ARCATA – As the bountiful local produce season gets underway, so too does the North Coast Growers’ Association Farmers’ Market on the Arcata Plaza. The market opens this Saturday and runs each Saturday until late November from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The weekday markets begin in June.
The push to consume fresh, local, nutritious food is getting much national and local attention lately, from first lady Michelle Obama’s efforts to plant a garden with school children on the White House lawn to the in-depth discussion about local food infrastructure at the Plan It Green Conference at the Arcata Community Center last weekend.
The Saturday Arcata market, begun in 1978 and the oldest continuous certified farmers’ market in California, provides a prime opportunity to participate in the growing locavore movement.
“The Farmers’ Market is where you will find the best, freshest produce and products available,” said Portia Bramble, NCGA executive director. “Most things that you’ll find at the market were picked that morning or the evening before – no longer.
“And it’s a great community building event to come to a farmers’ market. You meet people, you get to know your community and you get to experience a social gathering free of charge,” she said.
What’s new this season
Live music from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. will again contribute to the festive energy of the market and will be enhanced by three or four new bands this year, according to Bramble. There will also be a few new vendors in the “food court” area in the center of the Plaza.
Market products will again include a huge variety of seasonal produce, starts and plants, as well as local oysters, grass-fed beef, lamb and goat meat.
New this year will be the addition of fresh, locally raised and produced pastured poultry, with a new Humboldt Poultry Cooperative having recently been formed. The creation of a mobile processing unit will allow a number of farmers to process their poultry on-site, said Bramble, so “this year we’ll have very consistent chicken at market, and turkeys.”
Also new in the past year for the NCGA is the receipt of federal non-profit status, which helps the organization by making it eligible for lower permit rates in some cases as well as the ability to accept tax-deductible donations from individuals and businesses.
“We hope that local businesses will see our organization as a good place to invest some of their funds to help us do what we do,” said Bramble. “We do that mainly in the form of seeking sponsorships for the music because we do pay the bands to be out there. So we encourage local businesses to sponsor a band, and in exchange they get their name out there on the Plaza and on our website.”
One issue from last year has been resolved. According to Bramble, the towing of cars left on the Plaza into early Saturday morning and interfering with the market set-up is now coordinated by the Arcata Police Department without the NCGA having to be involved. “There were times in the past when the farmers actually had to pay for the towing of the vehicles,” said Bramble.
By working with the City of Arcata and the City Council, the current arrangement is that if cars remain parked in the tow-away zone on the Plaza between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, they will be issued a $200 City fine and towed to a public parking lot for retrieval.
Why buy local?
Bramble advocates the local food concept for a number of reasons.
“Generally speaking, there is every reason to follow a localized food production system,” she said. “Not only does it increase your local economic development, but you also have the ability to be self-sufficient and have a completely localized independent economic structure.”
“And ecologically it makes so much more sense. Big agriculture is so detrimental to the earth, the land, the water and to the plants and the animals that are being raised in that way.”
“It’s incredibly less energy consumptive to have a localized system of agriculture. Not only is the production using less energy and less chemical inputs, but transportation costs are significantly decreased.”
“And localized small scale agriculture tends to use less water. For me the list really goes on and on. I believe that any region that has the climate and the soil to support agriculture should do so to the fullest extent that they can.”
Bramble counters the notion that fresh, local food is more expensive by pointing out that there are hidden costs of producing conventional food that are being borne by the environment and society at large, such as the cost of fossil fuel extraction to create chemical fertilizers. “You can prioritize where you’re spending your money,” she said. “By learning the nutritional value of foods and understanding whole foods versus processed foods, you can actually achieve a much higher nutrient-rich diet with less money.”
Bramble also pointed out that produce and plant starts can be purchased at the markets using an EBT card, the government food stamp program, and that the WIC and senior voucher programs also qualify. She said that if someone could afford only some local produce, “Even one item is better than none. Even if you only go to a market once a season you’re still doing something that’s good for yourself and for the farmers.”
Eddie Tanner is one of those farmers. He owns DeepSeeded Community Farm in Arcata, and sells produce shares as a Community Supported Agriculture farm in addition to selling at the Farmers’ Market. Regarding the transition to local food, Tanner said, “There are multiple draws and multiple potential obstacles. The draws are that it’s fresh and it tastes great and that really turns a lot of people on. It cycles dollars in our community more, so you have a community building effect by supporting local food. But one of the obstacles is that it can cost more if you’re used to purchasing not-organic produce. Purchasing local organic produce does cost more and there are good reasons for that.”
“At this point it’s a matter of priorities for our society,” he said. “Our society has been used to for so many years having food as cheap as possible. Actually, as a percentage of our household income, we have the cheapest food in the world. We only spend nine or nine and one half percent of our income [on food] which is far lower than any other country on the planet, so we’re not used to prioritizing food in our spending.”
Tanner said, “I think once people taste it and feel how good they feel after eating fresh produce and whole foods and having the opportunity to interact with local farmers, it might be easier to prioritize some of those buying choices.”
“We are really well poised in this community to provide for ourselves quite a bit,” said Tanner. “We’re already doing a lot. We already have great local dairy and beef production and a lot of vegetable farms, but we also can be doing so much more. We have a great land base, we have people interested in farming and in the long term making choices that support local food production is going to be more and more economical, I believe.”
Talk to the farmers
One question Bramble said many people have about the produce at the markets is whether it is all organic. “No,” she said. “Tons of people ask that. We’re not limited to organic agriculture.” She explained that in order for produce to be called “organic” it actually has to be certified organic by a certifying agency. Although some of the vendors are certified, she said, many local farmers choose not to do the certification process but are often actually practicing organic methods of farming.
She said the farmers encourage people to ask them about their farming methods. “A lot of our vendors feel that because we are a small community and because they did grow the produce themselves and they are selling it directly to you, they feel comfortable assuring you that ‘I grew this with no pesticides and no chemicals.’”
The NCGA has over 100 members. “We’ve seen a steady growth in the number of new farms over the last few years, and we’ve seen a steady growth in our income,” Bramble said. “We’ve definitely seen the popularity of the markets grow and that has affected us in a positive way.”
“We are limited to exclusively Humboldt County agriculture,” said Bramble, “but we do have a clause in our rules and regulations that allows for people from out of the county to bring a product only if that product is not grown in this county.”
For example, there is one member who comes from southern Oregon who brings cranberries for two markets during the fall, just in time for the Thanksgiving holidays. “We’re pretty strict about the in-county rule because we have so many local growers and we can grow such a variety of products.”
Bramble encourages people who want to be more involved in the local farming scene or buy local produce to approach the vendors. “You can literally talk to the farmers,” she said. “They have so much advice, from recipes to how to grow plants to what things taste like to what a certain tree looks like. Anything you want to know, ask them.”
For more information visit humfarm.org or call (707) 441-9999