WATSONVILLE — Pajaro Valley residents are fortunate to live in a region where fresh fruits and vegetables are readily available.
Produce stands are a staple of Watsonville, and supermarkets shelves overflow with items that have been shipped from faraway places in Central and South America. Residents don’t have to rely on the surrounding land or wait for the seasons to change to buy fruits and vegetables.
Yet an increasing number of people are seeking out seasonal and if possible organic produce that is grown locally. According to a recent survey by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, 89 percent of respondents say their source for fresh fruits and vegetables is within walking distance or a short drive away, and 70 percent said they purchased fresh produce from a farmers market or stand in the past year.
This trend is no different in the Pajaro Valley. Many local farms and organizations are providing alternative ways for consumers to get their five-a-day. According to Nancy Gammons of the Watsonville Certified Farmers Market, interest has grown in the market since it started at the plaza 12 years ago. Starting on May 13, the market is now open on Sundays as well as Fridays.
“It is a very wise thing that people buy from home and support their local farms,” Gammons said. Many of the farmers are from Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, while the stone fruit producers are from Oxnard and the Imperial Valley.
When produce is shipped to stores, Gammons explains, it is not fully ripe, and the flavor is not as sweet. Whereas many of the farmers at the market pick fruit the day before or the morning they are going to sell.
A recently established farmers market at Pajaro Valley High School on Sundays takes the concept of the Latin American Mercado and combines it with a flea market with fruit and vegetable stands. Patricia Rodriguez, manager of The Mercado, says the group is just starting out and are currently recruiting more farmers for the market.
In conjunction with the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, Rodriguez is assisting small-scale, local farmers get certified with the Santa Cruz County Agricultural Commission.
“Many local farmers do not know how to become certified,” explained Rodriguez. A farmer herself, Rodriguez says that small farms go out of business because they do not know how to sell.
Both the Watsonville Certified Farmers Market and The Mercado use other attractions, like prepared food stands and a flea market to draw people in.
Low-income people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or CalFresh, as it is called in California, via their EBT card at certified farmers market is also a boon to the growers and consumers who rely on government assistance to get healthy food.
Rodriguez explains that her groups is in the process of applying to accept EBT at The Mercado. At the Watsonville Certified Farmers Market, they accept EBT, WIC and WIC for seniors. In June, thanks to ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association) in Salinas, for every $10 in EBT tokens, ALBA will provide $5 in tokens.
According to Gammons, “it is a wonderful thing” when people can meet the grower that supplies their food and make a connection.
Watsonville organic farmer Tom Broz of Live Earth Farms attends six farmers markets during the height of the season and four year round. Live Earth Farms also sells direct to consumers via their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which provides weekly boxes of seasonal, organic produce.
Purchasing your fruits and vegetables through a CSA program is a convenient way for individuals to get fresh, locally sourced items. You usually pay up front, which also helps mitigate the risk for the farmers as they know beforehand how much to grow.
At Live Earth Farms, you become a member and sign up for a share of the weekly allotment of fruits and vegetables during a particular season. Members then pick up their weekly box of produce at designated spots in Watsonville.
For Broz, the CSA model allows consumers to connect with the source of their food and learn about the particular challenges faced by food producers.
“We have a very strong educational program,” said Broz, which includes farm tours for local school children and educational programming for children and their caregivers.
J&P Organics is another CSA operation that is based outside Salinas and delivers throughout Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties and up to San Jose State University and Stanford University in Palo Alto. Started in 2006, J&P Organics puts a twist on the CSA model and allows consumers to “pay as you go.”
“We send an email to customers about what will be in the box and then they order,” said Juan Perez, owner and farmer at J&P Organics.
“We then know how much to pick. If we need 60 bunches of carrots, we pick 60 bunches of carrots,” he said.
Customers can choose to receive a box weekly or monthly and can pay online via PayPal. Boxes of produce are delivered to your door and you can opt to receive organic eggs and fresh cut flowers.
According to Perez, his customers appreciate the differences they get from locally grown, seasonal organic produce.
“You may go to local markets, but the produce is from Mexico or Chile – and the taste is not there.”
The focus on organic is also important to his customers.
“People do not want to feed pesticides and chemicals to their kids,” said Perez. “They want to open their box and give their kids healthy, organic food.”
Watsonville Certified Farmers Market at the corner of Peck and Main Streets runs Fridays and Sundays – 3pm to 7pm.
El Mercado Flea Market and Farmers Market at Pajaro Valley High School at 500 Harkins Slough Road runs Sundays starting at 8am.
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