I Lunch for
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
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
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
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,
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,
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,
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.
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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!