Farmers Markets 2.0?

Posted April 11, 2007

A friend of mine recently came close to moving from San Francisco to New York, but decided to stay put—in part because of the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market. “It’s my church. I can’t leave my congregation,” she said. I was disappointed, but I could understand.

Relaunched several years ago as part of the redevelopment of San Francisco's landmark Ferry Building, the market has become a touchstone for all that is great in the resurgence of local foods: farmers’ market as stylish tourist destination, where the heretofore-anonymous farmer could now charge heaps for their piles of perfect vegetables.

But now Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm has announced that he and his wife, Julia Wiley, will no longer be selling at the market, because their sales have gone down so much it’s not worth the rising cost of getting the produce there.

This is a fascinating turn of events. Andy is no Joe Schmo. No less of an authority than San Francisco chef (and resident food sage) Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café—who’s not one to use such words lightly—calls him a genius, both for the produce he grows and the intelligent ways he gets it to chefs like her. One of the other ways he and his wife are so clever is their very popular CSA (Community Supported Agriculture, subscription-based sales of produce to individual households) program, which has well over 1,000 members. Indeed, Andy has said that their CSA and restaurant sales are doing so well, they don't expect to suffer for their Ferry Plaza decision.

Why is a farm as beloved as Mariquita losing sales at the biggest farmers’ market in San Francisco? In 2005, Kim Severson at the New York Times reported that Ferry Building tourists were crowding out actual food buyers. Andy alludes to tourists in his announcement, but could rival markets also be hurting the mothership? In the wake of the Ferry Building’s success, smaller markets have sprung up like button mushrooms in neighborhoods like Oakland’s Temescal and San Francisco’s Noe Valley, keeping shoppers at home to buy their goods. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the Ferry Building were now like some kind of big-box retailer experiencing the painful end of the very trend it inspired, toward more local and smaller purveyors?

It will be interesting to see what happens with the Ferry Building market—and Mariquita Farm. Luckily, you can read all about the latter: Andy recently turned his Ladybug Letter, which used to be e-mailed to his mailing list, into an excellent blog.

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