Story and photos by Nora Becker
On the first day of October, people flocked to the Saturday Berkeley Farmers’ Market. Despite the grey sky and the chilly autumn air, here they were: families with young children pushing carts, elderly folks in masks and light down jackets, groups of friends standing in circles huddled over warm crêpes and espresso drinks, and, of course, the farmers and market vendors who travel to Berkeley—sometimes for many hours—to fill tents along Center Street with fresh, local food and produce.
This particular Saturday, the market was in seasonal transition. The produce reflected the end of summer in the still-present-but-waning peppers, melons, stone fruit, zucchini, and shelling beans. And regardless of whether people were ready, the cool season had begun announcing itself with winter squash, hardy greens, and apples.
The customers, too, proved to be moving between modes. There were weekenders—slower, casual, taking many laps to peruse the produce and people-watch—and others still running on the energy of their work week, purposefully walking to their regular spots to wait in line, order, and fill their bags before bustling off to other weekend tasks.
Pressures on Farmers: Drought, Fire, Labor, Inflation
The farmers and market vendors take everything in stride, attending to the lines that build up quickly and answering questions from shoppers. Roberto Gonzalez, the owner of Golden Rule Organics based out of San Benito County, made a little time to talk about his concerns for the future of his farm as he arranged baskets of cheerful cherry tomatoes.
Given the dire water situation in California, the county has issued new regulations that require costly changes to the farm’s operation. Mr. Gonzalez was specifically worried about the money it will take to build a well and respond to water cost hikes and charges on water usage past a certain metered amount. To make up for the increased costs of water, he feels it may be necessary to raise prices at the farmers’ market, but there is push-back from customers already experiencing price hikes elsewhere. He said that a 10% price increase might be alright, but anything more, and he might lose the farmers’ market business he relies on.
Worries about inflation and cost increases were prevalent among many vendors. Nina, who has worked as a market vendor for Brokaw Ranch for about a decade now, said that gas costs are a big problem. It takes about five-and-a-half hours to drive to Berkeley from the Santa Paula ranch in Ventura County and a little over two hours from the other Brokaw farm, in Soledad. On top of that, environmental factors have had a major cost. Fires near the Santa Paula ranch destroyed many of the avocado trees; Nina said that the “hot ground boiled the roots, essentially.” Heat waves and surprise-frosts, too, have hurt crop yields. And on top of all that, avocado prices are tied to global availability and supply chains. Brokaw Ranch raised prices earlier in the year in response to a Mexican avocado shortage, and now Peruvian avocados are flooding the market, so prices have gone down slightly.
Luckily, owner Will Brokaw, whose grandfather is said to have pollinated the first Hass avocado tree, is extraordinarily dedicated to the art of growing this popular fruit. He persists in his precision to harvest perfect avocados (those with the preferred fat to water ratio). In addition to Hass and Gwen avocados, Brokaw Ranch produces passion fruit, kiwis, oranges, mandarins, lemons, kumquats, cherimoya, and guavas.
At the Billy Bob Orchards stand, owner Bill Peixoto’s son, Zac, was preoccupied with labor shortages. He was notably the only person at his busy stand, working quickly to answer customers’ questions and assist others waiting to check out. People were excitedly gesturing to and filling paper bags with Mutsu, Jonagold, Gala, Honeycrisp, and Empire apples—all juicy and crisp and flavorful. Zac had time only to mention that “labor is a lot harder to find” these days, and that the farm is busy with harvesting, packing, and selling at farmers’ markets. Because the farmers’ market job requires a hearty drive from Watsonville (just south of Santa Cruz) to Berkeley and other destinations, it has been hard to find interested workers who also live near enough to the orchards. For this particular market, Zac was on his own.
At the Blue Heron Farms stand, Jesse, who also works on the flower team at this Santa Cruz County coastal farm, talked about how work was slowing down for the season. Tired from a busy year of planting, harvesting, and attending markets, people on the farm are ready for their usual market hiatus, which begins around Thanksgiving.
Jesse said they have noticed a shift in seasonal temperatures at the farm. It seems to be getting warmer earlier, forcing the growing season to begin a little earlier than normal and also causing a slowdown of dahlias and cucumbers a little earlier, too. Jesse said that this seasonal shift may just be their perception, but the warmer temperatures arriving earlier, in combination with drought conditions in the region, are concerning.
Blue Heron is certified organic, and the farmers work hard to use sustainable agricultural practices, influenced by biodynamic farming. Like other farms, Blue Heron is facing pressure to raise prices, but the farmers are hoping it won’t come to that. For many people working at farms and farmers’ markets, including Jesse, providing affordable and delicious produce to the public without sacrificing sustainable, ethical practices is the whole point. And with all that Blue Heron is doing right, Jesse said they have to feel optimistic about the future of organic agriculture. “But it’s hard,” they added.
Food for Farmers: What They’re Cooking
When the conversation shifted to food, Jesse of Blue Heron smiled. Comfort food is big at the farm, and for good reason. They recently smothered some al dente pasta in a cheese sauce, topped it with fresh cauliflower and breadcrumbs, and baked it to gooey, golden perfection. Here’s the recipe.
For those who agree with Jesse that some comfort food is in order, nachos could be a fun project, and here’s a nutrition-rich and seasonal approach: Cook some freshly shelled cranberry beans in broth or water seasoned with rosemary, a bay leaf, and some salt until tender. Peel and cut a butternut squash into small, bite-sized cubes and roast it. Place a layer of tortilla chips in a baking dish and top with the cooked beans and squash. Add a topping of shredded goat or cow cheddar and bake briefly, only until the cheese melts. Then top with guacamole and serve. Find a more detailed recipe here.
While eggplant varieties like the tender Rosa Bianca (my favorite) and the firmer Globe remain at the market, it’s an easy decision to make some baba ganoush. For a smokey flavor, try charring the eggplant over a gas burner or under a broiler, then roast it until it’s collapsed. Mix the super-soft insides with some tahini, lemon juice, and a little minced garlic, drizzle with some good extra virgin olive oil, and serve. Find a more detailed recipe here.
Now is the time to preserve the beautiful remnants of summer crops lingering at the market. Pickled cucumbers, green beans, okra, or peppers would be good bets. So, head to your local farmers’ market and enjoy them before buckling in for fall.
Nora Becker is a writer, freelance cookbook editor, and farmers’ market associate for Full Belly Farm.