Santa Rosa Farmers Market – Sonoma County’s True Original
By Tim Tesconi
The bounty of Sonoma County –and beyond – is on spectacular display every Wednesday and Saturday at the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, which has been supplying homegrown fruits and veggies to local shoppers for the last 46 years.
Today, the venerable outdoor market, where consumers and farmers come together to exchange cash for greens, is thriving at its new location in the parking lot of the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts at 50 Mark West Springs Road. The market, established in 1967, moved from its long-time home at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building to the Wells Fargo Center parking lot in May of 2012.
The market umbrellas and pop-up canopies are highly visible from Highway 101. And that visibility opens the door to drive-by customers anxious to join the party at this twice-weekly food bazaar where you can buy everything from apples to zucchini and sheep milk yogurt to potted orchids.
“Our loyal customers return to the market week after week because of the quality of the products and the wonderful, positive energy that this market generates,” said market manager Jaime Smedes. She has been the market’s chief overseer for the last year, enjoying the challenge of setting up shop each Wednesday and Saturday.
On Saturdays during the peak of harvest in August and September, there are 80 to 85 vendors and more than 1,000 customers who, often, come as much for the social gathering as the green beans and turnips. Shoppers, who often stay at the market for more than an hour, connect with the farmers who grow the fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, eggs and honey that make the market a delicious roadside attraction.
“I really like knowing the farmers who grow the food that I feed my family. It’s a connection that is very important to me,” said Annabelle Hepworth of Santa Rosa, carrying market bags laden with beets, kale, zucchini and melons.
Market manager Smedes, who is warm, out-going and super organized, previously worked for the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce where she planned and organized special events. Now she orchestrates special events twice a week, interacting with farmers, food preparers and crafts people along with the customers at the market.
“I enjoy planning and organizing,” said Smedes. “Sonoma County is such a large and important agricultural area. For me it’s rewarding to be part of something that is so important to farmers and the customers who want the local farm products and want to support our local farmers.”
The Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market is a California Certified Market, which guarantees that all produce, meat, flowers, herbs and honey are grown and harvested in Sonoma County or somewhere in California. Certified also means that the person who sells the farm goods is the farmer who produced it, a family member or farm employee. The market accepts government assistance vouchers through various programs such as WIC, Cal Fresh, Sonoma RX and EBT.
Depending on the season, there are special events at the market throughout the year. On Saturday, Oct. 26, the market will have a kids pumpkin carving contest to celebrate Halloween. The pumpkin carving starts at 9:30 a.m. and continues until the pumpkins are gone.
The Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market is a member or Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the county’s largest agricultural organization that works on many fronts to keep farmers on the land. A number of vendors including Hector’s Honey, Dry Creek Peach & Produce, Jana McCelland’s Organic Butter, Two Rock Valley Cheese, Sebastopol Berry Farm and Min Hee Hill Gardens also are member of Farm Bureau, which represents all farmers no matter the size of their operation or their farming philosophy.
This time of year, the array of produce at the market is remarkable – testament to the tenacity of the county’s small-scale farmers and the good earth that produces the fruits of their labor. The flavor and freshness keep consumers coming back and the cash flowing to those who earn a living on the land.
“Customers want a good product and they get it here at the market,” said Hector Alvarez of Hector’s Honey in Santa Rosa.
In addition to honey, Alvarez, a member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, raises a large variety of produce including Crane Melons, onions and tomatoes as well as free range eggs. He said moving the market to the Wells Fargo Center increased the visibility of the market, which has been great for his business.
The Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market is already the biggest market in Sonoma County and poised to grow even more when Sutter Hospital opens in the fall of 2014.
“The market is visible and accessible,” said Alvarez, “I see it getting bigger every year.”
Libby Batzel of Beet Generation Farm in Sebastopol depends on the Santa Rosa Original Certified Market to earn her living as a farmer. She is at the Santa Rosa market every Wednesday and Saturday and also peddles her produce at the Sebastopol Farmers Market and directly to friends and neighbors.
“I am making a living as a farmer,” said Batzel, a new member of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. She said her income is comparable to what a teacher would make but she doesn’t get the summer off and works weekends and holidays. She said it helps that her partner, a paramedic in San Francisco, provides her health benefits.
Batzel is known for her top quality produce – especially her beets - and her lively banter when customers come to her stall, which is as beautifully laid out as a fair exhibit.
“Those peppers are super sweet,” she tells a shopper eyeing her shiny red peppers.
Three years ago Batzel was working as a bartender but now she is a full-time farmer, intensively farming one acre of leased land in Sebastopol. She grows about 50 different crops and has a flock of chickens producing free range eggs.
She learned farming as an agricultural apprentice at a 30 acre organic farm in Boulder, Colorado and at then at the Canvas Ranch in Petaluma. She made the jump and went on her own, finding great satisfaction in growing food.
Batzel said farming is hard-work and, like most farmers who face bad weather and an outbreak of pests or disease, she sometimes wonders if there isn’t an easier way to make living. The notion quickly passes.
“Every year I think about quitting farming,” she said. “But I think about it and change my mind. I do love it and can’t imagine not being surrounded by this good, healthy food that I grow with my own hands.”
She said the other thing that keeps her farming is the “affirmation at the market. People really appreciate the food I grow and that is very gratifying.”
Batzel said she eats very well, another delicious benefit to farming and being a market vendor. There is a trading culture among the vendors. Someone who grows carrots and turnips never wants for honey or butter. At the end of the market, vendors swap what they haven’t sold, going home with food they don’t grow themselves. Money is seldom exchanged.
“We are the modern Gypsies when it comes to bartering,” said Batezel.