By Claire Harlin
More than 26 years ago, Del Mar residents rallied to begin the second-ever San Diego County farmers market to support local farms and compensate for the lack of a grocery store in the small coastal city. Since then, the county has seen the addition of dozens more local farmers markets like the one that sets up shop from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays in the Del Mar City Hall parking lot — and, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, the growth of such markets in the nation has nearly tripled over the past three years, with San Diego being a hotbed.
But while much has evolved in terms of health-driven trends and emphasis on shopping local, the Del Mar Farmers Market has largely operated by the same values it established back in the early 1980s, and it’s the only market in the county that’s been donating its proceeds in full to more than a handful of local charities while also providing scholarships to send the Del Mar market’s farmers and their families to college. The market has also maintained many of the original shoppers and vendors that have been selling since day one.
“One of the things that makes us totally unique and a reason we have such a loyal clientele is because we award scholarships every year to the families of farmers as well as employees of the market,” said the market’s president, Nicole Holliday, adding that there are usually between five and 10 scholarships of about $1,000 awarded annually and paid directly to a recipient’s place of study.
Holliday said receiving scholarship awards and working at the market have greatly impacted a number of employees, such as Jason from the Dry Dock Fish Company, who recently graduated with an accounting degree and has worked at the market since he was a young teen. She also mentioned the seven kids in the family that owns Schaner Farms, who have been helping out at the market for years, and the owners of the new new real-fruit ice pop stand that always bring their youngsters along to help.
“Annie the Egg Lady,” along with her kids and grandkids, have also become familiar faces, as Annie has sold her Eben-Haezer Poultry Farm goods there since the market’s beginnings. And Francesca, a longtime citrus fruit farmer, continues to run her booth each week, even though her husband and former business partner has passed away and she’s in the ballpark of 90 years old.
When the market began, it sought not to make a profit, but to serve the community, and that sentiment has also remained unchanged. After paying its overhead, the nonprofit contributes excess proceeds to causes such as the San Dieguito River Valley and Del Mar Community Connections. This year the market also contributed $10,000 to the Del Mar Library to help with its renovation.
Since the Harvest Ranch Market closed on New Year’s Eve, the Del Mar community has somewhat come full circle — arriving back where it started 26 years ago with no local grocer. But despite the camaraderie and nostalgia that’s been built since then upon the market’s mission to enhance the community, it is also having to adapt to the proliferation of grocery competition in the area — particularly the large stores opening in the Del Mar Highlands and Flower Hill Promenade, as well as the One Paseo project that’s in the works, Holliday said.
And possibly for the first time, there have been some changes at the market that she feels are positive — the most drastic being the addition of the market’s first-ever non-vendor manager: longtime Del Mar resident Rita Meier.
A longtime community member who’s been shopping at the Del Mar Farmers Market since its beginnings, Meier said she brings a customer perspective to the market, whereas the market manager position has traditionally been filled by vendors and farmers who often work at other markets as well. Meier, who knows a lot of people in the Del Mar area, “has her finger on the pulse of what the Del Mar customer wants,” Holliday said. According to Meier, that means no crafts — just food — and a balance between food farmers and vendors — which serve a variety of food, including French, Italian, Japanese, Indian and Mexican.
“Some markets have gone to a lot more crafts, but we want to keep it a farmers market … It’s certified.,” Meier said, adding that the addition of a few tables and seats in front of the TV station is in the works and awaiting city approval.
“We want to people to stay and enjoy lunch on the property, not just buy their things and go.”
For more information, visit www.delmarfarmersmarket.org.