Laissez-faire it A’int

Strawberries and tomatoes, apple cider and green beans. Berkeley Farmers’ Markets bustle with an abundance of the best of each season’s harvest. Because our farmers grow in Northern California, many sell asparagus in March, strawberries in May, and tomatoes in July.  Occasionally a farmer will mention to a customer that she isn’t allowed to sell her strawberries at the Berkeley markets. And that customer will march right over to the Ecology Center booth at the market and protest to the manager that “This isn’t fair! Look at all the other farmers selling strawberries! Why can’t this one poor farmer sell her strawberries too?”
Welcome to commodity control, a three-years-young policy at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. It’s part of the juggling act that I, as market manager, perform each week.
For most of the history of the Berkeley markets, the rules were simple. Any farmer could sell anything that he or she grew, as long as it was listed on the producer’s certificate. Diversity and experimentation were encouraged. As the market matured, many vegetable farmers planted fruit trees, and many of the fruit farmers shifted into selling dried fruits, fruit pastries, jams, juices, and pickles. Some years it seemed almost everyone grew tomatoes or strawberries. Since both tomatoes and strawberries are high-input crops, expensive to grow and highly perishable, the farmers who grew them were gambling on an uncertain marketplace.
Further, while farmers might alter their annual market plans, they can’t switch from tomatoes to squash blossoms in a week. And they look at last year’s sales as an indication of customer buying habits. Swanton Berry Farm expected to sell eighty flats of berries on an April Tuesday in Berkeley, because they’d sold eighty in the same week last year. But when they showed up with their eighty boxes, they discovered that the greens and asparagus farmers of the year before were filling their tables with juicy sweet strawberries. Swanton took half its berries back to the farm and said they might have to drop out of the Tuesday Market unless something changed.
Another spring, I invited a new farm into the Saturday market because they had a beautiful display of salad greens at the Marin Farmers’ Market. As soon as Happy Boy Farms started selling greens on Saturdays, a couple of our other farmers, who depend on their tomato crop every year to pay the bills, told me they were anxious about tomato season, still three months away. They knew that Happy Boy tomatoes could have a big  impact on their sales in Berkeley, and they asked me to do something, maybe even change the rules.
After discussion over potluck with the farmers’ market committee, and discussion over burritos and beer with the farmers after market one Saturday in December 2000, the farmers’ advisory committee and commodity control at the market were born. Happy Boy doesn’t sell tomatoes in Berkeley, but they still sell lots of other vegetables every Saturday. Now everything is up for discussion about who can sell what. All sellers, new and old, must ask permission before selling each crop. I consult with farmers who already sell in Berkeley before I add new farms or products that might compete. But the farmers remember that it might well be them next week asking to sell something different—and they know, too, that customers must have variety and competition to keep returning to the  market. Balancing the needs of farmers  already in the market with the needs of new farmers and the desires of customers for lots of everything to choose from results in a controlled chaos of managed marketing—the Berkeley Farmers’ Market you enjoy on Saturdays, and Tuesdays, and sometimes Thursdays.

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