From city to suburb

Sacramento region’s farmers’ markets offer local food, produce and sense of community

Scott Lawrence from Lawrence Farm in Oroville shows off his black cherry tomatoes.

Scott Lawrence from Lawrence Farm in Oroville shows off his black cherry tomatoes.

Photo By natashA vonKaenel

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has proclaimed August 2 through 8 as National Farmers Market Week. So we sent two of our spriest summer interns on a mission: Natasha vonKaenel covered the farmers’ market within Sacramento city limits; Gina Finn covered the suburbs. Natasha’s up first, and as you’ll discover after you’ve read both pieces, the city and the suburbs have more in common than you’d think.

Kid on the grid

For fellow farmers’ market junkies, the grid is the place to be. Four lunchtime markets in the downtown/Midtown area between Tuesdays and Thursdays function as pit stops during the summertime. Employees can take a pleasant break in a shaded park while picking up a snack or some fresh peaches to take home that night.

While the lunchtime markets are a great place to relax and spend a lunch hour, they do tend to be small. There are a variety of fruits and vegetables, but not many alternatives if a certain vendor’s produce is not to your liking. This is especially true at the Downtown Plaza market, which only has 15 merchants.

The Cesar Chavez Plaza market is the lunchtime market with the most variety. The entire center plaza is devoted to prepared food: breads, Mexican food, ribs and Italian ice. The outer loop of the park is for certified farmers selling their “California grown” produce.

On Tuesdays at P and Ninth streets, the Roosevelt Park market covers half a square block, with the added opportunity to watch soccer or catch a pickup basketball game. There are the basics: an assortment of fruit and vegetables, a cheese vendor and a bread stand. For those craving a full meal, there is gourmet Chinese food and a sandwich-and-salad stand.

Seven blocks away, on P and 16th streets in Fremont Park, a slightly larger market simultaneously ensues. It’s more expansive, and you can buy freshly made crepes, register to vote, sign up for a home mortgage and pick up produce, of course, all while listening to some relaxing, live New Age jazz by Dave Harper.

While the lunchtime crowd is mainly dressed in suits and ties, heels and dresses, the bigger markets, such as the Thursday Florin Road market and the Saturday Country Club Plaza markets cater to a more relaxed dress code.

At the market on Florin Road, a young boy smiles widely while participating in a farmers’ market program that works with local schools. Filled with families, this year-round market is the most affordable I visited. The vendors cater to large families looking for deals on food in bulk.

All of the markets in Sacramento provide variety, but the Sunday market under the freeway on Eighth and W streets is the mother of all Sacramento farmers’ markets. It can be dirty, noisy, and crowded, but it makes up for these drawbacks with its extraordinary array of foods and produce. It is the only market to carry animal products, including all-natural beef, organic chicken, oysters and more.

Whichever market satisfies your tastes, visit it often; you’ll soon have your favorite “bread lady” or “honey man.” It’s a great feeling to personally get to know the people who grow your food.

Suburban connection

When you only stand at eye level with the tables at the Sunrise Mall farmers’ market, you really get a chance to scrutinize your produce. This was the task of one 4-year-old girl early one Saturday morning as she received samples from the proud grower, as well as encouragement from her parents. After a minute of careful deliberation, the perfect basket of blackberries was delivered to her open arms, and she chimed her approval: “Mmm … these are good!”

It was a scene that would be replayed throughout the morning as nearly 4,000 people filed into the market in search of their own perfect fruits and vegetables. Many in the crowd didn’t just show up for the guaranteed fresh and organic produce, but also to support local farmers.

“I think that people like to interact with the people that grow their food,” information-booth worker Renae Best said. “They like to have some sort of connection with the grower. They worry about their farmer; they want to shop from the person they know. They’ve seen the farmers’ kids behind the stand grow up, go to college and then come [back] and run the whole stand during the summer. It’s just the kind of connection of actually knowing and having a personal relationship with the grower.”

It’s also the kind of connection that many will go out of their way to make. These markets draw people from all over the Sacramento and Northern California area.

“I have people come as far as Napa,” said D.J., who was manning the Great Harvest Bread Company booth at the farmers’ market in Lincoln.

There are enticements that aren’t food and produce related, as well. The farmers’ market in downtown Roseville on Tuesday nights hosts a popular classic-car show.

“I like showing my car off and talking to the people,” said Stephen Jones, whose red 1966 Mustang is a common sight at the Roseville market.

Many suburban markets also feature local arts-and-crafts and other services that aren’t food related. The farmers’ markets in downtown Roseville and Folsom on Thursday evenings feature booths from local businesses selling jewelry, handbags, psychic readings and portraits. There is also live music and beer and wine gardens.

When asked, vendors and shoppers alike said they enjoy coming to farmers’ markets because connecting the farmer who grows the food to the customer who consumes it creates a deeper sense of community.

“We get constant feedback from our customers, which is so important,” said Camelia Miller, of Twin Peaks Orchards, a fixture at local farmers’ markets for more than 25 years. “When you’re selling through a store, you’re selling to somebody else, and they’re getting the feedback. So we’re able to talk with our customers, work with them. Also, we cut out the middleman, so it’s a lot more profitable for our farm, too.”