IT'S 7 O'CLOCK SATURDAY MORNING ON THE Arcata Plaza and the farmers start trickling in, the windshield wipers of their crusty trucks slapping away a heavy coastal mist. Another farmers' market begins and the growers quickly begin piling bright orange carrots like cord wood, stacking lugs of peaches into mini-skyscrapers, heaving boxes of cabbages the size of soccer balls and blanketing tables with mounds of leafy greens. Within an hour the sleepy Plaza unfolds into a voluptuous farm quilt of colors and textures orange, gold and red tomatoes, purple potatoes, shiny black eggplant, squeaky husks of corn, crisp green cucumbers and rainbows of assorted peppers.
The harvest this year has certainly been ample, but the future of local farmers' markets is a little murky right now. Unless the Legislature passes the Farmers' Market Rescue Bill authored by Assemblymember Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Duncans Mills, the California Certified Farmers' Markets program will end Dec. 31.
It won't mean the end of farmers' markets, just the state-sponsored program that collects fees, funds inspections and "certifies" that the produce or plants sold at the market are actually grown by the farmer selling them.
"Each farmer must go down to the Ag office with a list of everything they are growing and they (the Department of Agriculture) certify everything grown. All you can sell is that which you have grown," said Deborah Musick, market manager for North Coast Growers Association that sponsors the markets in Arcata, Old Town Eureka and Henderson Center.
A $10 fee per farm per year goes to the state Department of Agriculture for inspection. Violators are assessed fines and may be banished from selling if violations are habitual.
"The reason we have certification is really to protect the farmer, that you don't have someone coming in from the Central Valley who has purchased a load of produce from all these other growers, bring it in here and then resell it. It also protects the consumer because they know that they are buying directly from a farm that is local," Musick said.
Limited temporary space is made for out-of-county certified growers who offer products that local growers do not provide, like avocados, oranges, eggs and mushrooms.
The Rescue Bill, which recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and is headed for Senate Appropriations, extends the fee authorization until Jan. 1, 2005. It also changes the way the fee is assessed and collected. Instead of the yearly $10 fee, individual markets will be assessed a quarterly fee based on the number of participating farmers. The fee will be capped at no more than 60 cents per-stall per-market. This change is anticipated to increase revenues to the department from $30,000 in the current year to more than $200,000 annually.
Should the bill not pass in time there will still be the farmers' markets locally, according to Musick.
"If they do away with the whole certification process then (the growers association) will decide how we want to handle this," she said. "We can still have our markets, we just can't certify farmers because we are not licensed to do that. But we can say it's going to be Humboldt County produce, and we are going to have certain requirements for the market."
It was 21 years ago when the Arcata Farmers' Market began, one of the first four certified markets in the state. Then only a handful of farmers sold produce on the Plaza. Today the market is bursting like a fat sugar pea in June. Musick has witnessed first- hand the burgeoning market.
"When I first started working here about eight years ago, we would start the market with maybe two sides of the Plaza and be lucky to get to the third side. And now here we are eight years later and we are maxed out by the first six weeks into the season. We have about 55 growers at peak season, with 70 members overall. It is fabulous how much it has grown over the years," Musick said.
At the peak of the season stall space is at a premium, and not all growers can attend every market on Saturday especially growers new to the area.
"When we hit peak season we cannot always fit everybody in," Musick said. "The other markets are available to them. I think people who are just getting going cannot expect to start at the Saturday market."
Stall spaces are assigned according to seniority. Farmers who have been with the market since its inception receive permanent, premium spaces. New farmers at the bottom of the totem pole are moved around the Plaza as space permits. When a farmer with seniority quits the market, new farmers move up the seniority ladder toward a permanent stall space. Stall spaces cannot be sold and membership is nontransferable, according to the NCGA bylaws.
Fortunately there is plenty of space at the other markets sponsored by NCGA. Two markets occur on Tuesdays Old Town Eureka, with 20 vendors in the morning, and Wildberries, with 12 vendors in the afternoon.
"Wildberries is a `slow-to-get-going' market, mainly because it attracts more of the student population later in the season," said Musick. "Old Town seems to be doing well."
New this year is the Thursday market at Henderson Center, which has been enthusiastically embraced by that community.
"The one up at Henderson Center has been really successful. It's a very good market for a first-year market. It has been a big success," Musick said.
Eighteen farmers participate at Henderson Center. Musick believes that the strong community ties within the neighborhood fuel the market. "We (the markets) do bring a sense of community and people like to come to the market for socializing as well as frequent the market," she explained.
Local farmers will tell you it's been a bountiful harvest this produce season in spite of another La Niña year of record freezing temperatures and flooding rains. In fact, capricious spring weather was largely responsible for the best cherry crop in years, as Loren McIntosh of Fred's Produce in Willow Creek will attest.
"There were so many cherries that the birds couldn't eat them all. It was just a combination of factors temperature, weather, humidity. They (the cherries) set on a lot because of the weather. The dry weather kept the cherries from rotting," he explained.
In addition, this spring the rain didn't knock the blossoms off after they set, which McIntosh said usually happens. Cooler-than-usual nighttime temperatures also extended the growing season twice its normal length.
"It was great!" he said.
An extra cold winter was also responsible for good fruit set on apples and peaches. "A lot of fruit needs good cold weather. There are lots of apples this year and the peaches set on good, too," McIntosh said.
Even though it was snowing in Hoopa in April, Shauana Hill and her husband Spencer of Zion Farm Hoopa say this season is no different from any other. "This year everything seems like it's coming on at the same time," said Shauana. "Tomatoes are on time, as usual."
During the snowy spring, Hill did have to take precautions against the weather. "Most of the stuff like peppers and tomatoes were still in the greenhouse, and we had to put little kerosene lamps inside to keep things heated. It worked," she said.
April 20 was Earth Day when Neal Sweetcorn of Avalon Farm in Orleans planted his summer crop of tomatoes.
"It's been a great year and it was never too cold. We put out the garden right on time mid-April for the summer stuff," Sweetcorn explained. "Today we're already picking 1,500 pounds of tomatoes a week. We're right on, so it wasn't like it was deathly cold."
The weather didn't hamper the abundance of Avalon Farm's harvest, either.
"We have Japanese eggplant coming on. Apples are not far behind. Tomatoes, cukes, squash and beans are in," said Sweetcorn.
Bountiful harvests also mean excess produce at the end of a market. Farmers donate unsold produce to the Eureka Rescue Mission and the AIDS Project.
With support from local consumers, Humboldt County's small farms will continue to plow on, despite political wrangling in Sacramento.
"What I love about the farmers' market is that it really has enabled the small family farm to survive," said Musick.
"I think one of the things that happened even 21 years ago when the Arcata market got started was that there was so much agri-biz and really big business that had gone into producing our food. There weren't a lot of people producing organic foods, and so, little by little, as people were looking for quality and wanting to know what they were eating, these small farms were able to thrive. And I'm talking about a small amount of acreage, from two to 10 acres. Rarely do we have farmers here that have more than 10 acres."
In the future Musick says she would like to see fishermen band together and have a fresh fish market in conjunction with the Saturday market perhaps renting the vacant lot at the corner of 9th and H streets.
"I'd love to see a fresh fish market go in, where they could bring in the albacore, the salmon, the crab," she said.