AFSC STAFF MACK WARNER HELPED START THE FIRST FARMERS’ MARKET IN THE NATION, RIGHT HERE IN STOCKTON
Eat Local, Eat Fresh, and Eat Ethnic
Story of the Oldest and Biggest Asian Farmers Market in U.S.
Teresa M. Chen
The Farmers’ Market under Stockton’s Crosstown Freeway is California’s oldest and arguably the oldest farmers’ market in the nation. When Southeast Asian refugees relocated in the Central Valley from Fort Pendleton, the Government helped them lease strips of land from big landowners to farm for a living. It was the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to make sure that it would be economically viable. AFSC staff Mack Warner organized the small and medium-scale farmers under Rural Economic Alternative Project (REAP) to sell directly to consumers, cutting off the middleman.
The Spawning of Farmers’ Markets
The first farmers’ market opened in July of 1979 in the parking lot under Stockton’s Crosstown Freeway between San Joaquin and El Dorado Streets. It was an instant success. According to Record staff writer Reed Fujii, more than 20 area farmers participated and the farmers’ market was “swamped by an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 customers hungry for fresh produce.” And, “It was a sellout.”
“The next Saturday market drew 30 growers and even more customers – 5,000 to 6,000 – and proved another sellout,” reported the Record.
Within a year, Mack Warner helped start four more farmers’ markets in San Joaquin County – in Tracy, Manteca, Lodi, and Weberstown of Stockton, with the help of local growers like Cecil Bonzo, Sam and Indira Tyson, Larry and Lois Belligmeier, and Bob Groom. Together they formed the Stockton Certified Farmers’ Market Association.
AFSC also organized San Joaquin growers to form a Co-op, delivering fresh produce to San Francisco, to sell at the first inner city farmers’ market, known as the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, which still goes on every Sunday at the Civic Center.
In 1982, AFSC published a cookbook entitled From Field to Table – Recipes from Farmers and Consumers, culminating cooking demonstrations and health education of AFSC staff and volunteers. Stockton’s own Cecil Bonzo had included a recipe for Bittermelon which is called Ampalaya in Filippino.
When people realized that fresh vegetables and fruit could taste so good and that small family farmers could make a living, more and more farms and farmers’ markets sprang up across the nation. The movement spread like wild fire. A recent search on http://search.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/, turned up 8,162 market names on 817 pages of information on farmers’ market nationwide. The number is surely impressive despite the USDA disclaimer for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Stockton’s Asian Farmers’ Market Today
According to the website of Downtown Stockton Alliance, http://www.downtownstockton.org/stockton_events_farmers_market.php, Stockton’s original farmers market, now referred to as the Open Air Asian and Farmers’ Market, is still very prosperous, drawing “more than 80 vendors and up to 9,000 customers nearly every Saturday, 6 a.m. – 10 a.m.,” and providing fresh produce and herbs originating from (in alphabetical order) Cambodia, China, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, Laos, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam, but locally grown.
I have traveled up and down the West Coast and visited a number of farmers’ markets. Though other markets may be more upscale, featuring “boutique” or specialty stands, I can find practically every Asian vegetables and fruit here, and many more. I can find persimmons, pomegranates, jujuba dates, yali, and white peaches. I can find ong choy, A choy, gaai choy, bok choy, saan choy, yau choy and siu choy – green leaf vegetables. I can even find sugar cane, great burdock root, taro, and wild yam.
While our Asian growers produce diverse ethnic food, we do not lack seasonal vegetables like beans, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, cauliflowers, beets, peppers, and chard. The offering of our farmers’ market is as diverse and rich as the ethnic mix of its consumers.