You probably know that this week is the 30th anniversary celebration of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, scheduled to be feted with the week-long Good Food Festival & Conference, gallery shows, and of course, food. The Santa Monica Farmers Market may not have made the top five in a recent poll of top markets in the state. But it's hands down number one in most Angelenos' hearts for many very good reasons.
Every single one of those reasons is likely the result of Laura Avery, who has been the manager of the Santa Monica Farmers Market since 1982. In that time she's helped transform not only her own market, but how all of Los Angeles handles farmers market viability, credibility, quality, and ethical standards to the benefit of the city, the consumer, and the farmer. Avery has also been tackling Big Ag, confronting some serious challenges on behalf of the small farmers who bring such diverse products to the market. We had a chance to catch up with Avery this week to see what's changed, what hasn't, and what the future holds for farmers and the markets that support them.
Squid Ink: Do you remember your first day working at the market?
Laura Avery: It was September 1982. I was supposed to start earlier but I had just had my second baby in June, and then in August I had a big family reunion, so I said, Let's do September.
I had spent a few days at market with someone. She handed me a clipboard with the farmer set up. I would leave the baby at home and walk down the street to the market holding onto that clipboard; I was never without that clipboard and I was trying to memorize where everyone went. I had the feeling like this is going to be great but I had to have that clipboard! I went around and introduced myself. I wanted to ask them about their farms. Make my rounds. Right away the farmers realized that I liked to listen. So they started telling me things. It was a whole lot of info to digest.
SI: How many vendors did you start out with?
LA: I think we started out with 23. By the time I got there there were 40. Back in the early days there were a lot of what I would call freelance farmers: people who were just buying from local distributors and showing up to sell.
SI: That's obviously not how it was supposed to work.
LA: Things have really changed a lot. I think I always had a sense of understanding what a farmers market was supposed to be about: it's for farmers to come and sell what they grow and then you could come and meet the growers. There was a big hurdle though. In early days of the markets the rules were that you had to let anyone in who had a certified producer certificate. SO someone could show up, show a certificate and say, “I have a bunch of strawberries I want to sell,” and I had to let them in, regardless if I already had other strawberry vendors there. It became very apparent that market managers needed to have more control over the product. There is a direct marketing advisory committee appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture that acts as a sort of watchdog group to keep an eye on local farmers market evolution. But it was made up of people from The Western Growers Association, the Retail Growers, and the Agriculture Marketing Council.
SI: So in essence, Big Ag?
LA: Yes. Big commercial interests opposed to establishing farmers markets that support the small farmer. Prior to the establishment of farmers markets, all fruits and vegetables had to be sold through wholesale distributors. So during my first term, I went up and said look, we can't just take in anyone with a certificate. We need to be able to establish criteria ourselves so that we can better control the quality and the credibility of our markets.
SI: When would that have been?
LA: 1984 to 1986. It ended up in a big discussion, and other markets were very interested. And it was a hugely complicated process. We presented an amendment to the direct marketing regulations to the advisory committee. Then it was discussed and edited. Then we wrote the second version and presented it to the Secretary of Agriculture. Then it was subject to a 45-day hearing. But in the end we finally got an amended regulation that passed that would allow farmers market managers to set their own criteria for vendor admission. Which meant we could say at last that we had enough strawberry farmers today, and keep things more selective and diverse. This was a huge thing and very important.
SI: It sounds complicated.
LA: And it didn't end there. So we then would have some vendors who would say they were out of product but that they had this friend with a farm and they were going to just go ahead and sell their friend's product at their booth. Another product loophole. So again, we went back to the state. And you understand that in many cases we believed that these weren't actual partnerships between small farmers. So we were able to get another amendment through that said every partnership is a separate and distinct producer and that managers could limit the number of partnerships a producer could have. So for example, you have Farmer A and then there's Farmer B selling at his stand. That's a second certified producer and we could limit Farmer A to one second certified producer a year. So that made a huge difference, too.
Then we got a boost from the Department of Agriculture. They changed the requirement for certificates and stated that all certified producer certificates had to be embossed by the issuing county. Up until then, people could present us with a Xerox copy of a certificate and we had to accept it at face value. This new reg stopped people from copying other people's certificates, which was happening a lot, and gave us another checkpoint. We now had all these ways to keep up and stay vigilant, to avoid the run around and stay true to the market's intent. I mean, who knew there would be this much intrigue, but it became such a huge part of our job — to keep an eye on our farmers and make sure that they were only selling what they grew themselves.
SI: So that's the produce. How about the bottom line?
LA: I don't think anyone foresaw what a money-making opportunity it would be. The City of Santa Monica, being a city, was not in it for the profit. The motive was community service. And we had a very successful market model. The market was paid for entirely by fees on the farmers' revenue after the first two years. We're not grant funded. I know big markets like Hollywood are run by larger non-profits that run several markets and use grants and fundraisers like the Vibiana's Roots of Change event. I'm just glad I don't have to answer to a board of directors. And were really proud of the fact that we established our participation fees on a percent basis.
SI: Can you explain that a little?
LA: The vendors pay a percent of their gross sales every week to the city. It's based on what they say they make.
SI: And what's the percentage?
LA: 4.5 percent per farmer per day. I'm really proud to say they are the lowest fees of any market anywhere. And we can keep them low because the growth of markets and revenues have increased 5 percent a year. We've never had to change our base rate since 1986.
SI: So it's a one size that really fits all?
LA: It's a progressive rate. Farmers who make thousand dollars a day pay the same 4.5 percent that farmers who make $150 do. It's a nice tidy number. And they're happy because it's fair for everyone. In Northern California there's a flat fee on all the markets up there which, sure, gives them a guaranteed income. But then the smaller farmers get excluded. Some of those fees are too much. And go figure — most of the Southern California markets operate on a percentage.
SI: So with all the work you had to make sure that the products were credible, how do you then make sure that the farmers are paying you a true fee or one they just made up?
LA: We initialized a system to do farm booth audits. We would hire an auditor to stand in the booth and record every transaction and compare for accuracy. And we did find that there was some serious under-reporting going on. That was corrected.
SI: And by that you mean…?
LA: We told them, look, we know you're cheating and you better report accurately or you will be kicked out. We were shocked at some of the instances of under-reporting. We ended up rewriting the market rules, with a whole section for penalties for under-reporting. It eliminated a lot of what we would call fraud. We had drop-outs. But we also had some great people stay and keep to the rules. Overall revenue increased. Accountability is better across the board.
SI: So who does the auditing?
LA: We hire an an employment service for people who are returning to the workforce. They send us their people and we give them a simple sheaf of columns and they record transactions. Accountability aside, the audits reveal some really interesting data. A great example was this big plant vendor. Took up over 40 feet of market space, but he was reporting only $180 in sales. So we did an audit and it came back that he was only making around 18 sales all day long. But his product was taking up 40 feet of space. They were high maintenance annual plants and they had been around since the market opened. So we looked at the space and the demand and told him, look, you only have 18 customers. You can stay, but we're taking you down to 10 feet of space. They decided that wasn't going to work for them so they left and we ended up putting two other vendors in his place who generate $2000 a week. Not that we're going to kick out under-performers. Some small farmers provide really hard to find quality products that we want in the market for diversity. But in this case it was something that clearly had its day.
SI: So the audits are generally well received?
LA: We always say it's on an honor system. But once in a while things just don't add up. Once we put a few teeth into it, the bottom line is the farmer doesn't want to lose their spot. They all want to be here and it's a source of pride for them when they do well. Their success is our success and everybody is happy.
SI: So that's a lot for the nearly 30 years you've been here. What's the biggest change you've noticed in that time?
LA: [Laughs.] You know, I never thought about it before. A lot of it has been, “Wow! Look at all this great food I get to bring home!” It's been so incredibly fun and interesting even with all the challenges. And the years have just flown by. One of the big changes I notice comes from looking at old pictures. Not everyone had grey hair back then! And then it's, wow, we've come a long way. But really the bigger question is what the markets will be like 30 years from now. And you know, we're not the only market celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. There's Fullerton. And I think Pasadena is a little over 30 now. And Hollywood and Torrance are close behind. It's been great to have the Santa Monica market be such a stable and supportive environment. And we wanted to do something deserving of the market. We didn't want to just a commemorative coffee cup. We wanted to go out of the box. And the Good Food Festival goes way way out of it. Let the party begin!
Check back later for part 2 of this interview: How much “way” is “way way” out of the box, a farm in Compton, and Avery's favorite fall vegetable.