More than a market
Celebrating three decades of connecting locals with their food
Gerald Bonds remembers when attracting 200 shoppers was considered a success at the Chico Saturday farmers’ market. Today, he often sees 200 people or more at any one time.
The Chico Certified Farmers Market organizes the weekly market and will be celebrating its 30th anniversary on July 31. Bonds has been there through it all, watching it grow from a tiny assemblage of growers and buyers—he boasts proudly that he was the fourth farmer to join up—to one of the best-attended, longest-running and most popular events in Chico history, and a place that provides locals with a connection to their food.
“In the beginning we had what people refer to as hippies or longhairs,” Bonds said. “We didn’t get very mainstream until 1985.”
The history of farmers’ markets in the state started with the California Department of Food and Agriculture, which created the Certified Farmers Market program to allow farmers to sell directly to consumers. The program was established in 1977 and exempted certified farmers from adhering to the sizing, packing and labeling requirements previously established for commercial preparation. (Today, there are about 520 certified farmers’ markets and approximately 2,900 certified producers, according to the CDFA.)
Locally, a market was the brainchild of two college students who wanted a place to sell their produce.
“Back then there were hardly any farmers’ markets, just a few scattered throughout the state,” said Armen Carlon, one of the founders of the CCFM.
Carlon recalled that she and her now-husband, John, came up with the idea for the event while hanging out at a local bar. The hardest part for the couple was finding the right place for such an event. Long-time Chicoans will remember that the market actually sent down roots in the parking lot of the now-defunct Gold Country Market at Fifth and Flume streets.
For the past 18 years it’s been situated in a municipal parking lot at Second and Wall streets, where 2,000-3,000 people shop week in and week out for fresh produce and other foodstuffs and wares, said Terry Givens, who manages the CCFM.
“The location it ended up in is good,” offered Carlon, owner of Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm. “Everyone seems to access it easily. I think the vendors and patrons are happy.”
Of course, there have been a lot of other changes over the past three decades.
Carlon, 52, has noticed that the market has become part of a routine for many Chicoans. She’s also seen an increased interest on the part of consumers to learn where their food is grown.
Bonds, who will be 80 years old next month, said that there’s something special about farmers being able to sell their goods to locals face-to-face. Bonds started selling his produce there while he was working for Pacific Bell (now AT&T). After 34 years with the company he passed up the opportunity to transfer to Sacramento and instead opted to take an early retirement and focus most of his attention on his crops.
He started with five acres off of Dayton Road. Today, he grows such produce as red onions, potatoes and melons on a property half that size near Glenwood Avenue. However, because of the market’s larger customer base, he’s selling more than ever.
Givens noted that every vendor, whether selling bread or crafts, has certified that they personally made what they sell. Givens, who started out selling sprouts and walnuts at the CCFM in 1991, became manager in 1996 after she decided that she could run the market better than anyone else.
“I was from Los Angeles, and I was used to things that were big and bountiful and vibrant,” she said, “and I felt like these people could really make some money out here, and that was what kind of drove me.”
Givens thinks the market has since turned into something much more than a place to sell produce.
“I think this is a small community and a great gathering place,” she said. “Essentially that’s what these farmers’ markets have evolved into—gathering, meeting your friends and socializing.”
Bonds agrees that the market is a great place to interact with people.
“It becomes part of your extended family,” he said. “I still have some of the same customers I had when I started.”
Givens also thinks part of its success is due to its year-round format. And it helps that Chicoans largely prefer to shop locally.
“I think people in small towns, especially Chico, are very, very loyal,” she said.
For Karen Alexander, another veteran vendor, who sells blackberries, plums and garlic this time of year, one of best qualities about the market is getting to interact with her customers.
“The people, I love them,” said Alexander, who has been selling her produce there for more than 20 years. “They are nice, they are patient and I don’t think in all these years I have had more than one crabby customer. You tell them, ‘I’ll be right with you, thanks for waiting,’ and they are so OK with it.
“I think the people like the atmosphere because the sellers are really friendly,” she continued. “They are willing to give you advice on your home garden. The farmers are really willing to give you information. There is a wealth of knowledge here.”