Jason Walsh: Volatility of the farmers market

“They say you can’t feed the world this way ... (but) gradually, we are realizing farmers have a really important role to play” – Prince Charles, while visiting the Point Reyes Farmers Market in 2005

The ongoing food-fight in Sonoma over the direction of the Tuesday Night Farmers Market has elicited more passions than a head of arugula at a Roman bathhouse. (The ancient inhabitants of the Eternal City considered the leafy green an aphrodisiac.)

The issue has pitted the farmers market “purists” – those who prefer an event that emphasizes the buying and selling of fresh local produce – against the farmers market “moderns” – who come to picnic on corndogs and ice cream, share a bottle of cab and dance to a folk rock duo singing “Brown Eyed Girl.” If the moderns happen to pick up a basket of fresh strawberries while they’re there, so be it.

But the debate is about more than whether the Valley of the Moon Certified Farmers Market has picked the best food trucks, or if the Plaza use fees are too low. At play are issues over town identity, nativism, our agricultural history and wine-industry future. Yes, it’s also about residents and tourists.

The Sonoma City Council this week approved a plan to toggle two visions of the market, rotating every other Tuesday: one featuring produce in front of City Hall, with music, food trucks and restaurant stalls behind; another with music and produce in the front – and no food trucks or restaurant stalls at all. Other vendors of various kinds are still included, but the total number of vendors will decrease by around 10 each week. It all sounds a bit like musical chairs – only now, the music is most likely emanating from the Grinstead Amphitheatre behind City Hall.

To put in in wine-glass-half-full terms, the market is evolving. Which is what farmers markets have done since the first known farmers market cropped up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1730.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the concept for that market began in 1729, when Lancaster city planners were designing the city and designated a 120-square-foot lot in the center of town as a public market place. That market, now known as Lancaster Central Market, still exists today.

It took another 313 years for farmers markets to make it to the Bay Area. The first version of what we’d come to know as a modern city farmers market hit the corner of Market Street and Duboce Avenue in San Francisco in August of 1943, according to SFgate. It only sold apples and pears – which were available from an over-ripe Sonoma County crop about to be tossed – and its “stalls” had to be the tailgates of farmer-owned trucks, a condition put in place to skirt a city code. For his efforts, the market’s manager John Brucato was accused of being “a lousy Sicilian communist,” for, as he described it, “selling directly to the people.”

And it was a huge hit. On opening day, its 14 trucks sold out its entire stock of apples and pears within hours. A month later, the market would draw more than 100 trucks. Soon, cities across the Bay Area were launching their own farmers markets. By the 1990s, markets branched out from Bay Area urban corridors to its wealthier suburbs, such as the debut of the Point Reyes Farmers Market in 1995, a decade before luring the heir to the British throne.

Sonoma’s Tuesday market was launched about that same time, and would grow to become a trendy, hip, place to be see and be seen – and, to put it bluntly, quite un-farm-like.

Which is pretty much where we are today under the Valley of the Moon’s management – and, based on the attendance every Tuesday during the summer, it seems to be what a lot of people want.

Hopefully, the City’s revisions will fulfill the farmers market needs of both the purists and the moderns – and the result will be an improved market that gets a green-thumbs up from everybody.

We’ll start seeing the results when the market opens in May. Until then, city officials need to make very clear what metrics they will measure when it comes time to review the success (or not) of the changes – results that will presumably be aired publically, since the ad-hoc market oversight committee will be subject to Brown Act open-meeting laws.

If the scaled down market gets great marks all around, then the City Council should make the changes permanent. But council members should also be open to abandoning the changes if marketgoers express a clear preference for the “party.”

Like all things, farmers markets evolve. Even Lancaster, Pennsylvania doesn’t party like it’s 1729.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.