WatchSonoma Watch

GUEST OPINION: Hasty change puts Santa Rosa Farmers Market at risk


Farmers markets occupy islands of good sense and amiability amid the questionable sanity and back-stabbing of big money.

In the good old days, nobody paid a great deal of attention to those scruffy farmers in their jeans and dusty shoes arriving in equally dusty trucks.

Renee Kiff.

Cars and customers gave nary a glance at the small “settlement” of Saturday morning vegetable farmers setting up tables in parking lots. Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Sonoma, Petaluma, Sebastopol, in the 1980s and early 90s, provided farmers markets painstakingly grown by the very farmers who watched 95 percent of consumers bring their grocery lists and money to supermarkets.

Then it caught on. A few loyal customers brought a few more friends with them. The cooks in the family discovered there was a difference between produce picked within hours and transported a few miles and produce loaded and unloaded from distribution centers all over the country. Restaurants began to feature locally grown food, and Alice Waters took upon herself the mission of teaching urban school children how to grow food and why it mattered.

News within the last decade of the presence of E. coli and salmonella in some pre-packaged lettuce and spinach was a wake-up call for consumers. Standard summer delights such as cantaloupe and watermelon posed potential risks, resulting in customers paying better attention to how and where their food had been grown.

It took more than 30 years for the Santa Rosa Farmers Market to become the most lucrative market in Sonoma County. A great many farmers worked to make that market grow, giving their time as volunteer board members, hiring managers, writing bylaws, obeying agriculture rules from state and county.

It is a year-round market upon which the biggest farms depend — those operations that grow winter produce as well as summer in an attempt to make a living from agriculture. The Saturday market, with its steady customer base and dependable management, is essential to them.

To put that market at risk is to risk the health of agriculture in Sonoma County, since the acres farmed with a variety of orchard trees, edible plant and cover crops provide necessary diversity to our near monoculture of grapes. It takes months of planning to raise farm crops from seed to display basket. For tree fruit, it takes years.

And yet the owners of the Veterans Building and its parking lot — the Sonoma County Parks Department — have ignored that risk and raised the rent to an over-the-top $50,000-plus annually — $50,000 for use of a parking lot, a bathroom and making coffee in the kitchen?

As the Santa Rosa market deliberated how to pay this, the Parks Department turned the lease over to a collection of vendors who have had historic issues with the Santa Rosa market management and are in formal litigation with them.

The group has a nice title but no history of ever running a market; it merely has ready cash.

The Parks Department issued the following statement on Feb. 28: “The county has leased (the parking lot) to (Redwood Empire Farmer’s Market) … confident that the community benefiting aspects of a farmers’ market will be maintained.”

I don’t think so. The majority of the vendors, and our farm is one of them, would refuse to be a part of this group suing and taking over our market. If we must move location and start a different Saturday market for Santa Rosa, this is highly preferable. The tragedy is that the county will have severed a democratically run market with a nearly 40-year history into two entities opposing each other. For what?


Renee Kiff was market manager for the Healdsburg Farmers Market from 1990 to 2004 and has been a long-time vendor at other markets including the Santa Rosa Wednesday market. She lives in Healdsburg.

12 Responses to “GUEST OPINION: Hasty change puts Santa Rosa Farmers Market at risk”

  1. Otto Greener says:

    Most of the stuff they sell at these farmer’s markets is of poor quality. If you want quality fruits and vegetables, go to a big market like Oliver’s or G&G.

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  2. a veteran says:

    Get clear folks,

    The farmers market is nothing more than a bandage, hastily put, on a hemmoraging deferred maintenance issue of over 19 million which the BOS has put off time and again. Now that they have lost a major tax income and state funding, they have no other way to cover costs without raising rates.

    It’s not a matter of whether the farm market can pay or not…they’ve offered…

    The issue surrounding this cat fight is the transparency of how the “license, not lease” was issued. The fight at the market over market space has gone on for decades, as it goes on in grocery stores on a daily basis.

    Keep your eye on the ball….the BOS dropped theirs some time ago with the maintenance on these building…which they were entrusted with some time ago.

    There are other ways to resolve the issue without stirring the pot faster.

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  3. Jim Bennett says:

    Honestly, I don’t intimately know the political dynamic, I just know what the distraught vendors I met outside BOS told me.
    I feel for small business and think having a grassroot farmer’s market is important to the community on many levels.

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  4. Farmer Joe says:


    Does seniority always equate with honesty? Respect is earned, not demanded. Farmers smile and defend the Santa Rosa Market, or Paula Downing, in public. In private, most of us acknowledge this organization is broken beyond repair.

    The County didn’t throw us under the bus, the Santa Rosa market did. Our stall fees would have only needed to go up by $4 on Saturday. Less if the manager wasn’t given a raise.

    As far as I’m concerned, that market is about THE FARMERS and we’ll still be there on July 4, 2012.

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  5. Jim Bennett says:

    The vendors I talked to need/want a Farmer’s Market, they are beside themselves.
    The citizens I’ve talked to want one.

    There should be room for two in the hub of Wine Country.

    I guess the important thing is they taught Renee Kiff a lesson, now what?

    I’ve learned a lot of lessons about doing small business in Santa Rosa.

    They’ve taught me lots ‘o lessons.

    Personalities or a Farmer’s Market.
    which is more important?

    Revenge and $5. will get you 2 lbs. of fresh produce…mostly the $5..

    Where’s the new site?

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  6. Vowel Movement says:

    Absolute Poppycock! The County has been leasing their space to the “Original” Farmer’s Market for years at way below market value for way too long. The adjustment, while substantial, still amounted to no more than an increase in stall rental of about $16 bucks per Saturday. While I empathize with farmers and greatly value their contribution, I hardly think $16 bucks is a deal breaker.

    The director of the “Original” Farmer’s Market had every opportunity to accept the new lease conditions. Rather than do so, she dug in her heels and refused to negotiate in good faith. The landlord, in this case the County of Sonoma, had every right to refuse to renew the lease and instead offer the space to other interested parties. In this case, another Farmer’s Market was willing to pay full asking price so that we can all continue to enjoy our Farmer’s Market. Seems like a win-win to me.

    Ms. Kiff, if for whatever reason you choose not to participate in the new market, that is entirely your decision. You will be missed. I’m quite sure there will, however, be ample vendors willing to take your place.

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  7. Jim Bennett says:

    BOS was the ‘player’, but it’s time for Council to ‘pinch hit’.

    That means you, ‘Grey’.

    This Farmer’s Market will be very important this year.

    Step up-work for the People.

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  8. We hope you will follow The Santa Rosa Farmers Market
    on Facebook and where ever we pop-up
    we are tweeting too @santarosafarmersmkt

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  9. Grey Whitmore says:

    OK, if you’re going to talk about this, at least know who the players are.

    It is the County of Sonoma that runs & owns the current site, not the City of Santa Rosa.

    In fact, the current market is in talks about moving to RR Square. I’m not sure how serious those talks are but they are taking place.

    As for the business sense of the current market, they’ve had their go. The bluffed the county and the county went with a group that put forward a proposal at current rental rates.

    Maybe the new market won’t be able to pay the agreed fees but what does seem clear is that they are operating a whole lot more openly than current market management.

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  10. Steve Klausner says:

    More markets, more different days, more better prices…Feed the People. If the County wants to run them out of the Vet’s parking lot maybe the City would let them use that that empty parking lot they own on Sebastopol Road.

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  11. Reality Check says:

    If, as you say, local farm products are popular with more and more people, presumably those people are willing to pay what it costs to bring fresh fruits and vegetables to market. Maybe not.

    For too long groups that claimed to be essential to the public have demanded, and received, operating subsidies from taxpayers in the form of below-cost rent. It is well past time for those who preach local self-sufficiency to practice it.

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  12. Jim Bennett says:

    The most basic organic (punn intended)
    small businees people.
    Providing the most basic organic need.

    Do you ever build any equity in this town? Seniority? Respect? Earn your props, your place-the right to be left alone?

    Anyone can see that this would damage hard working people and their long time local customers, it’s practically a tradition.

    Here it is, plain to see; damaging small business and citizens.

    I think the people should insist on the City making an amicable accomadation to these people, or identify a new location.
    Take some initiative City Officials.
    BE OF SERVICE, one of the most admirable devine things you could ever do.
    How about the site at Mendocino and Chenate?
    If I was a councilman or supervisor, I would pretend that my business card said: Public Facilitator/Consultant.
    I would consider it be my duty, obligation and a pleasure.
    I LOVE small business, making something out of nothing, it’s so cool.

    But that’s not the program we’re ‘signed up for’ (literally).

    It’s really sad, this ideology isn’t about politics or even small business.

    It’s about humility and humanity.

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