purchased my lettuce today, I overheard a woman ask if it would be ok for her to save the lettuce overnight and fly back to Washington with it. I looked around at the shoppers and noticed that unlike at the Temescal or Berkeley markets, they mostly were not weighed down by full bags of produce. One man carried a single baggett to his car. Others ate prepared food, but were carrying no groceries. Were these tourists, or just more casual shoppers than I’m used to?
Another issue brought up by Marc’s post and the Chronicle article is that the Bay Area is now flooded with farmers’ markets. This decreases the profitability of farmers at all the markets and in turn forces some farms to leave the markets altogether. I also wondered whether some of the farmers that used to sell produce at Jack London had migrated to Temescal, where it’s always crowded and it seems that nearly everyone is a serious shopper.
The only other explanation is that my memory is off. I used to be less picky about organic produce (though even the conventional produce today was not abundant), and several years ago, after moving here from LA, any farmer’s market was incredible for me. Also, I think it’s true that this market has always been less produce oriented and more focused on artisan items, such as soap, clothing, and jewelry.
If you’re a regular at the Jack London market or at least have some more experience there over the years than I do, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is the market really on a decline or am I just imagining this? And if it’s declining, why?