Fed up with bad news, I went the other day to the farmers’ market, one of my favorite places in Sacramento. Sweet cherries were in season, for now.
“Eight weeks,” Missy Gotelli told me as shoppers jostled around bins of Bings, Rainiers and Brookses from her Gotelli Farms in Lodi. “We typically start in late April and end in late June. Forty-one markets a week. In, out, done.”
Under his pop-up tent, Jose Gallardo offered Albion and Monterey strawberries, also fleeting. Each week, in the morning dark, he loads up in Watsonville and Salinas and drives some 175 miles to my local market, sleeping with his haul of berries and kale, cauliflower and broccoli in his Gallardo Organic Farms van.
“Albion is more sweet,” he instructed, holding up a deep red one. “In March, it is cold and raining and the plant is sleeping. But in June — ooh, a lot of berries. Sweetest is this color. Some people don’t like the green tops, but me? I eat everything.”
There are some 700 certified farmers’ markets in the state, so many that it is easy to forget that as recently as the mid-1970s, farmers’ markets were on their way out in California. Common in the 1930s, they were all but wiped out in the 1950s and ’60s by the regulations that helped make California agriculture a phenomenon worldwide.
Sorting, packing, transportation and sales were so thoroughly geared to the mass market that it was all but impossible for farmers to bypass wholesale distributors and packing houses. Small growers were sacrificing much of their profit margins. Tree fruit was going to waste by the ton because it could not be sold unless it conformed to strict standards governing its size, color and ripeness, the better for shipping and supermarket display.
That changed in the 1970s as small farmers, consumer activists and anti-hunger organizations lobbied to move agricultural policy, even if only a little, at the federal level and in California. The state’s Direct Marketing Act of 1978 — signed by Jerry Brown, then in his first stint as governor — was a tipping point as public opinion shifted. Farmers’ markets took root from San Francisco to Santa Monica.
“It was a two-year conversation with the agriculture industry,” Ann M. Evans, a former mayor of Davis who worked at the time for the Brown administration, recently told me. “Even though it sounds obvious now.”
That long conversation — and all that it altered — isn’t top of mind for the crowds who flock on Saturdays to my usual midtown market, jamming the stalls and food trucks even if Covid has not passed.
They’re there for the heirloom tomatoes Juan Islas hauls up from Jacobs Farm in Los Banos and for Eliana Carter’s apricots and walnuts from Winters Fruit Tree. They’re there for Bobby Mull’s Zeal kombucha, fresh from the cooler. They’re there for the artisan bread that Kenneth Curran and Tatton White bring down from their Camina Bakery in Chico — loaves so fragrant and fresh and steeped in the lineage of Northern California’s artisanal food movement that I’ve seen people tear into them with their bare hands right there on the sidewalk.
But the back story is there, too, humming behind the scenes like good news in a bad time: Things can change, it says, and a small change can make a big difference.
And in the meantime, sweet cherries are in season in California, people. Get ’em while they last.
Tell us more:
Summer is prime time for farmers’ markets in California. Email us at [email protected] with your favorite markets, vendors and agricultural memories.
If you read one story, make it this
“Every time I type the word ‘Hollywood,’ I feel a twinge of anachronism, as if I were speaking a dead language or writing about a country in the process of being erased from the map,” writes my colleague A.O. Scott, The New York Times’s co-chief film critic. In a timely analysis that is powerful all the way to the last line, he asks whether Americans can still unite around the movies in these divided times.
What we’re eating
Turkey pitas with cucumbers, chickpeas and tahini.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Gayle Jensen, who recommends Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park in Humboldt County:
“The redwood parks are like heaven on earth, but Prairie Creek is the favorite — with Fern Canyon the best feature. Just watch out for the wild Roosevelt elk that the park call home. Be respectful and keep your distance.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What we’re listening to
On “The Daily,” we expanded on our California Today interview this week with Dr. Garen Wintemute, a gun violence policy researcher at the University of California, Davis Medical Center, who has found that California’s approach to gun laws is making more of a difference than many Americans realize.