Get to know your farmer at California’s first farmers market
Alemany Farmers Market started during WWII to support rural farms near San Francisco. Throughout the market’s evolution, its maintainedmodest prices, diverse customers, and a “local first” attitude towards selling produce. You’ll find an assortment of Latin and Southeast Asian ingredients unlike anywhere else, and it’s open every Saturday, all year long.
It’s Saturday at 5 a.m. I’m in a massive parking lot at the intersection of U.S. 101 and I-280, and all around me, farmers unload dozens of crates of produce. They wear headlamps to light their way, arranging the fruits of their labor in concrete stalls.
Each Saturday starts something like this at the Alemany Farmers Market.
There are already 20 customers lined up at C&Z Vegetable, run by the Xiong family from Del Rey, California.
“They’ve been doing business with my parents for, like, 30 years,” says Dolly Xiong, who works here with her sister and parents, “so they come and wait for my mom and dad.”
“They got so bad that, once, security had to come and help us!” she says.
One regular customer of C&Z Vegetable is May Ling (“May for the Mayflower,” she tells me). She comes nearly every weekend from Walnut Creek, filling her backpack to the brim with veggies, fruits, and eggs.
“This is my playground,” she says. “When I see the fresh fruits or veggies, for me, it’s like shopping in Tiffany jewelry store. All my friends say I’m nothing like the ordinary lady. I’m not excited about department stores, I’m excited in the farmers market.”
History of the “original farmers market”
Amalia Martinez, who has helped run the market for the last 30 years, tells me that Alemany Farmers Market was founded in August 12, 1943. During World War II, all aluminum was going toward the war effort, which caused canneries to shut down production, so there was a surplus of fruits and vegetables.
Small-scale farmers had it toughest, since they didn’t grow large quantities of produce and traditional groceries stores wanted to buy in bulk.
With gasoline rationing, city housewives couldn’t travel to faraway farms to get produce for home canning.To solve the problem, farmers offered to bring their produce directly to customers in San Francisco.
While the farmer’s market was only expected to last a week or two, the idea instantly caught on. It was so successful that the city of San Francisco officially started managing the market, which it still does today.
The market faced a great deal of opposition in its early years, especially by some San Francisco Supervisors and mainstream grocery stores, which saw a dip in sales after the market’s establishment.
When the market sought the permit for a permanent location, its detractors even took the matter to Sacramento. But the people of San Francisco voted to keep the market, and it’s had a home at 100 Alemany Boulevard since 1947.
Low prices, diverse produce
If you’d visited the market when it opened in the 1940s, you might have seen some Asian American farmers — particularly Chinese and Filipino. The majority, however, were Southern European, and mostly Italian.
Today, a walk through Alemany is like a visit to the United Nations. There’s a medley of Latin American and Southeast Asian ingredients tough to find elsewhere — like freshly harvested ginger, bitter melon, and sugar cane.
Shirley Ming Ming of Ming Ming Farm grows sugar cane. “You just bite it with your teeth and suck the juice out,” she says. “It’s sweet, like eating for fun.”
The market’s rich history has fostered deep, long standing relationships between farmers and customers. Many of the farmers themselves have been selling at Alemany Farmers Market for generations.
Customers, too, have been shopping at the market for years.
“I always like to say that I came here before I was born, because my mother was pregnant with me when she came,” says longtime customer Jacalyn Morri. “If we’re alive and in the city and not terribly sick, we’re here.”
Customers love Alemany’s relatively low prices. Farmers are eager to sell their produce at Alemany anyway, with a waitlist of farmers vying for stalls even during the winter “off season,” when there’s less foot traffic.
According to a number of farmers I talked to, markets allow them to sell large quantities of produce at retail prices, with no middlemen.
Having family members work the stalls also helps them to keep costs low.
To increases variety and reduce competition, Alemany Farmers Market limits the number of farmers selling similar produce. Farmers are so eager to continue selling at Alemany Farmers Market, that, according to Amalia Martinez, a farmer usually has to retire before a space becomes available. Even then, a family member might take over.
Sandi Garcia’s father started McGinnis Ranch in 1968, and recently retired. Sandi and her niece Sarah have been running McGinnis Ranch for about two years, and farming’s in their blood.
“I grew up on the farm,” Sandi tells me. “I started driving a tractor when I was nine.”
And Sandi’s sister used to bring Sarah to the market in a playpen.
Sandi and Sarah arrange their booth before handing off sales responsibilities to Rose Bratt — who is a little bit of an Alemany celebrity, with nice earrings, lipstick, and recipes to share.
Before working at the market, she was a regular customer. At the time, Rose was a wedding caterer who bought her ingredients from Sandi’s father.
“He used to make sure that he got the strawberries with the long stems,” she says, “because I used to decorate with strawberries.”
Voices of the market
That was 15 years ago. She’s since switched from customer to employee. Rose and I are interrupted when some of her favorite customers show up.
One of them is Sherry Gendelman. She says she woke up at 4 a.m., did her exercises, and got here before 6 a.m., she’s done for 25 years.
Sherry knows everybody, like Mark and Nibby from Two Dog Farm:
“Mark will stop and have a political conversation with you almost any minute — he’ll just stop in the middle of whatever he’s doing,” she says.
And Anthony from Galpin Farm:
“Anthony is [a] six-foot five or six-foot six tall guy who took over his father-in-law’s business.He should show up with at least one of his giant kids.”
Or Jan Snyders:
“By the way, the Honey Guy is back. Maybe he’s 85, 90. And he was repairing something on a ladder, fell off, and really injured himself. Now he’s back and his honey is spectacular.”
The Honey Guy is too busy to talk to me, but I do learn that after his injury he needed some help at the market. So Rose Bratt got her granddaughter to cover her shift at McGinnis Ranch, and volunteered to help sell honey.
As Rose is telling me this story she gives my shoulder a squeeze.
“It’s just a family,” she tells me. “This market, you feel like everybody’s your family.”
At a stall piled high with persimmons and greens, Grace Teresi of Miramonte Farm & Nursery agrees.
“The farmers themselves have a camaraderie. They’re very competitive, but at the same time we’re amicable and we’re concerned about each other,” she says. “So when someone like Glenn has a heart issue, we’re all worried about him. When Fumi had cancer we’re all worried.”
She’s talking about Fumi Kimura, who sold flowers here before she died of cancer a decade ago. Lots of her farmer friends visited her while she was sick, Grace tells me.
“Customers too came to her house. It was really heartbreaking, and yet heartwarming.”
More than a market
Katherine Valentine is a longtime Alemany customer. She says these exchanges are significant.
“You have an interaction that has soul, that has meaning. And hugs. I get three hugs a visit. At least.”
She says her kids love this market as much as she does, especially the woman they affectionately call the Mushroom Lady.
“She would give them mushrooms and they would sit and eat the raw mushrooms. I mean just like one after another, like candy. They’ve grown up with her,” she says.
Amalia introduces me to the Mushroom Lady, Toby Garrone, who tells me that all of life is at Alemany Farmers Market.
“I definitely don’t see my personal friends on a weekly basis, but I do see my customers on a weekly basis, and those people have become my friends.”
Amalia Martinez tells me the market sees over 50,000 visits a year. Bustling as it is, it’s also located on prime real estate that’s empty — except for the farmers market on Saturdays and a flea market on Sundays.
Some worry that the city, which owns this land, might want to develop.
Customer Tom Pugh is one of the worried farmers-market enthusiasts.
“It would be awful if this market ever closed down,” he says. “There’s always that threat they want to close it down and put in housing. So it’s something you live with that never goes away.”
I wanted to look into these threats, so I talked to Amalia, her boss, and her boss’ boss.
All three said the city has absolutely no plans of shutting down the market.
Frankly, I think Amalia would be devastated if she ever lost her relationships with her farmers.
“I love all of them. I see them as family. And it’s part of me.”
So Amalia will be here again next Saturday morning, with her chosen family here at Alemany Farmers Market.