Farmers’ Markets: Who Benefits?

Oakland offers rent-free space for everything from crepes to clothing, and local businesses are asking what the city gets in return.

Spring Opara doesn’t just shop at the farmers’ market in her Grand Lake neighborhood. She does the farmers’ market. Reusable shopping bag dangling from her arm and her stomach primed for a filling of fruit samples, the Air Force veteran marches down her hill across the street every Saturday, prepared for a long, lazy morning, taking it all in.

Salmon jerky. Macaroons. Hundreds of Oaklanders, including the neighborhood friends she’s bound to run into. “I partake of just about everything here,” said the fifty-year-old with bouncy, graying dreadlocks, as she sat perched atop a concrete slab next to the Afghan bread stand. “I love the products, I love the diversity,” she gushed. There’s just one thing that bothers the artist and businesswoman: “If you walk around and see where some of these folks are from, very few are Oakland residents.”

She’s not talking about the farmers; few people expect them to be from the city. Instead, she’s talking about the dozens of vendors at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market who have nothing to do with farms. It’s the artisans, masseuses, hot-food sellers, and the like who have grown to comprise the bulk of the nearly one hundred vendors at the market. And most of them aren’t from Oakland.

At least not in the official famers’ market, that is. “You see there’s a group over there on the corner by the T-Mobile,” Opara said, pointing across the street to three tables huddled under the sliver of shade offered by palm trees on a traffic island. “Those are local residents — Oakland residents.”

More small vendors carve out ad hoc retail space along the outskirts of the market — under the Kwik Way sign and in the shadow of Lakeshore Avenue awnings. They half-jokingly call it the “farmers’ market ghetto,” or the “stepchild” of the real thing.

Opara has been there herself, in front of the T-mobile store using the bait of homemade cookies to slow down foot traffic and draw attention to her line of hand-cut queer greeting cards. “We got a decent reception,” she said. “But I think people were still, like, ‘Oh, you guys are cool, but you’re not part of the market.'”

To make it into the official market, Opara first needs approval from the Marin nonprofit that operates it. If accepted, she still has to wait for a spot to open at Grand Lake, the most popular of the markets run by the Agricultural Institute of Marin, and would then have to pay the organization an annual fee. The result of this arduous and competitive process is that many local artists are shut out of what they see as the ideal way to cultivate their nascent businesses.

To Opara, something is wrong with this picture. “If the city isn’t coordinating this,” she said “how do we get into a market in our own area?”

It’s one of many questions Oakland’s entrepreneurs are asking of the weekly open-air markets. Concerns about vendor policies, doubts about purported benefits to neighborhoods, and debate over city priorities are starting to cast a shadow over the markets. Despite their overwhelming popularity, and partly because of it, Oakland’s farmers’ markets have drawn tension, ire, and a litany of complaints from struggling small businesses that feel excluded from all the good-feel commerce.

The nascent debate stems from a decision by many farmers’ markets, including the Grand Lake, to diversify beyond simply providing a place for local farmers to sell produce and vegetables directly to urban dwellers. In cities such as Berkeley, where farmers’ markets have remained true to their original intent and strictly limit the number of non-farm vendors, there has been little to no controversy. But in Oakland, where the markets receive free space from the city and are now dominated by non-local vendors that crowd out Oakland businesses, compete with brick-and-mortar stores, and often fail to pay taxes, it’s a different story.

In the introduction to her cookbook, Chez Panisse Vegetables, Alice Waters wrote of her difficulty procuring fresh produce when she opened her landmark restaurant in 1971. “Back when we began our search,” she wrote, “our choices were limited. There were no farmer’s markets in Berkeley, no produce brokers specializing in organically grown vegetables, no commercial vendors of wild mushrooms.”

Forty years later, you can find farm stands on a city street just about every day of the week, with crowds — and often, prices — that rival Berkeley Bowl on a weekend morning.

Oakland residents got their first taste of farmers’ markets — a tradition revived from the World War II era by churches, hunger alliances, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture — 22 years ago. When the Old Oakland and Jack London Square markets launched, they were at the cusp of a nationwide movement to resist corporate agribusiness. Behind the local beets and green beans was the motivation to return to the soil, to the seasons, and to support struggling small farmers.

In the two decades since, the popularity of farmers’ markets has skyrocketed. Across the country, their numbers climbed from fewer than 2,000 in the early-1990s to more than 6,000 last year. In Oakland, the explosion began in earnest in 2005, when neighborhood business districts brought markets to Montclair and Fruitvale, and the following year to Temescal and Grand Lake. Others have come and gone throughout the years: A produce stand in West Oakland; markets sponsored by churches in East Oakland; a community food network in the Laurel district; and, more recently, markets at clinics and hospitals throughout the city.

But the largest are run by nonprofit management organizations. The Fremont-based Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association operates the Old Oakland, Montclair, and Temescal markets. Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association from Concord runs the markets at Jack London Square and Kaiser hospital. And the Grand Lake market, the largest of them all, is put on by the Agricultural Institute of Marin.

Nestled in neighborhood business districts and promoted to the city council with promises of economic vitality, they’re sold as an embodiment not only of the 1990s credo of seasonal cooking, but of the au courant catchphrase “shop local.” Eat produce from nearby farms; shop on foot in the neighborhood; support community commerce.

But Oakland entrepreneurs like Raquel Contreras have discovered that the farmers’ markets aren’t as welcoming to locals as they seem. Standing over a Bunsen burner at a table she set up across the street from the Grand Lake market, Contreras fed a toothpick-size morsel of her mushroom tamale to a potential customer. It was an unseasonably warm Saturday, and crowds gathered in waves to sample what she calls “morning tamales.” She made them from scratch in her kitchen just up the street. But for all the sales she made that morning, she figured she would have done much better if her table had not been in the Kwik Way driveway but in the official market on the other side of Lake Park Avenue.

“They make it so tough,” she said of the market’s organizers and their decision to deny her application to sell at the Grand Lake Farmers’ Market. “They say they have no more space there, and they already have a tamale vendor,” she said, adding with frustration, “They’re not even local!” referring to the Marin-based Donna’s Tamales.

But the Agricultural Institute hasn’t shut Contreras out completely. She sells food at its Novato farmers’ market. She sees the markets as a first step to the launch of the brick-and-mortar shop she dreams of opening later this year. “Before I open my establishment I want to go to my client base so when it opens up they know where to come,” she said. “But if I have more of a client base in Novato, I might consider opening there.”

Aparna Rao has applied three times to the Grand Lake market. She, too, left the process feeling rejected, confused, and exasperated. Her business, Little Paper Monkeys, sells screen-printed baby clothes she designs in her Grand Avenue apartment, with Oakland and Berkeley insignias that accompany the animal motifs. “When I applied, they said you’re at a real disadvantage if you only want to be in Oakland,” she said. “This is my neighborhood! I have two small children. It’s not as easy for me to go up to Novato.”

According to the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s Brad Burger, his organization receives ten to twenty applications per week from vendors vying for a spot at their most popular markets. “There’s only limited space where we can put people,” he said, “so that makes it really competitive.” But when space does open up, Burger said, “to the best of our ability we try to prioritize local businesses,” such as one recent addition to the Grand Lake market, Oakland’s Bicycle Coffee Company.

But a review of the non-farm vendors at the Grand Lake market reveals that only a fraction call Oakland home, with many more slots going to entrepreneurs from the North Bay and elsewhere. Of the non-farm vendors whose place of origin could be determined from the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s records, 19 percent were from Oakland, 17 percent were from Berkeley or Emeryville, and most of the rest were from the North Bay.

On the corner of Washington and 9th streets in Old Oakland, where one full block and three half-blocks of farm stands and food purveyors hawk their provisions every Friday, a sandwich board reads: “Please, no farmers’ market seating. Restaurant patrons only.” The sign, posted above the logo of the Urban Village Farmers’ Market Association and near Levende East restaurant’s outdoor tables, offers a glimpse at the friction between Oakland farmers’ markets and brick-and-mortar businesses.

Likewise, walk into Endgame, one block north of the center of the Old Oakland farmers’ market. At 1 p.m., while office workers, students, and local residents crowded the market’s corridor down 9th, owners Chris Ruggiero and Anthony Brown fiddled on their laptops at the counter in an empty game store. That’s usual, Brown said. Ever since the market moved its truck parking from 9th to 10th Street, where Endgame is located, “our Fridays pretty much tanked,” he said.

Even though the market only uses about half the block of Washington, it closes the entire block to traffic. And so with 10th Street reserved for vendor parking and Washington Street closed, the market effectively eliminates pedestrian traffic from Endgame’s corner of Old Oakland. “They basically maroon us for five hours a day,” Ruggiero explained. “We’re basically a parking lot,” added Brown.

What frustrates them most about the farmers’ market is a sense of entitlement it gives off. “They’ve never really made any effort to talk to people down here,” Ruggiero said. “So we don’t know who to talk to. They basically leave their things here every Friday, and pick it up and leave.”

Brown suggested that if it were designed better, if there were greater collaboration with the local business community, the market could be a positive asset. But as it is, “this area needs some help growing,” he said. “And it is definitely not doing anything to encourage that.”

In addition to the hassle caused by street closures and parking chaos, what draws the ire of many local businesses is the inclusion of non-farmer food vendors, many of whom compete with their own goods. “They have a hot dog guy out there in front of the sausage place, a catfish guy in front of the seafood place,” noted Harold Taylor, third-generation proprietor of Taylor’s Sausage in Swan’s Marketplace on 9th and Washington. Despite the crowd that the market attracts right outside his door, Taylor says business takes a dive Friday mornings. The configuration of the market, with two rows of vendors faced inward rather than toward the neighborhood’s shops, doesn’t help. “They don’t even see us because there are booths right in front of our store,” he added.

Still, he recognizes that the market, with its Chinese produce stands and organic sorbet, attracts visitors to Old Oakland who might not otherwise get to know the neighborhood. And besides, “I enjoy the farmers’ market,” he said. “I get my flowers there, organic onions.”

Ron Pardini, director of Urban Village, contends that his organization, which runs the Old Oakland farmers’ market, goes out of its way to accommodate the needs of local businesses. He noted that the market’s most popular food vendor had served quick Indian fare. “An Indian restaurant around the corner was upset about that, so we had them leave,” he said. And the decision a few years ago to move vendor parking from 9th to 10th Street in front of Endgame was in response to complaints from 9th Street businesses.

You can’t please everybody. And not every business is complaining. Elena Durante-Voiron of Ratto’s International Market enjoys the attention the farmers’ market brings to the area. “It’s like a street party; it creates a destination in the neighborhood, which is something that’s lacking.”

It’s the same across Oakland. For every business that perceives a benefit — Ratto’s in Old Oakland, or A.G. Ferrari in Montclair, which sees a spike in mozzarella sales when heirloom tomatoes are in season — others perceive a loss. Across the street from the entrance to the Montclair market on a Sunday morning, Ugyen Triantopoulos watched over a trickle of customers at her candy shop, Le Bon Bon. “Parking’s very difficult,” she said. “I definitely think the businesses around here don’t get as much” during the market.

Pardini has heard these complaints before, and he has trouble making sense of them. “If we’re drawing thousands of people to the area,” he said, “and they say they’re not benefitting from it, you can’t just blame; you’ve got to take action.” He suggests local businesses offer a farmers’ market special, like the seasonal fruit cocktails of Lakeshore’s Easy Lounge on Saturday afternoons. If shoppers flood the neighborhood, yet “they’re saying they’re not walking into their shop,” said Pardini, “I can’t do a whole lot about that.”

Indeed, perceptions among many Oakland businesses that the markets hurt their sales defy conventional wisdom. “That’s the whole point of bringing in a farmers’ market,” Pardini said. Every market his organization operates in Oakland is sponsored by a neighborhood merchants association, and was endorsed by Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency, based on the argument that it would spur economic activity.

“It’s kind of obvious,” said Margot Lederer Prado, a food specialist within the agency. “Basic congregation of people brings excitement and interest to an area.” But the impact, she cautions, may not be so clear or immediate. Shoppers may buy lunch from market vendors, but return at a later date to local restaurants they noticed while in the neighborhood.

“You’d think that they want us there,” Pardini added.

Ben Feldman of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, which operates that city’s three farmers’ markets and a new one in Albany, says the debate over their economic contribution to urban areas is beside the point. Or, at least it should be. “That is a benefit that certainly happens,” he said. “But, in my opinion, that’s the wrong reason to start a farmers’ market.”

As the number of farmers’ markets multiplied in the past quarter-century, they began attracting attention not only from foodies and advocates for the hungry but from marketers and city planners. A certain cachet developed around the heirlooms and winter squash, one that signified disposable income and ­­­sophisticated taste (see Old Oakland’s newest restaurant, Farmers Market Bistro). While before, churches and food security organizations sponsored the markets, now their boosters were urban economic agencies. And while the shift may be subtle from the shopper’s vantage point, the mission has diverged as well. “Our goal, and our only responsibility, is to bring people downtown,” Pardini said.

But head to Derby Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley on a Tuesday afternoon, and you’ll see a different mission — and a different outcome. The Ecology Center-run market is off the path of commercial districts and, without seating areas or entertainment beyond a folk singer with a guitar, it exhibits no aspirations to be a social destination. As far as its offerings, there is little beyond farm stands, though the Ecology Center’s Feldman explains the inclusion of purveyors of foods like ice cream, bread, and sushi: “If people need to go to the grocery store after going to the farmers’ market, they will often end up blowing off the market entirely,” he said. “We want to offer the consumer an alternative to going to grocery stores.”

Operators of the Oakland markets use the same rationale in explaining their expansion from farmers and bakers to artisans, services, and entertainment. “It kind of completes your shopping experience,” said Chris Blackburn of the Agricultural Institute of Marin.

But by that logic, where does it end? With the newspaper vendor? The massage table? The inflatable slide? If you can get your fair-trade coffee next to the organic peach stand, a loaf of sourdough on which to spread your triple cream artisanal cheese, and a tamale to devour while the kids play on the slide, the shopping experience is, well, complete. And if the market “completes” the experience, then what reason do shoppers have to continue lingering in the neighborhood, or stop anywhere else on their way home?

“Let’s call it what it is,” said Allen Michaan, whose Grand Lake Theater faces the market’s twenty-foot inflatable slide and the occasional political demonstration that has also found a home there. “It’s a street fest.”

It’s hard to argue that notion. At the Grand Lake market, farmers often comprise a minority of the stands. The rest serve up everything from health services to duck paté, newspaper subscriptions, and hot meals, many of which compete with offerings of stores on Grand and Lakeshore avenues.

In its desire to provide an alternative to a grocery store, the modern farmers’ market has evolved into an outdoor healthy-living shopping mall. By contrast, Berkeley businesses don’t voice similar complaints about its markets because the Ecology Center hasn’t encroached on their turf. It’s clear about its simple mission: connecting farmers to consumers.

When a budget cut last year eliminated the position of the coordinator of Oakland’s Artisans Marketplace, a city-run weekly crafts fair in Frank Ogawa Plaza and Jack London Square, it closed the only opportunity for Oakland artists to sell directly to their community. Spring Opara sold handmade candles at both, but according to her, the marketplaces were poorly planned and unprofitable. “Frank Ogawa’s fine,” she said. “But have you ever gone there on Fridays?”

Apparently, the idea of downtown Oakland as an arts and crafts mecca never took off. But it was still an opportunity for local craftspeople like Opara to reach and cultivate a customer base. And now that it’s gone, farmers’ markets have become one of the only steady opportunities. “If people weren’t struggling, and cities weren’t struggling for services for their residents,” she said, “you wouldn’t have had this argument from me.”

But the city’s cuts to cultural funding made Opara wonder about how Oakland fills its coffers, or doesn’t. “I think that this is a leakage,” she said. “This money that they’re generating just from the vendors being here, how much of that money is going to Marin versus the City of Oakland?”

It’s a fair question. The vendors pay fees — on the high end, artisans pay a $110 annual fee and a $47 weekly fee for the Grand Lake market — to the operators. What makes it back to Oakland’s municipal purse? Very little, at least directly. The city essentially leases its public space rent-free to the markets — no permit fees necessary — and just asks operators to clean the area afterwards, clear out on time, and accommodate local business districts when problems arise.

As for taxes, each of the operators handles them differently. Pardini’s Urban Village collects them from its vendors and pays the city in aggregate. The Agricultural Institute of Marin leaves it to individual vendors to pay, and does not check that the businesses are registered within Oakland. A review of a half-dozen random vendors associated with the Marin nonprofit found that not one was registered as doing business within Oakland and paying taxes.

But the city appears to be unconcerned. That’s because if a business makes less than $2,700 annually, they are exempt from taxation, so Oakland’s Revenue and Tax Administrator David McPherson figures that if a business is only selling in Oakland on Saturdays, “is it really worth scrutinizing if all we’re gonna get are $30 out of them?” He says enforcement staff go out “every so often,” but when it comes down to it, a farmers’ market is “more a neighborhood, community thing than about the tax revenue.”

Michaan, who says his Saturday matinee sales have plummeted in part because his customers cannot find parking, sees it as bad city planning. “It’s really hurting the businesses that are paying rent, paying taxes,” he said. “It’s just a punch in the face to those businesses.”

If the idea behind a farmers’ market is to revitalize a commercial district, Michaan has his own suggestion: “It should be moved down to City Hall Plaza, because there’s nothing going on down there on Saturdays. It would be a nice boost for downtown.”

But in Oakland, there seems to be no agreement as to the idea behind the city’s farmers’ markets. Are they about economic vitality, but not about tax revenue? Fruits and vegetables, but also arts and crafts? According to Councilwoman Pat Kernighan, whose district includes Grand Lake, the city hasn’t gotten around to that question. “The city council has never passed a comprehensive policy with regard to farmers’ markets,” she said. “I think the thinking,” with the first market in Old Oakland in 1989, “was that providing fresh fruits and vegetables is a benefit to the people.” The second component, she said, which developed later, is that “it’s a festive public gathering that tends to attract people to the neighborhood.

“The Grand Lake market has become phenomenally successful beyond our wildest dreams,” Kernighan continued. She described the lines outside Arizmendi, Lakeshore Cafe, Starbucks, and Peet’s on Saturday mornings; the pedestrian traffic that slows to a standstill on Lakeshore, the parking difficulties that encourage residents to walk to the market from a half-mile away. The market, she and others began to realize, “has really some wonderful benefits, but it also had some downsides that need to be dealt with.”

It’s this sort of gap in city policy that motivated the formation of the Oakland Food Policy Council, which began meeting two years ago to advise the city council on issues pertaining to food security and public health. Early this year, the city council listened to a ten-minute presentation by the food policy council of its first set of recommendations. Many of them addressed ways to standardize farmers’ markets so that they accept food stamps and are more accessible to poor communities. But coordinator Alethea Harper said there is no timeline to implement the proposals. “We’re learning that policy can be slow,” she said.

Yet even if the city council does get around to the proposals, none of them addresses the issue of including more Oakland-based vendors at the markets.

As for concerns such as parking difficulties and competition with brick-and-mortar stores, Kernighan’s office put together an advisory committee of local residents and merchants in April 2007 that meets regularly. She said she has also begun negotiating with the Agricultural Institute of Marin “about them contributing some money for the upkeep of the park,” which was not designed for the large crowds it now hosts on a weekly basis. “I think we need to deal with the issue of whether the markets contribute somehow to the use of their space, whether it’s a street or a park.”

After her three rejections from the Grand Lake market, Little Paper Monkey’s Aparna Rao is ready to give up. “The last time I applied I really thought I’d get in; I got no explanation,” she said while sipping tea near her Grand Avenue apartment. Now Rao has her eyes on another dream — on a process that is much more arduous, but just may bear fruit — a storefront.

Located down the street from her, the artisans’ cooperative she has planned would connect Oakland artists with their target local clientele. The idea emerged out of her frustrating experience with the Grand Lake market, and her realization that she was not alone. “It seems like the markets are here, and the artisans are here; I just want to bring them together,” she said.

Right now, she has two young kids to keep her busy. But sometime in the future when she gathers the resources to open a shop, she thinks it’ll be a hit in her neighborhood. And if all goes according to plan, she’ll have the farmers’ market to thank for, if nothing else, motivating a new local brick-and-mortar enterprise. 


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