Bite into the Chico community

Photo credit: Cortneanne Campbell

Photo credit: Cortneanne Campbell

It’s almost 7:30 a.m. on a still-cool October morning in Downtown Chico. With an old, rusty water tower and giant oak trees as a backdrop, vendors busily set up their pop-up tents and laid out their products on folding tables. The rhythmic clicks of metal tent rods fusing together and produce crates thumping on the sidewalk pulsed throughout the entire parking lot.

Early-bird customers, holding their woven baskets and reusable tote bags, lined up at a few of the booths, planning their first-pick strategy. Farmers artfully arranged bins of turnips, garlic, pomegranates, squash and tomatoes on top of patterned tablecloths. Either way, I could tell they were all proud of their produce.

Every Saturday, year-round, rain or shine, the Chico Certified Farmer’s Market turns a boring municipal parking lot on 2nd and Wall Street into a bustling festival of fresh produce, flowers, and arts and crafts. From 7:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. the market brings together the neighborhood’s families, hourly workers, college students, homeless, and everyone in between.

Farmers weren’t the only ones setting up to sell their products. On the edges of the parking lot, Edible Pedal and Sweet Cottage were preparing for a breakfast crowd. The Edible Pedal had a hippie vibe to it as it was part bike, part kitchen with a long haired woman selling what looked like a bunch of green, healthy stuff. Across the way, was Sweet Cottage and by looking at their chalkboard menu, they sold quiches, pies and iced teas from their wooden wagon.

Intermixed with all the food and produce were some arts and crafts booths. There were a couple different clothing vendors with an array of tie-dye and crochet purses. To go along with your middle-aged hippie outfits, were plenty of oversized turquoise jewelry to choose from. To complete your look, the booth right next to the handmade bird houses was filled with various sizes of dream catchers to keep the nightmares away.

Nearby, I almost tripped over an open, red velvet-lined guitar case filled with a few dollar bills and coins. The owner was a weathered hipster of sorts wearing a ripped sweater and a gray beret on his head. He sang in a raspy voice to the tune of what I could only guess was an original song. On the other corner of the market, three young adults played the saxophone, conga drum and guitar to an audience of early-risers who were ready to seize the day. Whereas I was just plain surprised that I was even awake and out of bed before the afternoon. However, most of the credit goes to the frappuccino I was sipping on.

After looking around at most of the booths, I figured that a lot of the vendors have been selling at this farmer’s market for years. While they were setting up and throughout the rest of the day, you could feel a sense of comradery between them. No arguments or stepping on each other’s toes. I’m sure most of them had become good friends after going to the market every single week for years. Plus, they were all there for the same reason, to sell their goods.

But why the farmers market, I thought. What’s so great about it? A young woman selling almond milk nicely summarized what all the other vendors at the market told me.

“It’s an awesome way to connect with your customers and getting direct feedback helps our business with trial and error,” said Arielle Danan, owner of Beber.

Throughout the market, farmers enjoy customers speaking directly to them and asking questions about products. In my case, they persuaded me to buy their product, which I probably would’ve otherwise passed up at a grocery store.

Vendors have to pay a booth fee to participate in the market but they get to take home all of the proceeds from their day’s sales. Now I’ve never been good at economics but from what I can figure out, by skipping the middle man, they receive the retail price rather than the wholesale price and can better keep their farms and businesses in operation.

Smaller growers can’t compete with the large, corporate farms in price or in quantity. Some grocery stores in Chico carry these products but they don’t see every dollar made off of it. So, buying directly from farmers gives them a better return for their produce and is the main reason why some people solely shop at the market versus the grocery store.

Many small farms, whether they’re organic or not, use sustainable techniques that protect water and build healthy soil. They don’t use as many chemical fertilizers and pesticides as some large operations do. This helps prevent contamination of our nearby rivers, streams, lakes and eventually the ocean.

To think even larger, every time you buy something locally grown rather than shipped from halfway around the world, you reduce the amount of oil being burned and carbon emitted into the atmosphere. Also, local farms depend on their sustainable approaches to preserve and replenish the fertility of their small patch of soil. That way, they can continue bringing their produce back to the market.

Along with the generic local produce, farmers often bring rare or heirloom varieties to the market which could be the only time anyone will ever experience that type of food since you won’t see many at a grocery store. This is because small farms can reintroduce many unusual fruits and vegetables that were virtually abandoned when large-scale agriculture started up.

Buying from the farmer’s market helps ensure that those farms are economically viable and their unique produce will be available year after year. Some of the farmers come to the market until their growing season ends and return when they have new produce available. Others you’ll see there every weekend, all year long.

I saw the Sweet Cottage out of the corner of my eye and then glanced down at my watch. Almost lunchtime. As I approached the back of the line, I noticed that inside the wagon they use instead of an actual food truck, was a little kid. He was taking everyone’s orders, handling the cash and serving up their food, all by himself. Then an older man, came around from behind and started conversing with everyone in line. As I moved up to the front, I stared at their chalkboard menu and decided on a strawberry lemonade with a turkey and cheese sandwich. The kid, who was probably in elementary school, took my order and didn’t hesitate for one second while he exchanged my cash accurately. The man handed me a straw and told me to keep smiling and have a wonderful day.

I looked around for a place to sit like a picnic table or a bench and found nothing. Curbside dining under a nearby tree was my only choice. I didn’t expect to sit for too long, just until I finished eating, but the three young musicians next to me kept my bottom firmly planted on that curb for quite a while. In that moment, practically sitting on the ground, I wished I had been going to the market more often since I moved to Chico.

Now besides our farmers market, I’ve been to others, specifically in Davis and San Luis Obispo and I recognized a common feature between all three. They’re all college towns and their downtown area is right next to their campus. Let’s say around 3,000 or more people go to our market on any given Saturday, how does it affect the 100+ downtown business? Well back in 2014, according to the Chico News & Review, the lease for the market was set to expire and arguments ensued over whether it should stay where it is or move to an alternate location. Those who wanted it moved claimed that the market and its shoppers take up all the parking which in turn detracts from their businesses.

On the other hand, those who were in favor of it staying put argued that the municipal parking lot was the best location and many people head downtown after their market shopping. Now, two years later, we know that the market got to keep its spot and it’s all because the latter group of people was right in that the businesses benefit from the crowds brought out every Saturday. To add my two cents, during the whole day at the market I was handed three different flyers, all promoting businesses on Main Street and Broadway.

After seeing neighbors, coworkers and friends run into each other in the busy aisles, I figured they probably see more people they know throughout the day at the market than during a quick trip to the grocery store. Knowing my neighbors, I’m sure to hear the past week of gossip is more than enough reason to go to the market. It’s not just farmers you get to interact with. There’s also musicians, craft vendors, food trucks and downtown business owners.

The notion of community is important for any town and farmer’s markets serve as the place for everyone to come together to talk about food and connect with each other over products made in Chico or grown in the surrounding landscape.

Cortneanne Campbell can be reached at [email protected] or @theorion_arts on Twitter.