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I Lunch for Living
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I Lunch for Living

Steve Clemens is the manager for the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market in San Francisco, which is operated by the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA). On the brink of the Ferry Building’s grand opening, Bay Crossings spoke with him about his vision for the new location of the Farmer’s Market.

BC: When did you start getting involved in the world of produce?

SC: I moved to San Francisco when I was 22, had some odd jobs, and when I was about 23, I got a job working for Greenleaf, a produce distributor at the Terminal Wholesale Market off of Bayshore. I was the tomato man and had to be at work at 3:00 a.m. My job was to sort through tomatoes, picking out the rotten ones and putting all the different ripenesses together, setting them up for restaurant orders; putting a case together of all the ripe, or what they call "turning," tomatoes so they would be ripe in three days, or whatever the restaurant wanted.

BC: So this was basically a job that you stumbled into; it wasn’t something that you were seeking to do as a life career.

SC: Not necessarily. When I was 17, I thought I wanted to be involved in either music, food, or the travel industry. I’ve done the music, so now I’m doing the food. I’m just waiting for that job opportunity in the travel industry.

I sawan ad in the paper which looked interesting—food, wholesale produce—I’ve always liked fruits and vegetables. I eat fish, but I don’t eat any other land-based animals, and I’ve been that way for about 20 years. I was an easy kid to feed because I love green beans and spinach and all kinds of vegetables.

I worked at Greenleaf sorting the tomatoes for about a year or two. I had jobs in receiving, and later I was a buyer. I took a year and a half off from Greenleaf, went traveling, and came back to Greenleaf. By that time, they had changed ownership. All together, I worked there 12 years; the last six years I was the senior buyer and was responsible for $20 million annually for produce procurement. Produce is like a commodity market. The prices change every day. Sometimes they’ll change by the hour. The price of something as benign as cauliflower can be $6 at 6:00 a.m. and $12 at 10:00 a.m. It’s just as dynamic as the stock market. It’s even more so because it’s perishable. With the stock market, you buy as much as you can afford low and sell high. But with produce, you buy as much as you know you can sell before it goes rotten. So you’ve got to know how much you can sell, what you can store, what handling capabilities are, how well you can handle it all. Most people really have no idea about what’s involved.

People also have no idea how many hands their produce has to go through. For instance, restaurants want raspberries on Valentine’s Day. At this time of year, they’re not grown locally; they come from Chile. They go from the grower to a packer to a wholesaler to an exporter to an importer to a receiver to a big wholesaler to a little wholesaler to the restaurant. They pass through as many as ten hands before getting to the restaurant, so consequently they’re $45 to $60 a flat in February.


. . .shopping at the Farmer’s Market is so great . . . you’re getting it directly from the farmer. There’s no one in between.

I heard one farmer say I have to know my stuff because the customers will know if I’m wrong.


That’s why shopping at the Farmer’s Market is so great . . . you’re getting it directly from the farmer. There’s no one in between. It’s the farmers’ opportunity to make more money, and people don’t complain because they’d rather have the farmer making the money than all the middlemen. Of course, you need middlemen to get the product to market, but it’s nice to have your produce handled by only one person, instead of being in and out of refrigeration, on this truck, on this bumpy ride, in this airplane, on the tarmac in the heat, etc.

BC: We were talking about the difference between supermarkets and the farmer’s markets. I think a cynic would say the farmer’s markets are an affectation; that people are basically doing it just because it’s the thing to do. In fact, you might get the same quality of food at a Safeway, probably cheaper.

SC: You could buy at a farmer’s market, you could buy at a chain supermarket, or you could buy at a natural food store. A farmer’s market is going to be the freshest, the fastest; the natural food store’s going to be next; and the supermarket’s probably going to be least fresh.

BC: Does the freshness/cost correlation follow? In other words, is it likely that the head of lettuce at your farmer’s market will be the freshest and also the most expensive, and that the head of lettuce at Safeway will be the cheapest and the least fresh?

SC: That’s possible. The supermarket produce wil be the least fresh, and ours will be the freshest. The price may or may not be the cheapest; it could vary. Most of the stuff at a big supermarket usually comes from large-scale farms, agribusiness, which is much more mechanized and uses commercial growing methods including pesticides and commercial poisonous fertilizers. Unfortunately, it’s the state of American, large-scale agriculture.

There was an article in the paper recently that posed a very good twist on the subject. Instead of asking why is organic produce so expensive, the question should be why is conventional produce so cheap? In the United States, our food costs, the percent of our income spent on food, is the least of any industrialized country. We take a lot of things for granted in America, but we definitely take food for granted. I know people who come here from other countries, and the first they do when they get here is go to the store and stock up. They’re used to going to the store in their home country, where they might not have the same things next week. Here the supermarket shelves are full every week.

The large operations, chains, supermarkets buy from larger farms. Sometimes they’ll buy a lot of things that are out of season because they’re going to keep this product all year long. They’re going to have plums and peaches all year long, whether they’re local California in the summertime, or whether they’re coming from Chile or New Zealand in the wintertime. If you’re going to get a peach from New Zealand, it’s got to be picked pretty unripe to get here and still be in decent shape. It’s got to be picked somewhat green, which means it doesn’t have the opportunity to sugar up on the tree and get its optimum flavor. On the other hand, at the Farmer’s Market, somebody will pick a peach on Thursday or Friday, and you’ll be able to buy it on Saturday.

BC: Do you think that these farmer’s markets really represent something qualitatively better than what you could find in a Safeway?


We’re educating the population, and to do so we need to set an example by providing them with food from people who use sustainable agriculture practices.


SC: There will always be people who are going places to be seen or to massage their own egos, but I would say that’s a very small percentage of those who come to our market, and probably most markets. Our customers are very well versed, very knowledgeable. I heard one farmer say I have to know my stuff because the customers will know if I’m wrong. San Francisco’s a pretty sophisticated city, especially when it comes to food. And rightfully so. They’ve had so much exposure to such great food, both at the farmer’s markets and at all the incredible restaurants we have. The best thing about The Chronicle is the food section, there’s no doubt about that.

BC: How do you determine who gets to be part of the Farmer’s Market? And how do you deal with the whole issue of supply and demand, taking into account the qualitative factor, and the fact that more people want to be part of your market than you can accommodate?

SC: At our Farmer’s Market, we only allow agricultural and food products, like farmers and prepared food products, and the flower growers. We don’t have any arts and crafts like some markets do. We don’t have the room for it, and we can fill our market up and get enough business with our farmers.

Our customers say the things they like most about our market are the quality of the product, the mix of product, the availability of different types of product, and the farmer participation.

We look for the quality of the product, and we like our farmers be at the market at least once a month. Our customers say the things they like most about our market are the quality of the product, the mix of product, the availability of different types of product, and the farmer participation. They get to come to the market, meet a real farmer, talk to them, get to know what their life is about, and get to know who’s growing their food. We look for payment histories. We look for small size and scale. We look for regional producers, that is, if all things are equal, we’ll take the farmer who’s closer to San Francisco. We’re an educational organization, promoting sustainable agriculture, educating the population about land use issues in the Bay Area.

We look for the availability of their product, which means can you get their product all over the place? Can you get their product at Safeway, Costco, Whole Foods, and Real Foods? Is their product going to be somewhat unique to our farmer’s market? We look at their sustainable practices and whether they are they practicing sustainable agriculture, be it organic or integrated pest management (IPM) or any other.

Then we look at sustainable practices for the prepared food. Are they using organic ingredients? Are they using product from the farmers? We really like knowing that a food vendor selling jams has made that jam using berries they bought from our farmers.

Basically, we’re looking for cooperativeness with market management, presentation, and how popular the farmers are. We’re not just any farmer’s market that’s going to take just anybody who’s got a lot of product that looks good, because primarily we are an educational organization that runs a farmer’s market. We’re educating the population, and to do so we need to set an example by providing them with food from people who use sustainable agriculture practices.

BC: What does an educational mission mean? Outside of the Farmer’s Market, what do you do?

SC: We have a Director of Educational Programs, and we do different educational work. At the market, we have different literature to hand out. We have a Shop With a Chef program, which we’ll be starting every Saturday when we move to the Ferry Building. That’s a really popular program where we’ll have a well-known chef from town, or from the Bay Area, who will shop for items at the Farmer’s Market and then do a cooking demonstration at a kitchen we’ll have there. It’s really great to see a well-known chef preparing food that you can buy at the Farmer’s Market. We have visits from schools, including elementary, junior high, cooking, or hotel restaurant management schools.

The main thrust, however, is to educate the regular consumer, the average urbanite, about sustainable agriculture and land issues in the Bay Area; about preserving farmland in areas like Brentwood, where we have two or three farmers that are growing really high-quality product, but are threatened by development. So if we can have them at the market and keep them profitable, they’ll keep farming. Otherwise, they’ll sell the farm, and it’ll be a shopping mall. This is incredibly important to us, to the environment, and, of course, to future generations.

BC: What do you think about your move to the Ferry Building?

SC: The big debut of the Farmer’s Market will be Saturday, April 26. We’ll be there from 8:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., extending our hours by half an hour. Tuesdays the market will run from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. andThursdays we’ll be open from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m.

BC: The greater part of the displays will be on the back part. That’s important because I think people may remember that the Ferry Building did not have an uninterrupted back part. Now there’s going to be an uninterrupted plaza throughout the back.

SC: The Farmer’s Market will be taking over almost the whole plaza on Saturday mornings. We’ll have some vendors and farmers in the front, along the Embarcadero also. You get a great view of the Bay Bridge, and in the other direction, you see the Ferry Building as the backdrop of downtown.

Inside the building, there will only be specialty food stores and a couple other stores that deal with food. It’s not going to be your typical strip mall with clothing shops and shoe shops—it’s going to be all about food, an authentic farmer’s market, geared to the locals. We’re hoping, especially with this great Ferry Building location, to have permanent educational displays so on days when there’s no farmer’s market, people can visit our educational displays, and they can learn about sustainable agriculture and land issues affecting the Bay Area.

We’re also pleased about this location because the Ferry Building is the easiest location in the whole Bay Area to get to using public transportation. Muni buses go right to it or right by it, the ferries, of course, dock right at it, and there’s a BART station a block away. We’re hoping a lot more people will come from the East Bay and North Bay who, at this point, come only once or twice a year.

We’re also going to have a new Sunday garden market, which is all about gardening. We’ll have different exotic nurseries from around the Bay Area selling plants, gardening supplies, and tools right out in front of the Ferry Building. In the future, we may expand the days and the markets and do some other things.

Did I tell you about the romance market idea? A year and a half ago, the California Department of Fruit and Agriculture passed legislation that enables small wineries to sell at farmer’s markets. No sampling, but if you fit the criteria–you have to be the one growing the grapes and making the wine–you can participate at farmer’s markets. My idea is to have a Friday afternoon wine, chocolate, and flower market. You pop in there, buy a bottle of wine, a bunch of flowers, a small box of chocolate, and you’re ready for a great weekend. You hop on the ferry, you get home, "Hey, Honey, I love you, here you go." The only problem is that people might not wake up early enough to come back for the Saturday markets!