Santa Monica Farmers Market Q & A, Part 2: Laura Avery Discovers a Farm in Compton + Her Favorite Fall Produce
City of Santa MonicaSanta Monica Farmers Market Manager Laura Avery.
Laura Avery has seen a lot change and evolution in farmers markets since she started managing the Santa Monica Farmers Market back in 1982. In part one of our interview, Avery gave us a window on some of the bigger changes that she helped bring about for small farmers in Southern California and where the Santa Monica market fit into the big picture. Celebrating its 30th anniversary needed to be something big, especially with the advent of the local food movement, the regulatory push from Big Ag, and a desire to not only thoughtfully remember the past, but cement a viable future for local and sustainable agriculture. And maybe they'd discover some long, lost art along the way. But we'll get to that in a minute.
We left off with Avery talking about how, "way way" out of the box the 30th anniversary celebration was going to be. And we couldn't help but note the blend of surprise, anticipation, and a little mea culpa in her tone of voice.
Squid Ink: So you said, "way way out of the box," with some emphasis. Care to elaborate?
Laura Avery: [laughs] Yeah. We had these great big ideas and we were not going to hold back. You think big and you try to implement what you can and even what you think you can't. So the City of Santa Monica is not in the business to fund raise, right? So we can't do that. So we decided to partner with a non-profit. So we found one based in Chicago that did this sort of three day farmer trade show. I had heard about it many years ago. They have this three day program with speakers and training workshops and stuff to help small farmers increase their capacity and reach new customers. And you know all this talk now about diabetes and obesity and food choice availability in our cities? Everybody is talking about how we're going to get better food in the city. So we decided to partner with the Good Food people and make it into one big celebration and symposium that covers it all. We're just going to have everyone come here. Invite a whole bunch people out to party. And then have them all connect.
Good Food was entirely responsible for the money and selling tickets, advertising, etc. They took on all the risk of the event while the city acted as a co-sponsor making city venues available for a discount. So we were able to obtain event sites like Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica City College, and the Annenberg Community Beach House. It's a full five-day program, and for me it had a part that fulfilled dream of mine. I wanted to do a farm-themed film series and we were able to partner with the Aero Theatre and Slow Food LA. Lisa Lucas Talbot at Slow Food has organized it all and had put together some great films each month. This month's is The Harvest, a really important film about migrant field workers. And it becomes another venue for discussing the whole food movement.
SI: A trade show for local food?
LA: Nationwide there has never been a trade show for small farmers. There's a tractor show in Visalia and a few other big industry shows. But the average farmer is sitting here saying, "boy I wish I could get a small scale version of some big ideas." You know, give small farmers some networks and infrastructure so that they can better serve and cater to people who want local, humanely raised and sustainable products. They want to connect with people who are experts, along with potential buyers, even school districts. That way you can increase capacity and not lose traceability, Which is a big challenge.
SI: Right, what with salmonella sausage and E. Coli in spinach. But that's mostly Big Ag, right?
LA: Big farms and institutions have to have solid standards of traceability because these huge monocrops end up all over the place. There are some pretty good agricultural practices already in place at small farms. But the farmers have to step up in a new way. They already do it. It's just now they have to start reporting it all. The E. Coli and Salmonella outbreaks - they have always been traced back to Big Ag. So now we have the Food Safety Modernization Act - everyone wants our food to be super safe so Big Ag has all these guidelines that are supposed to eliminate any possible risk. So you can't have trees, hedges, a stream, or any sort of riparian system that could harbor wildlife, like a frog that could end up in your bag of lettuce. Or maybe an owl might fly over your field and drop a pellet. Under those regulations, you could have no habitat, no rivers, no trails. A coyote print shows up in the mud? Oh my God, a coyote?
Small farmers and ecologists and environmentalists are saying we need riparian systems in our agriculture. We need natural predators. We need beneficial bug habitat. When monocropping, a frog could ruin everything. But the little guys? We harvest by hand. You won't find a frog in your lettuce at the market. There was a big fight about this and the Community Alliance with Family Farms (CAFF) went to bat and won an exemption for small farmers. And now Big Ag is making a big deal about it, saying that health and safety concerns should apply to everyone and that if little farmers don't want to be in the same net then why do we have to have all these onerous accounting and reporting regulations? They're fighting really hard to keep away from that and using the safety issue as their banner. So we all have to follow the regs because it's not safe not to. But the bottom line is they don't want the regs at all and are using this [exemption] to fight it. Small scale farmers are already accountable and have healthy ecosystems in their operations. If [Big Ag] has to be accountable then it seems like they want to take the little guy down in flames.
And we're out there fighting the big guys. We're working away. It would be sad if small farmers got buried under these ridiculous standards meant to counteract the problems that come up because of huge scale monocropping. But we're not seasoned politicians. And so it's a struggle.
SI: So have you worked with a lobbyist or organized at all?
LA: No not at all. No, I haven't. It's nice if you have a big brother org that can watch out for you. Like the Southland Farmers Market Association. They managed many of the major markets but they sort of evolved out of that role. We've followed CAFF. We do need a unifying voice to understand and negotiate these turbulent waters.
[pause] So between putting on special events and this it's been a very interesting job.
SI: How many employees do you have right now?
LA: Three full time, and two half time, plus six 'as needed' workers who do the physical set up work - the barricades and tents. And then there's a roster of about 12 volunteers who go between the markets, help with set up, and other things.
SI: You mentioned the barricades. Can we talk about how the  accident changed things?
weatherkingA makeshift memorial on the promenade following the accident in 2003 that killed 10 people and injured 63 others.
LA: Yeah, 2003. We're eight years out. And [long pause] you know it's hard to say with all these 9-11 things going on. The 2003 accident was a sort of turning point for us. The accident happened on Wednesday and by Saturday we weren't sure what to do. So we went and called every farmer and asked if they wanted to hold the market. And they all said, yes we want to come back. "We want to see our customers," they said. Because at that point there was no list of names and we didn't know who was gone and who was injured. They wanted to come back to see their community and make sure people were okay.
By Friday the city had resurfaced the street and the farmers all came back. We had a memorial service, we sort of reconsecrated the space and the mayor thanked everyone for coming back. We were all so glad to be standing next to our neighbors, to say, "you're ok." How quickly the community got together after this cataclysmic event. We didn't charge vendor fees for a month. The last thing people wanted to do was stay away. I think it just was very healing and then we started looking at enhanced safety measures. We hired a traffic engineering company to help us plan a non-lethal traffic arresting barrier system. They came up with this modified steel tennis net anchored to the ground with steel cables. In nine feet, it'll stop a car. So you have the dragnet and then nothing, a big space, and then the market.
SI: What does it take to put that in place for each market?
LA: It takes three people per entrance to set it up. Staffing wise it's a pretty gnarly assignment and it's a challenge. But it's got to happen every single week forever. Our new reality. And the hard thing is if a farmer sells out and is essentially done for the day, they can't leave until the barriers are brought down. So if you sell out, go see a movie. But I tell them to bring more stuff and stay longer.
SI: Care to share some thoughts on the anniversary events? The Good Food Festival?
LA: It's so much more than the market. It's part of the good food movement,which is a bit of a loose term. But the festival is time for everybody to learn more and participate more and really get involved in what it means to eat locally and sustainably. These aren't just cocktail parties. This is like $10 to get into a full day at the high school with workshops and demos with people like Suzanne Goin and Nancy Silverton. Chefs who founded the movement and are still dedicated to the community. They still shop every week and local farmers produce is the signature of their restaurants.
Farmers flourish. We flourish. Heck, we have these super delicate, perishable, delicious, Persian mulberries. So good! You can't process them commercially at all. The only way you get them is at our local farmers markets. You won't find them in conventional stores, ever. We are so fortunate to have farmers and they have become household names. Chefs have made the farmers champions. Oh and I really want to tell you about the WPA show. Did you hear about this yet?
SI: The WPA? As in post-Depression? What is this?
Good Food Festival"Chino Walnuts" 1939, from the WPA art exhibit at the Good Food Festival.
LA: You'll love this. So we're setting things up for the festival at the high school and someone says, "hey, did you know we have all these paintings stuffed in a broom closet?" Oh my God, 80 original paintings done by WPA artists stuffed in a closet! We started pulling out art work and they are all scenes of farms in 1939 here in LA County all commissioned by the WPA federal art project. There's this one painting called simply, "Farm in Compton 1939" by Jay Fon. And it shows a farm. In Compton! So of course we dragged them out of the closet and decided to do a show in the Roberts Art Gallery at the high school. We also selected eight of what we thought would be the best paintings and had some really nice high resolution images made for posters.
SI: How much for a print?
LA: $10 each. All to benefit education. We'll have a few in frames to showcase local frame shops. But all told we're exhibiting 21 of the original paintings.
SI: That's unbelievably cool.
LA: This whole event has been but when we found out about these paintings. I mean, who knew? It's so perfect. It's all been very exciting.
SI: So to completely derail things a bit, we're heading out of summer and into fall. What's your favorite fall fruit or vegetable?
LA: Wow. Favorite piece of produce. Hm. Wow um...
SI: I know it's like picking a favorite child.
LA: Yeah, there's just so much and heading into fall, well let's see. Oh! I really love the sweet winter squash kabocha, specifically the red kabocha squash. I usually roast it whole in a 375 degree oven. And then after it gets soft, cut it in half and scoop seeds. And did you know you can eat the skin? It's one of the few winter squashes you can do that to. Eat the skin. It's delicious.
Get the Squid Ink'd Newsletter
Sign up for our weekly food newsletter, which features top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips and a link to our print review.