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.”
∗ ∗ ∗
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.
∗ ∗ ∗
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.”
The government reps come to the Meatmen shop Mondays and Wednesdays. They can show up anytime between 6:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Sometimes they swab Albert’s walls, check the temperature of his meat, review his safety procedures, or go through required paperwork.
“They’re just doing their job,” Albert says.
I am surprised to discover that the Meatmen Company is just this one man — Albert.
We pack up the van. Two oversized coolers are filled with sausages taken from a crowded freezer. Selections include: Bratwurst, Bratwurst with Cheddar, Sweet Italian, Sweet Italian with Provolone, and Spicy Kaiserkrainer. They’ll be sold in four-packs or used in the sandwiches he makes and sells at the market for $6 a pop.
Albert loads two wooden crates with wrapped salami. The walk-in fridge holds dozens more, hung on hooks near the ceiling. Albert’s salamis are cold-cured for two months, resulting in a stronger flavor.
When the van is ready to go, there’s barely room in the passenger seat.
Before hopping on the 805, Albert stops at Smart & Final and purchases a 12-pack of Sierra Nevada and two large blocks of butter. Both will be used to steam the sausages. He is against cooking with cheap beer.
We make another stop at Blue Ribbon Pizza in Encinitas, where Albert drops off a crate of sausages and salami that will be used as pizza toppings.
Most of Albert’s revenue comes from sales at farmers’ markets. Ideally, he would like 60 percent of his profit to be online orders, but he has yet to set up a website. He doesn’t have time. Albert works seven days a week on the markets, production, ordering, and bookkeeping. His wife sometimes complains about his long hours.
“When you own your own business, you don’t have much time for friends and family,” he acknowledges. “There are moments when it’s overwhelming. But then I get into my van, and I get excited to go to the market.”
Albert sells at six farmers’ markets. On Wednesday, he is in Ocean Beach. Thursday, he attends two different Oceanside markets. Friday — La Mesa. Saturday is Poway, and Sunday, Encinitas/Leucadia. He sells the most in Oceanside, the least in La Mesa.
“The La Mesa market only covers my dry-cleaning bill, but it’s revenue, and I can’t turn down revenue,” Albert admits.
When we arrive at Paul Ecke Central Elementary school, many of the other vendors have already set up their booths. Ron, the market manager, is standing on a narrow dirt path directing vans as they come in. He wears BluBlockers and a T-shirt tucked into pale denim shorts. He looks grumpy. Albert waves. Ron does not wave back.
It takes us about 15 minutes to set up the Meatmen booth. First the canopy, then the netting. We cover two tables with fabric. Albert lights a propane stove. He boils water for washing his hands and puts it in an oversized Thermos. He will scrub up every time he touches money. Albert asks me to be the cashier, hoping to avoid having to clean up so often. This is a really bad idea. I’m terrible at math. I’m convinced he will be losing money today.
Albert cuts a few salami slices as samples.
His neighbors to the right are Japanese sushi-makers. To his left, a Belgian man and his Italian wife; their specialties are fries and waffles. Across the dirt path, an Englishman has a coffee cart and bakery goods. Next to that is a gyros cart. Everybody is friendly with one another. They have inside jokes.
They laugh about a Super Bowl pool that Ron, the market manager, set up. The owner of the coffee cart won $500. Ron walks past, and one of the vendors yells out, “How’d you let a British guy beat you in a Super Bowl pool?” Ron chuckles. He turns to the owner of the coffee cart. “Are you giving everyone five bucks to rub that in?”
A boy, maybe 10 or 11, drops off a large paper bag from a neighboring vendor, Le Rendez-Vous. It is filled with baguettes that will be used for Albert’s sausage sandwiches.
A frizzy-haired blonde woman, dressed in yoga pants and a tie-dye shirt, stops by the Meatmen booth to ask Albert if he would like to swap food again.
“Sure. Guavas and blood oranges?”
She nods. A few minutes later, she appears with an overflowing bag.
She leans in and whispers, “We’re selling the farm and moving into a condo near the beach. It’ll be easier. I just can’t keep up anymore. I’m in my 50s.” She is excited, but Albert looks disappointed.
When she leaves, I ask how often he trades food with other sellers and am surprised to learn that this happens at almost every market. “There is certain camaraderie amongst food people,” he says. “But I don’t trade with everyone that asks. Some people are hired employees of the farms. It’s not their food.”
Albert’s first customer is a woman with cropped spiky hair. She has a three-year-old son. The woman and her boy show up every week for Meatmen sandwiches.
“I want a hot dog,” the boy announces.
Albert takes a baguette and scoops a hole in its center, using a metal tong. He serves the extra bread to customers, saying, “A little appetizer!”
Next, he stuffs in a sausage, some sauerkraut, and a squirt of whole-seed mustard.
Albert places the sandwich in the little boy’s hands, then gives him an affectionate wave. The boy’s mom thanks Albert for her “weekly fix.”
More people show up. Most buy sandwiches or the four-packs of sausages that go for $8. Throughout the day, Albert makes a few salami sales, though not nearly as many as the sausages.
Albert has given his salamis names like: the Naughty Constable, the Juicy Scandal, and the Tasty Treason. His sign reads: “$8 a chub.”
A couple giggles over the sign. “It’s phallic, huh,” Albert says.
A woman buys a Juicy Scandal and a Naughty Constable as Valentine’s Day gifts for her boyfriend. Albert goes along with the gag. “I’m going to put a big red heart sticker on these and write, ‘Enjoy.’” The woman chuckles. Albert laughs, too. “I’m here for all your Valentine’s needs.”
Albert is a charming man. People like him. He calls everyone Sister or Brother, unless they are children. Then, they become Little Monkeys. When a preteen boy orders a sausage sandwich, Albert hands it over, saying, “Here you go, Little Monkey.” The kid shoots him a dirty look.
Past customers visit the Meatmen booth, simply to chat. A couple of 20-somethings apologize for buying gyros this week. “We’re going to buy from you next week,” one promises.
Two teenage girls giggle and flirt with Albert. He doesn’t notice or is too polite to respond.
For lunch, the Belgian seller brings over a large helping of fries with mayo sauce. Albert orders a rainbow roll from the sushi sellers. In the middle of a salami sale, Albert notices that the Englishman with the coffee cart has water boiling over and spilling onto the counter top. Albert jumps over his booth to offer a hand.
One customer comes back to offer some advice: “You need to make a vegetarian sausage. You don’t want to leave that up to just anyone. You want someone who knows sausages to make that.”
“I don’t have the right kind of casings for that,” Albert says. “You need plastic casings. I don’t use those.”
Another customer suggests pineapple juice in the sauerkraut.
“Never heard of that,” Albert says politely, “I’ll have to try that out.”
It’s 6:00 p.m. Ron shouts to the vendors, “No need to hurry out. We could stay here for another hour for all I care. Football season is over. The only thing on TV tonight is trout-fishing and ping-pong.”
Albert tallies up his sales before tearing down the booth. Nine percent goes to the market. I’m surprised when he says it was a slow day. It felt to me as if there were too many customers to keep up with. Albert shrugs. “Some days are better than others,” he says.
Before leaving, the Belgian man asks if they will still celebrate Easter together. “We can barbecue,” he tells Albert.
“Sounds good,” Albert says.
On the car ride home, I ask what’s next for the Meatmen business.
“I am going to sign a three-year lease on my shop,” Albert says. “At some point, I’d really like to raise my own pigs. Right now, I have to pay a freight charge. I’d like to eliminate that negative carbon footprint.”
When I ask if he ever envisioned his life going this way, he hesitates. “The thing about working in the food industry is that you don’t have to worry about food. You’ll always eat.”
∗ ∗ ∗
It takes over an hour to get to Morning Star Ranch, located off Interstate 15 in Valley Center. Miss the sign announcing the entrance and you end up on the Pala Indian Reservation. But I turn where I should, just past the Yellow Deli, and drive down a long dirt road, past a lilac farm and an adobe-style mansion: we are at the farm. Morning Star’s entrance gate is stunning, an intricate sunset made out of steel. Inside, another dirt road lined with palm trees leads you to an old helicopter hangar that has been converted into a barn.
I park in a pebbled lot. A young boy running toward the barn stops, extends his hand, and introduces himself as Fin. His hair is tied back neatly into a ponytail. For a preteen, he seems curiously adult.
He leads me to the main house. Through an open door I see a washer and dryer and mounds of clothing spilling out of baskets.
Fin introduces me to Rekah, a petite woman in her 30s. She wears a beige three-button shirt and baggy cotton pants cinched at the ankles.
Before we head down to the field to begin a day of picking vegetables and preparing for the market, Rekah gives a tour of the property.
She and the others are members of the Twelve Tribes, a religious commune. They live, work, and worship at Morning Star Ranch. They try to model their lives around the way early Christians lived — the Book of Acts is their inspiration. When new members join their group, they give up their material possessions: homes, cars, and electronics.
The 66-acre property houses two yurts, one for single men, the other for single women. There’s also a large communal home for families. There is a modest schoolhouse where the children attend class.
We walk past a sand volleyball court and two ponds. One is used for swimming, the other is populated by ducks and turtles. On the far side of the property sits a quaint home. On weekends, married couples take turns staying there while the community takes care of their children. Newlyweds are offered the home for one full week as a honeymoon.
Rekah takes us past a chicken coop, a pasture with three cows, and a pen occupied by goats.
“The kids take care of most of the animals. The boys milk the cows, and the girls look after the goats. My sons like to chase and catch the chickens,” Rekah says and laughs.
Rekah is a Hebrew name, meaning “tender.” She was given her name a year after moving to the farm. Nearly all the tribe members have Hebrew names suggested by the community. Rekah was standoffish when she first came to the ranch. Her husband was enthusiastic about living a communal life with the Twelve Tribes, while Rekah was hesitant. With time she softened. That is why she is called Rekah.
Lev — Hebrew for “heart” — is in the garden. He is the farm manager, a job chosen for him by the community; the community assigns jobs to every member. Lev has a wide, friendly smile. He met Twelve Tribes members at a reggae concert in Oceanside. He came down to the farm to check it out. Soon after, he moved in with his wife and daughter.
Lev is hosing off beets. He sends us out to the garden to pick kale. “Take two of the biggest leafs off of each plant.”
Halfway through picking, Lev yells for us to dump the kale into an outdoor sink filled with ice to prevent wilting.
Rekah says that a few years ago black aphids destroyed their entire kale crop. They were told that the only way to get rid of the problem was to burn the acreage. “It was a shame.” Rekah shakes her head. “Such a waste, but that’s the way it is with organic farming. Recently, we figured out that the aphids don’t like grapefruit. We went around and sprayed our kale down with grapefruit juice. The problem went away.”
When all the kale is picked, we place the leaves in the sink. We pull the kale out of the icy water by the handfuls to bundle into bunches of six. Rubber bands are secured around the stems. The leafs that are the least appealing are placed in a separate bin for the Green Drink and Green Energy Bar, sold at the ranch’s two Yellow Deli cafés and at the six farmers’ markets they attend.
“We created the drink and our bars to eliminate waste. See these grapefruits?” Rekah motions to the trees all around the ranch. “We can’t sell or eat all of them. We have so many. We came up with juicing as a way of utilizing everything we have. They have become our most popular products.”
Lev hands us hoses to spray off caked-on dirt from freshly picked carrots and beets. A quiet guy, named Nadiv, which means “willing,” helps out. When I speak to him, he avoids eye contact. I am unsure if it is because he is busy or because he is shy. When asked how he came to the ranch, he tells me he was traveling across the U.S. and ended up in Valley Center. He was looking for a place to sleep and was directed to Morning Star Ranch. That was three years ago.
“Oh, like Jack Kerouac?” I ask.
“Who’s that?” Nadiv says.
There are dozens of carrots that need to be sprayed down and bundled. We bunch the carrots in tens, throw the small, unsightly ones into a bin to be juiced.
Next, we pick radishes. Some are the size of my fist. A squirrel scurries past us with something in its mouth.
“You’d be amazed over just how many rodents we have to kill so that vegetarians can eat our organic lettuce,” Rekah says without a hint of irony.
It takes us about two hours to gather enough produce for the market in O.B. and the two veggie stands, which are located outside the Yellow Delis.
“We don’t really need to sell our produce at any of the farmers’ markets,” Rekah says. “We do it as an outreach to meet people in our community.”
∗ ∗ ∗
At the Ocean Beach market, Ravach, which means “refreshing” in Hebrew, is joined by Jeremiah at the Morning Star booth. They’re in charge. Ravach was introduced to Morning Star Ranch while hanging out at the Ocean Beach market.
We set up three large canopies. Later, we have to take one down when a man that runs a booth called the Cravory insists that we are in his spot.
Ravach and Jeremiah hang a large banner with pictures of Twelve Tribes members. Rekah points out photos of her two sons and husband. I see Lev. There is a photo of Fin, the boy who greeted me in the morning. The sign reads: “Sustainable living begins with Sustainable relationships! Come farm with us!”
We place the veggies that were picked that morning on the table and put dozens of containers of Green Juice in buckets filled with ice. There is also a basket of Green Bars.
To one side is another organic farm stand. Across from us, a young man in a tattered vest, bare-chested beneath it, is chain-smoking while attempting to sell duct-tape wallets. A cardboard sign reads: “Wallets, 2 bucks.” Next to him, an artist sells ocean-themed drawings. The artist has a handlebar mustache and is holding a parasol to shade himself from the early-evening sun.
On a table at the back of our booth lies a stack of brochures inviting people to come to the ranch. Not a single one is handed out while I am there.
The booth is busy. We set out small shots of the Green Drink as samples. People stop to take a swig.
The first customer is a young man in a fedora and a pin-striped shirt. He inquires about the Green Drink.
“It will keep you regular,” Rekah says.
He cracks up. “You’re a very classy lady!” he says. He buys two.
A man in his late 60s wants a cardboard box for all the veggies he purchases. Ravach asks if they can place his stuff in bags.
“I guess,” he sighs. “You gotta have something besides plastic, though.”
“Nope,” Rekah says patiently. “Why didn’t you bring cloth shopping bags?”
He laughs. “Excellent point.”
A middle-aged man picks through bunches of kale. He removes rubber bands from bundles and swaps out small leaves for bigger ones. He studies each thoroughly. He even goes as far as to ask that we let him pick through an extra bin underneath one of the tables. When he has finally picked out the perfect kale leaves, the best avocados, and the nicest beets, he hands me his overstuffed bag.
“I have more shopping to do. Can you place this behind your booth? Make sure it’s out of the sun!”
I place it out of the way at the back of the booth.
“More to the left,” he instructs.
I smile stiffly and do as I’m told.
The other vendors are curious about the Twelve Tribes, but not outwardly friendly. From time to time, I catch the guy from the Cravory giving sideways looks. No one comes over to chat or to trade food.
There are no invitations to holiday parties.
∗ ∗ ∗
Kenny, known as the Mushroom Man, always wears a skirt. My first sighting of him is at the Leucadia market. When Albert and I pull up in the big white Meatmen van, Kenny is standing in the grass wearing a ’shroom Shack T-shirt and a cotton skirt in a camouflage pattern.
“That guy’s a trip,” Albert says.
Rekah, from Morning Star Ranch tells me that they have a booth next to Kenny at the market. “He’s serious about mushrooms. He’s all about the healing power of ’shrooms.” She laughs. “He’s a character.”
Shelby, of Salvaged Goods, knows Kenny, too. They met at the Ocean Beach market. “We’re friends,” she says.
On a Thursday afternoon, I spot Mushroom Man at the University Towne Centre market. His booth is wedged between a honey-seller and a lobster guy. Around the corner, a vendor sells organic-bamboo clothing.
The La Jolla market is populated by older folks in khakis and loafers. It’s a subdued crowd, no hula-hoopers or children chasing bubbles. It’s quiet and clean. With around 50 vendors, it’s smaller than both the Leucadia/Encinitas and the Ocean Beach markets. Each vendor pays a $30 minimum or 10 percent of their sales to have a booth.
Kenny the Mushroom Man has patches of gray in his beard. When he speaks, the words are drawn out. He looks like the kind of guy you might see in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show, selling ganja goo balls.
Kenny’s booth is tidy and simple. He sells unique and elaborate mushrooms. He places them in jars and baskets on his table. The bigger clusters of ’shrooms are free standing. They look more like artwork than fungi.
Today, he is wearing a glittery green skirt paired with a thick belt embroidered in rich colors — purple, green, and gold — paired with a faded gray T-shirt. I wonder if he has taken his wardrobe up a notch because he is in La Jolla.
“The ’shroom Shack’s mission is to reintroduce the mushroom into common foods,” he says. “I would love to turn everyone on to mushrooms.”
His mushrooms come from local farms — Mountain Meadow Mushrooms in North Escondido, Hokto Kinoko Company in San Marcos, Fallbrook Mushrooms, and China City Development, also in Fallbrook. He drives up a few times a week to beef up his inventory; he sells at the six different markets on the circuit.
When I ask how he met his wife, whose family first began selling the ’shrooms in the late ’90s at the Vista market, and what it’s like being a vendor at local farmers’ markets, he ignores me and talks strictly ’shrooms.
“I really don’t have anything else to say about the market. I just want to talk about mushrooms.”
He does, however, mention that he and his wife come from two different mushroom cultures. I tell him I’m unsure what that means.
“I’m from Pittsburg,” he elaborates, “the largest mushroom producer in the United States.” He says this as if it is a fact that everyone should know. “And San Diego, where my wife is from, is the largest mushroom producer in California.”
For 15 minutes he talks about mushrooms, how they are cultivated, where they are found, how the European market has an edge on truffles — a trendy food that people go wild over. He wishes he could make a better mushroom trendy. He says that chemotherapy patients use them to ease pain.
“My wife is pregnant,” he adds. “We’ve joked about, if the baby is a girl, naming her Chanterelle. If it’s a boy, we might go with Porcini. Those are both good mushrooms.”
A couple stops to study Kenny’s ’shrooms in amazement. The woman whispers, “I could almost use this one as a centerpiece for the dining-room table.” The man wrinkles his nose. They walk on.
Kenny admits that sometimes people walk past his booth, alarmed. His mushrooms are unique, and not everyone knows how to prepare them.
“I use the line from Forrest Gump: ‘You can barbecue ’em, boil ’em, broil ’em, and bake ’em.’ But when people buy my mushrooms, it’s out of my hands. I try to tell them to use butter, olive oil, or grapeseed oil, and that friends of mushrooms are shallots and onions. But you never know how they’re going to cook them.”
While we chat, several elderly customers come to the booth. A tall gray-haired man wants to know if Kenny has any lobster mushrooms.
Kenny points to a jar with orange-ish fungi in it. “Ten dollars an ounce,” he says, “and you can keep the jar.”
The man inspects the inside, then shrugs and continues on.
“Is your clientele mostly older people?” I ask.
Kenny appears offended. “I’ve found that most people who buy my mushrooms are educated and high-income. We do best at the coastal community markets. Some markets just aren’t into us. We used to do a market in Rancho Santa Fe. We did really well there. Those people understand mushrooms.”
Kenny objects to the multitude of markets in San Diego.
“We can’t get to them all. It’s hard for local farmers to keep up. In San Bernardino, the farmers regulate the markets. In San Diego it’s a free-for-all. We have dozens of markets daily. I don’t think that’s cool.”
Kenny says big things are happening in the ’shroom community. “You’ll see some big changes next year.” He lowers his voice. “But I can’t talk about that.”
See list of farmers' markets in San Diego County