It’s a tough job, this. As part of it, we had to meet photographer Len Keller ’89, at the Caffe Galleria on 9th Street between Broadway and Washington at 9 a. m. Then we had to wander down Ninth Street, tasting garlic/onion almonds, sipping fresh apple cider, eating a sweet slice of Asian pear, and talking with the vendors thereof.
Fifty-six vendors ply their wares at the Old Oakland Farmers Market centered at 9th and Washington every Friday morning. The wares vary with the seasons. On this particular late July day, Hosui pears, “picked yesterday” Gravenstein apples, long beans, pistachios, and live partridges are in supply-along with several hundred other items.
“We don’t need the poultry sign;’ says Eric Moore’s assistant, “people can hear ’em clucking.” The Old Oakland Farmers Market is getting into full gear.
Eric is its manager. He tells us that between 1,000 and 4,000 people come through the market each Friday. “This isn’t a yuppie market. People come here to buy fresh food, good food. At a weekend market, people stroll around for hours. Here the average time spent shopping is about 15 minutes:’ He tells us, “The farmers like this market. The customers are good. They like the location. We have room for 56 farmers and that’s what we have. I don’t have room for any more right now.”
“Did you guys forget to bring money, or what?” asks an elderly man, as Len and I plot our course. “It’s amazing the stuff you can get here. The tomatoes are nice and ripe. I like them on beans and bread.”
A farmer from Turlock comes up here every Friday and often brings her fruits and vegetables to the Jack London Square Market which takes place on Sundays. The Old Oakland market is the bargain market, she says. Products selling for $ 1.00 a pound in Jack London Square go for 80 cents here.
A thriving business is the organic vegetables and fruits stand. But the men behind the counter are distributors rather than the farmers themselves, unusual here. Among the companies represented here is one called Cows in the Mist Organic Farming.
The woman from Dewey Farms in Yolo vends her pistachios. She and her husband leave their home at 5 in the morning to be set up by the 8:00 opening. This is her last trip to the market until October, when the next crop will be available. Her husband tells us they get their best sales just before closing time when the office workers from the surrounding high rises come out during their lunch break. “We enjoy being here in Oakland,” she says. “This market is good for us.” Her husband adds, “You can’t beat the weather here.” “Oakland gets a bad rap,” the woman says.
The Schletewitz Family Farm is in Sanger, east of Fresno. Its representative tells us that his fruits are not organic, though they have no spray on them. He says Oakland is a “pretty good” market for him. “Where’s a better one?” we ask. “That’s a secret!” he replies. Investigative reporting fails us. “You meet a lot of different kinds of people up here. It makes it interesting;’ he adds.
“Hi, I’m doing an article for a magazine. May I ask you some questions?” we approach the man from Eli Farms in Oroville. “Don’t ask me how old I am,” he says. He is selling Hosui and yellow pears and fresh Asian pear juice. This is his first day at the Oakland market this year. And he will return each Friday for three months, bringing this season’s crop. “I don’t know how the juice is going to go. Nobody’s made any Asian pear juice before,” he says. “An Asian pear, you know, doesn’t taste like a Bartlett. It’s real sweet. But it’s a pear you keep firm. Just throw ’em in the ice box and get one out when you want it. The yellow ones, you can keep in your refrigerator for—I don’t know—I’ve kept them in a refrigerator, a regular old refrigerator, for ten months. But the Hosui, they’re a little richer flavor than the 20th Century. I’ve only been able to keep them about two months.”
Cypress Farms Nursery comes up from Moss Beach with beautiful bouquets of fresh flowers. The vendors return to Moss Beach with $700 to $1100 from the Oakland Market.
Mr. Van Mourik, an almond rancher from Escalon, shows pictures of his trees through the seasons: elegant with white blossoms, heavy with rich harvest. “Taste that. That’s one of our best sellers. That’s garlic-onion:’ The almond is delicious. He also sells almond butter. “People realize that the almond is very healthy. And they like this better than peanut butter,” he says.
“I really like working here. It’s a great market, because of the people, and the guy who runs it is great. It’s so well organized,” says the vendor of lavender and caspia and peaches-and-cream pot pourri. His sign tells us that lavender “helps sleep, headaches, smells good.” The company “is called Status Symbol. I don’t know why,” he explains.
Kue Farming of Merced is one of the several Asian-owned businesses represented in the stalls. They sell assorted vegetables and explain to us the difference between two varieties of long beans, one of which “has more meat to it.”
Mr. Gebhart brings his nursery products from Orland every Friday. He sells a wide variety of herbs, including catnip and tulsi basil. “This is eastern basil. It’s very good in stir fries,” he says, snipping off a piece for us to smell. “Taste the leaves.” They are potent, almost sweet.
Marion Stephens has been selling to a crowd all morning. Here is an orderly line around his table. We reach him to talk only after he has completely sold out of his Chukar partridges which he has brought up, live in crates, from his Cholame Creek Game Bird Farm, near Paso Robles, some 200 miles from Oakland. “Chinese women from San Francisco come over here to Oakland to buy my birds,” he says. A woman interrupts to ask about pheasants. “Not till September;’ he tells her.
On the corner a woman from France Gourmet from Graton sells garden mousse and eggplant caviar. Samples on crackers are available. “The eggplant is perfect for pizza topping,” she tells us. Next to her, aproned men in front of a truck from Upper Crust Bakery in Davis do a lively business in fresh, yeast-smelling breads. “They came out of the oven this morning,” we’re told.
It is almost 11 now. The Karumanta Andean Music group has set up at the corner and is playing lively tunes from Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Time to go home. But first we walk the few blocks to upscale City Center and a Wells Fargo instant-cash machine. Returning to the market, we buy a large bunch of dried flowers in lavender, burgundy, and rose colors, a loaf of herb bread and a baguette baked this morning, a pint of freshly made Garden Mousse spread, 16 ounces of natural apple cider, a honeydew melon “ripe to eat today,” a bag of tomatoes sweet enough to stand for dessert. The cost: $13.80. It’s a tough job, all right.