Eight years ago last month, I was hired to manage the Berkeley Farmers’ Markets, a thirty-hour per week job that paid ten dollars an hour. I got my own desk with a phone and a code for the copier. In 1996, there was one computer. The Terrain editor used it most of the time, but sometime, I could get an hour or two. At my first staff meeting, the collective welcomed me warmly. None of those people still work full-time at the Ecology Center.
My first day on the job was Saturday, August 3. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse came to sign her new book, Chez Panisse Vegetables—and graciously donated the proceeds to the Ecology Center, almost $2,000. Outgoing manager Clem Clay introduced me to the sellers, about thirty in all. More than half are still selling at the Saturday market.
These “family farms” are truly farmed by families—real families, related by blood or choice. I met the parents and the children, the sisters-in-law, and the grandparents. Conservative third-generation Central Valley farmers sold next to maturing hippies who had left city jobs in the ’70s to homestead in the foothills and pioneer modern organic farming. We welcomed the babies who would grow up selling fruit, and cheered their college degrees. We celebrated weddings and mourned losses of family members and family farms.
In 1996, Ecology Center members sat in wooden chairs in a circle at the Pink House on King Street, agreeing that our programs and projects were way too different for us to supervise or guide each other, much less hire and fire each other. Yes, we said finally, hire someone to help put it all together. After over 25 years, we stopped being a collective, and the board hired an executive director.
The markets shrank and grew with the seasons, every year the same farms in the same order. Riverdog and Full Belly, Pomo Tierra and Terra Firma, Firme, Smit, Davis, Four Sisters, Solano Mushroom, and Guru Ram Das Farms are steady during the winter, when we tie down the stands and make salads with red cabbage and apples and raisins. February asparagus is the first hint of spring. Then Will Brokaw and Jim Brooks bring avocados and sprouts. April means strawberries, artichokes, and peas from Lucero and Swanton Berry Farms. In May, Blue Heron and Dirty Girl bring greens and Frog Hollow, cherries.
I learned that hail in March and April could mean no cherries or apricots, and that too much rain keeps the bees inside during apple-blossom time. When Kashiwase and Woodleaf Farms show up with the first peaches, our fair-weather customers come back. They crowd the markets as tomatoes, corn, peppers, peaches and melons and grapes overflow the tables. Then apples and pears and late-summer beans, and ’round again to persimmons and mandarin oranges for the New Year and the rain and the wind and the dark. Every new farm that joins must find a place in the pattern, and every new farm and every farmer’s experimental diversification causes a ripple, sometimes a storm.
By 1999, the Saturday Market was growing. Fellow co-manager Kirk Lumpkin and I were working 40 hours a week, splitting all the work of running the markets. Pay was up a little and life was sweeter and busier. I became the market cop, patrolling the boundaries. I learned how to evict drunks sweetly, tell Girl Scouts they couldn’t sell cookies, remind dog-walkers and smokers about the rules, and make sure the folk singer didn’t interfere with the subtle art of peach-selling. Every market day you’d hear me walking up the aisle yelling, “Who owns the blue Volvo station wagon parked in the fire lane? Who wants the blue Volvo station wagon parked in the fire lane?”
But the hardest part was enforcing direct marketing rules. I grew suspicious eyes for the too-early peppers, the too-regular zucchinis, the organic corn with no worms, the cherries that kept coming for months from the same ten trees. We visited a few farms every year. One year Kirk found bottles of pesticides stashed under a bush on the farm that had, for ten years, claimed no chemical use. That farm isn’t selling in Berkeley any more. Mostly it wasn’t so easy. With small farmers standing up against Wal-Mart, what ag agent or market manager can bear to destroy the livelihood of a fifteen-acre vegetable farmer selling her neighbor’s celery as her own? I bluff and threaten and take pictures and make phone calls anyway in the service of integrity.
As the century turned, the Ecology Center got more crowded. We got more computers, phone extensions, email and voicemail. Kathy Hutton left suddenly; Martin Bourque took over as executive director, and we talked about diversity a lot.
There are market days that stay in my memory. One Saturday in February 1997 the wind was blowing sheets of rain sideways so hard that shelters were useless. Six farmers stayed, most sitting in their trucks and scrambling out for the occasional customer. The two men from Terra Firma Farm stood out in the pouring rain in yellow slickers selling glistening carrots and cabbages. I was in my slickers too, grinning and dancing in the middle of the aisle, handing out buttons that read, “I Shop at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, Even in the Rain.”
In 1997 and 1998, we tried a new farmers’ market in West Berkeley on Thursdays, the first at the bottom of University Avenue, under the freeway. A dozen or so hardy farmers hung in until October, but we couldn’t lure Fourth Street shoppers to our out-of-the-way corner for organic produce. The next year we tried the parking lot of Grocery Outlet at Fourth & Addison. The grapes were like candy and the collards were fresh, but the real prices charged by real organic family farmers were too high for most of Grocery Outlet’s bargain-hunting customers.
Kirk and I wrestled fiercely in our five years as co-managers. We fought over the need for new signs and who was going to paint them, over Morris dancing in the middle of the market, and whether farmers should get regular selling spots every week. Kirk was always the one who reminded us to live what we taught. He always had his own cloth shopping bag and his own cup and plate. And he was the best partner a market cop could ever want. I can still see him sprinting across the field where the Alternative High School is now, followed closely by five farmers, just before he grabbed the pickpocket he’d seen lifting a wallet from a customer’s open backpack.
In 2001, Kirk & I ceased to be the Kirk-and-Penny show. Kirk cut back to half-time, keeping the responsibility for special events and promotions. I became manager of the two markets, and Amy Tang took on the new assistant manager job. Later, Amy managed the Tuesday market while I took on the statewide farmers’ market Electronic Benefits Transfer implementation project, helping other farmers’ markets adapt when paper food stamps gave way to debit cards.
The EBT work brought state funding into the Ecology Center, but it pulled me away from the markets. While I was putting on workshops in Fresno, I couldn’t write a newsletter to vendors. I couldn’t stay in touch with the farmers’ advisory committee about who should be able to sell apple juice and strawberries. I couldn’t recruit new vendors to keep the markets full. It was a couple years of stress and guilt.
A change in the rules recently let us bring cooking booths into farmers’ markets. The food court brought great lunch from international chefs, and new complications. Setting up tables and chairs for the customers meant driving an extra vehicle. We started looking for a bigger truck with a diesel engine so we could run on biodiesel. We finally found an old postal step-van, but it’s so smoky when we start it up that we still don’t know if we should put the Ecology Center logo on the side. Plastic forks and throw-away containers in overflowing garbage cans keep reminding us that the Ecology Center needs to do a little better with managing the waste stream at our own markets. This festival is growing and needs greening.
After a year and a half incubating in the parking lot of Elephant Pharmacy, and many months of negotiations with city staff, the all-organic North Shattuck Farmers’ Market opened at Shattuck and Rose this August. Kirk set up the stage for the jazz band, and assistant manager Linda Graham and I set up traffic signs and banners. Mayor Tom Bates opened the market, and Alice Waters welcomed us to her neighborhood. We all ate peaches. It was a sweet wrap to my eight-year shift. Thank you all. —Penny Leff