By RENEE KIFF
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.
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.