At many Southern California certified farmers markets, the vendors may comply with agricultural regulations but still offer only mediocre produce and may never have actually set foot on a farm. Paradoxically, the Antelope Valley Winery farmers market in Lancaster is uncertified — not supervised by county or state agricultural authorities — but it's the best in its area, boasting really fresh produce, much of it organic, from nearby small farms. Flanked by trellised grapevines, it's small but picturesque, and much beloved by local customers and growers.
It started six years ago when several local farmers persuaded Cyndee Donato, co-owner of the winery, to try a market. Among them were Doug Miller and Lesley McAndrew-Miller of Winner Circle Farms, who raise peaches, apples and eggs just one block south.
On a visit last Saturday, Miller ambled through his 21/2-acre orchard, surrounded by horse corrals, ranchettes, and scrubland. Chickens pecked for bugs in the scruffy grass underneath the peach trees, or roosted in an old, rusting horse trailer.
Although he's a cabinetmaker by trade, and his wife is a teacher, they "always liked growing stuff," he said. They started their farm 20 years ago, and named it Winner Circle because he's a car racing enthusiast.
Peaches and nectarines are their specialty, with two dozen varieties, modern and heirloom, ripening from June to October. Miller attended college agriculture classes with John Tenerelli, a well-known farmers market stone fruit grower from Littlerock, and Tenerelli's workers do some of Miller's pruning and thinning, although he and his wife do everything else. They sell at farmers markets in Pacific Palisades and nearby on Lancaster Boulevard, but the winery market is their favorite, he said.
"There's a real rapport between the growers and the community," Miller said. "One advantage is that it's in the morning; have you ever tried to sell produce here in the heat of the summer? Also, this market is very little effort for us compared to driving to Los Angeles."
Back at the market, customers thronged the Winner Circle stand, as well as the booth where Eric and Cheri Holland of Holland Ranch Organics sold greens and vegetables grown a mile away. They're sales managers, he for Pilot Pens, she for the Girl Scouts, who turned a passion for growing their own garlic, tomatoes and wine grapes into a two-acre certified organic farm. Currently they've got salad greens, carrots, beets, radishes and onions; soon they'll have tomatoes, melons, corn and potatoes, 40 crops in all.
The Hollands and their children work 15 hours the day before the market, but find their reward in the appreciation of their neighbors.
"I know my customers and what they want," said Eric Holland. "My focus is the local community."
Several other farmers aren't quite as close, but still relatively local. Soledad Goat Cheese drives 25 miles from Mojave. John Thorpe of Tangleweed Farm brings a mix of vegetables and greens now, and raspberries and Olallieberries in a few weeks, from Tehachapi, 40 miles away.
Relying on the limited roster of local growers makes it more challenging for the manager when, as inevitably happens, crops or farmers fail. Most local peach growers lost their crop in a spring freeze last year, and Scattaglia Farms of Littlerock quit farming. Ananda Marga, a yoga and meditation retreat in nearby Lake Hughes, lost most of its peach orchard in the recent Powerhouse fire, but hopes to return to the market with its vegetables, said the manager, Dada Gana.
Donato chose to be uncertified because that gave her and her vendors more flexibility, she said. Some are backyard growers who only sell for a few weeks and might be discouraged by regulatory fees and paperwork. Some supplement their offerings: Alongside his homegrown produce, Thorpe sells organic coffee and canned tuna; Tapia Brothers, which farms in nearby Rosamond and in Encino, has melons from Bakersfield along with their celebrated corn. Most customers know to ask which items are locally grown.
At certified farmers markets, agricultural inspectors verify that vendors really grow what they sell, and that's crucial when farms are far from markets. In urban areas the uncertified model might readily be exploited by unscrupulous peddlers and managers; at the winery location, with an operator who runs the market almost as a community service, it does have certain advantages.
Why don't more markets go uncertified? Certified farmers have to pay fees and submit to inspections, but there are certain regulatory requirements from which they are exempt. Theoretically, growers of certain commodities like apples and peaches are supposed to transport them in standard containers; also, if vendors are purchasing products from other farmers, they have to provide proof of ownership. Realistically, however, agricultural authorities don't have time to chase small-time scofflaws.
The uncertified model may be catching on. A new uncertified Quartz Hill farmers market with some of the same vendors as the winery opens today at the local Church of Christ, and will be held Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m., through October. On the other hand, the Acton farmers market, which was uncertified since its opening in 2011, just became certified last week, "to keep out resellers," said Gary Lubben, president of the local Chamber of Commerce, its sponsor.
Antelope Valley Winery farmers market, 2041 20th St. W., Lancaster, 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays, May through November; http://www.avwinery.com.Copyright © 2015, CT Now