It's 5:00 p.m. on a Wednesday at the Ocean Beach Farmers' Market, and a homeless man is sprawled on the corner of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street.
A dad with three small kids approaches. “Get your kids away from me,” the homeless man growls. “I am drunk!” The dad shrugs and moves on.
A bounce house is set up on the east side of Newport, and there are two llamas available for kiddie rides. A man in his 70s plays a guitar made from a vintage suitcase; at his feet he has two similar instruments for sale.
A 20-something young man — wearing pants duct-taped together — holds a puppy.
A woman asks, “How much you selling the dog for?”
“Selling?” The young man shakes his dreads. “I would never sell a living thing. I’m looking for a nice person to give this little guy to.”
The salvaged-goods booth run by Shelby Hartman is relatively quiet. A woman stops and picks up a fused-plastic-bags wallet. The concept amazes her. “How did you make this?” she asks. Shelby launches into an explanation.
Meanwhile, a band plays loudly. A woman balancing a handmade hula-hoop on her hips dances along. Two booths over, a man buys lettuce for his iguana; the toddler-sized reptile wraps itself around his shoulders. Someone snaps a picture of them.
A few curious shoppers stop to check out Shelby’s owl pillows, crafted out of recycled fabric. Her creations net her about $1000 per month. She also sells at the Hillcrest farmers’ market on Sundays.
At the O.B. market, Shelby pays $20 to share a space with Margo, the owner of Nkuto Organics. Craft vendors, on average, pay $40 per booth. Since certified-organic sellers are in high demand, they’re charged 7 percent of their total sales, while all other farmers and food vendors are charged 10 percent of their profits. David, the Ocean Beach Farmers’ Market manager, estimates that over 100 vendors show up every Wednesday.
“Margo and I have the perfect location,” Shelby says. “It’s on the corner, next to the band. It’s loud, but we get a lot of foot traffic coming through.”
Most of Shelby’s popular items are created using fused plastic. Shelby irons plastic bags between sheets of wax paper until they are flat and smooth. To protect against harmful chemicals, she wears a protective mask that looks like something you’d see in a sci-fi film.
Shelby shops at thrift stores every Monday, searching for vintage bed sheets, zippers, and fabric. Tuesday through Friday, she sews from 9:00 to 2:00. On market days, she places her products in two small Tupperware bins and then she’s good to go. It takes her about a minute to set up and tear down.
“I’ve been doing this for three years now, and every year, I get better. I only made $15 at my first market but decided to stick with it.”
“I love creating,” she tells me. “I love what I do. The Farmers’ Market is a family.”
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On a sloping green hill at Paul Ecke Central Elementary school in Encinitas, farmers’ market shoppers set up picnic lunches. Blonde children run around on the grass, chasing bubbles the size of their fists. It’s like a casting call for a Gap commercial. A toddler in fire-truck galoshes and a Snow White princess dress, spins in circles: the little ballerina is a boy. He munches on a carrot, Bugs Bunny style. A waify-looking dude in a striped sweater, skinny jeans, and Ray-Bans strums a guitar and sings a moody song. A crowd gathers. A middle-aged man dressed as a clown paints a butterfly on a little girl’s face. There is a line of eager children waiting.
Families sit on afghans spread on the damp ground. Most have cotton grocery bags at their feet; the bags are filled with lettuce and kale. A group of lean gray-haired men in Spandex biking gear eat sushi. A young couple dips snap peas into hummus. I overhear a woman announce to a friend that she’s been on a raw-food diet for over a month.
“You wouldn’t believe the way my complexion has changed,” she says. “Look at my face. I look younger. I get all my veggies here.”
Albert Juarez, owner of Meatmen, sells salamis and sausages. He is one of the 85–90 vendors at the Sunday-afternoon Encinitas/Leucadia Farmers’ Market (which includes 29 certified growers and 8 certified organic growers). Albert announces to his customers that the nitrate-free pork he uses comes from humanely raised pigs. His seasoning is organic and fair-trade. Shoppers nod their heads in approval.
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It’s 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday when I meet Albert at his storefront off Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. The shop is spotless. To the right of the front door a metal shelf houses neatly arranged disinfectants, a box of hairnets, and a small personal collection of cookbooks. A metal rod holds freshly dry-cleaned linens — checkered pants and white chefs’ jackets. On top of a small desk sits an oversized chocolate heart, a Valentine’s Day gift for his wife that he picked up from a neighboring vendor at the Ocean Beach market. There is a walk-in fridge and a freezer, a meat-grinder on a stainless-steel countertop. Dozens of spices line another metal shelf.
Albert is preparing for the Encinitas/Leucadia Farmers’ Market, but the day is cold and raining.
“I checked the weather report,” he says. “The rain is supposed to clear up by this afternoon. It should be sunny by the time we get to the market.” He switches out a pair of tall rain boots for broken-in New Balance tennis shoes. Albert wears his long hair in a ponytail. His eyes are vivid green. He smells like fennel seed.
I fail to remove my ballet flats and track a puddle of mud onto the gleaming white floors.
“Don’t worry,” Albert says, “I mop every day. The USDA will be by tomorrow. It’s one of my production days.”
See list of farmers' markets in San Diego County