The concept of "buying local" began in earnest more than 30 years ago, when California passed new marketing regulations allowing farmers to bring their produce to cities and sell directly to local consumers.
Today, that tradition is in full swing, and local farmers markets -- like Mountain View's popular Sunday affair -- are not only providing customers with healthy and delicious produce options, but cutting unnecessary costs and creating new product availability in the process.
In California, an estimated 1 million people shop at 508 markets around the state every week. The markets are run by a network of organizations that manage everything from the legitimacy of the products (they must be sold directly by the farmers who grow them) to the execution and promotion of the actual market.
"The Mountain View Farmers Market is the fourth-largest market in the state, with the highest percentage of agriculture," said Gail Hayden, director of the California Farmers' Markets Association, which oversees 15 markets in the Bay Area, including Mountain View's.
"We rotate over 200 farms through that market," Hayden said. "It's a lot of logistics."
Those farms represent only the top farmers among many that apply to sell at the Mountain View market each year, Hayden said.
"They put in their application to sell for the year and put down what they want to sell," she said, noting the logistical questions the association asks: "Do we have too many strawberries? Or do we really need more of this crop or that crop?"
Hayden said the association considers different criteria, such as whether a vendor has been with the market for several years, or whether the product is organic or hard to find.
Sometimes the products are juried, and only the best make it through. For example, this year the association picked from 22 tamale applicants.
"We assign the products based on the demand of the market," she said.
The vendors know this, too, and play their part in making sure the management doesn't think they're selling too well. At last Sunday's market, Hayden pointed to a large stack of empty strawberry boxes. The more empty boxes, the better that vendor is doing, she said. They'll never admit it, though, because that means managers may bring in another strawberry vendor, leading to more competition.
Though many of the vendors market the variety of their produce, some farms survive on one or two products alone. Nagamine Farms in Watsonville consists of six acres of greenhouses where they grow cucumbers. According to Mike Shinoda, an employee of the farm, they sell cucumbers at the farmers market every week of the year.
How many cucumbers?
"We don't tell anyone that," Shinoda said. "Quite a few."
The Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association (PCFMA), another organization that oversees 62 markets, doesn't even try to keep track of sales.
"Farmers are very secretive about their sales," said Sarah Nelson, special projects coordinator for PCFMA. She estimated that a farmer may sell between $1,000 and $1,500 worth of produce in a day, but added that "It really depends on the market."
Hayden said survey results indicate that Mountain View Farmers Market customers spend an average of $42 a week. Her organization estimates that on average, 5,000 people visit the Sunday market. Of those, about 2,500 are "purchasing agents," because people usually shop in couples or as families.
Though the math indicates that the market grosses approximately $105,000 weekly, Hayden believes the number is probably much less. "But it's all speculation," she said, since farmers do not report how much they sell.
What Hayden can say for certain is that the farmers market system is more efficient than a large distributor.
The California Farmer's Markets Association estimates that, on average, food that you purchase at a grocer has traveled 1,500 miles and changed hands six times. By contrast, products at the market are estimated to have traveled only 80 miles, saving fuel, time, energy and even packing costs and materials.
In addition to cutting out shipping inefficiencies, vendors who sell at local markets are free to sell produce that is considered "non marketable" by big grocery chains.
"There's no discrimination on shape and size," Hayden said, "Like a curved zucchini. When are you going to see a curved zucchini at a grocery store?"
Direct marketing regulations also allow farmers to sell produce that normally can't be shipped at all, like the Babcock peach from Mizuno Farms in Reedley, Calif. The Babcock's skin is purportedly so delicate it must be harvested by workers wearing white gloves. Such a sensitive fruit is impossible to ship -- so it, and other heirloom and antique produce, can only be sold in venues like the Mountain View Farmers Market.
The Mountain View Farmers Market is held every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the downtown Caltrain station, located at 600 W. Evelyn Ave. near Hope Street. For more information, visit www.cafarmersmkts.com/mtnview.html.