A long-planned new farmers market modeled on the Santa Monica market drew large, enthusiastic crowds to its opening last Sunday in Old Towne Orange. There are more than 30 certified farmers markets in Orange County, but none offers the combination of diversity, integrity and chef appeal for which Santa Monica is famous. Translating ambitious plans and good intentions into a county-wide farmers market powerhouse will require long-term organic growth, but the new venue is off to a promising start.
The market is at the old Villa Park citrus packinghouse, emblematic of the former bounty of Orange County's namesake fruit. (It closed several years ago and is now owned by Chapman University.) It's run by Orange Home Grown, a nonprofit organization of local residents devoted to educating the community about health, sustainability and fitness.
Each Wednesday, foragers for Orange County restaurants brave traffic to search out the best local produce in Santa Monica. "We don't get this diversity at farmers markets in Orange County," said Una Baker, purveyor for St. Roy at Vine in San Clemente, as she pushed a cart of Pakistan mulberries and yellow raspberries in Santa Monica two days ago.
In an attempt to establish a similar resource for local chefs, the Old Towne market organizers, led by Orange Home Grown's president, Megan Penn, and Ed and Gabbi Patrick, owners of Gabbi's Mexican Kitchen, enlisted a dozen local chefs, who said they would buy from the new market.
The Old Towne market has started with a dozen produce vendors and five non-agricultural sellers of prepared foods and crafts, and the organizers say they will maintain this balance. "We're trying to stay true to what a farmers market is supposed to be, about produce and agriculture," said Penn.
In order to recruit high-quality farmers and avoid peddlers, the organizers sought the advice of Laura Avery, manager of the Santa Monica markets, who lives nearby in Fullerton. Several current and anticipated vendors at Old Towne Orange — including two stone fruit growers from Dinuba, Truman Kennedy and John Hurley — come from the Santa Monica roster, and others are from that market's waiting list.
That's not to say that oversight by the market's organizers is perfect, but they are consciously seeking to raise the integrity bar. "We're going to visit every single farm and make sure they're growing what they're bringing to the market," said Brandon Kunkle, the market's manager.
The real find at the market is Kane's Family Farm, run by two teachers, Clifford and Marisa Kane, and their 11-year-old daughter, Sophia. A year ago, as education budget cutbacks threatened the parents' livelihood, they sought to segue into a new career by buying a home surrounded by 70 Hass and Bacon avocado trees on a terraced hillside in La Habra Heights. Marisa Kane's family grows mushrooms in Ontario, Canada, and she was eager to get back into agriculture, so she and her husband took the plunge.
The previous owners, Harold and Frances Jackson, who died recently at the ages of 102 and 100, had operated the small farm since 1939 — not long after a Pasadena postman, Rudolph Hass, discovered his celebrated variety among the seedling avocado trees he planted just two miles west of the Jacksons' land.
For connoisseurs, at least, a prestige still attaches to Hass avocados grown in La Habra Heights. The Kane family, which does all the farm work themselves, does a beautiful job of displaying the fruit, now at peak season, and telling the story of their farm.
Another winner is Tony Chu of Pure Land Farms, who grows on 10 acres, mostly nursery stock, in Temecula. Along with the usual tomato and citrus plants, he offers plants of several of the hottest new super-fruits, such as goji (some currently in fruit), Angel Red pomegranates and maqui (Chilean wineberry), touted as "the world's most powerful fruit antioxidant." On Saturday, Chu had just a few baskets of a more familiar fruit, Jewel blueberries, but they were as good as any I've tasted, firm, with a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity, and intense flavor.
Jim Davis, a respected grower of citrus and avocados from De Luz, has Encore tangerines, which are among the top choices for late-season mandarins. They're flattish, with thin, easily peeled, yellow-orange skin and deep orange, richly flavored flesh and juice. A physiological syndrome of unknown origin causes dark spots to disfigure the rinds of many fruits, which has resulted in the variety's virtual exclusion from commercial sales, but the pulp is unaffected, and the Encore is a favorite at farmers markets, where customers can taste samples.
Christopher Schubert of Rancho La Viña, who offers high-quality walnuts and walnut oil from Buellton, equaled his sales at the much larger Santa Monica farmers market at the Old Towne market opening, he said. An estimated 2,000 shoppers, many of them families with children, attended the market, and several of the other vendors sold out early. But after the excitement of a new market wears off, only time will tell whether the support of the community and local chefs fulfills the aspirations of the organizers.
Orange (Old Towne) farmers market, Cypress Street and Palm Avenue, Saturdays, 8 a.m. to noon through November.Copyright © 2015, CT Now