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Farmers' Markets: Who Benefits?

Oakland offers rent-free space for everything from crepes to clothing, and local businesses are asking what the city gets in return.



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Brown suggested that if it were designed better, if there were greater collaboration with the local business community, the market could be a positive asset. But as it is, "this area needs some help growing," he said. "And it is definitely not doing anything to encourage that."

In addition to the hassle caused by street closures and parking chaos, what draws the ire of many local businesses is the inclusion of non-farmer food vendors, many of whom compete with their own goods. "They have a hot dog guy out there in front of the sausage place, a catfish guy in front of the seafood place," noted Harold Taylor, third-generation proprietor of Taylor's Sausage in Swan's Marketplace on 9th and Washington. Despite the crowd that the market attracts right outside his door, Taylor says business takes a dive Friday mornings. The configuration of the market, with two rows of vendors faced inward rather than toward the neighborhood's shops, doesn't help. "They don't even see us because there are booths right in front of our store," he added.

Still, he recognizes that the market, with its Chinese produce stands and organic sorbet, attracts visitors to Old Oakland who might not otherwise get to know the neighborhood. And besides, "I enjoy the farmers' market," he said. "I get my flowers there, organic onions."

Ron Pardini, director of Urban Village, contends that his organization, which runs the Old Oakland farmers' market, goes out of its way to accommodate the needs of local businesses. He noted that the market's most popular food vendor had served quick Indian fare. "An Indian restaurant around the corner was upset about that, so we had them leave," he said. And the decision a few years ago to move vendor parking from 9th to 10th Street in front of Endgame was in response to complaints from 9th Street businesses.

You can't please everybody. And not every business is complaining. Elena Durante-Voiron of Ratto's International Market enjoys the attention the farmers' market brings to the area. "It's like a street party; it creates a destination in the neighborhood, which is something that's lacking."

It's the same across Oakland. For every business that perceives a benefit — Ratto's in Old Oakland, or A.G. Ferrari in Montclair, which sees a spike in mozzarella sales when heirloom tomatoes are in season — others perceive a loss. Across the street from the entrance to the Montclair market on a Sunday morning, Ugyen Triantopoulos watched over a trickle of customers at her candy shop, Le Bon Bon. "Parking's very difficult," she said. "I definitely think the businesses around here don't get as much" during the market.

Pardini has heard these complaints before, and he has trouble making sense of them. "If we're drawing thousands of people to the area," he said, "and they say they're not benefitting from it, you can't just blame; you've got to take action." He suggests local businesses offer a farmers' market special, like the seasonal fruit cocktails of Lakeshore's Easy Lounge on Saturday afternoons. If shoppers flood the neighborhood, yet "they're saying they're not walking into their shop," said Pardini, "I can't do a whole lot about that."

Indeed, perceptions among many Oakland businesses that the markets hurt their sales defy conventional wisdom. "That's the whole point of bringing in a farmers' market," Pardini said. Every market his organization operates in Oakland is sponsored by a neighborhood merchants association, and was endorsed by Oakland's Community and Economic Development Agency, based on the argument that it would spur economic activity.

"It's kind of obvious," said Margot Lederer Prado, a food specialist within the agency. "Basic congregation of people brings excitement and interest to an area." But the impact, she cautions, may not be so clear or immediate. Shoppers may buy lunch from market vendors, but return at a later date to local restaurants they noticed while in the neighborhood.

"You'd think that they want us there," Pardini added.

Ben Feldman of Berkeley's Ecology Center, which operates that city's three farmers' markets and a new one in Albany, says the debate over their economic contribution to urban areas is beside the point. Or, at least it should be. "That is a benefit that certainly happens," he said. "But, in my opinion, that's the wrong reason to start a farmers' market."

As the number of farmers' markets multiplied in the past quarter-century, they began attracting attention not only from foodies and advocates for the hungry but from marketers and city planners. A certain cachet developed around the heirlooms and winter squash, one that signified disposable income and ­­­sophisticated taste (see Old Oakland's newest restaurant, Farmers Market Bistro). While before, churches and food security organizations sponsored the markets, now their boosters were urban economic agencies. And while the shift may be subtle from the shopper's vantage point, the mission has diverged as well. "Our goal, and our only responsibility, is to bring people downtown," Pardini said.

But head to Derby Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley on a Tuesday afternoon, and you'll see a different mission — and a different outcome. The Ecology Center-run market is off the path of commercial districts and, without seating areas or entertainment beyond a folk singer with a guitar, it exhibits no aspirations to be a social destination. As far as its offerings, there is little beyond farm stands, though the Ecology Center's Feldman explains the inclusion of purveyors of foods like ice cream, bread, and sushi: "If people need to go to the grocery store after going to the farmers' market, they will often end up blowing off the market entirely," he said. "We want to offer the consumer an alternative to going to grocery stores."

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