North Bay farmers markets innovate with expanded seasons, delivery to underserved populations

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Farmers markets have been around for centuries — the year 1730 to be exact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Back then, these public gatherings served as a way for local vendors to sell their fresh goods to the community. That’s still the case, but nearly 300 years later, farmers markets have greatly evolved.

Today, there are more than 8,000 farmers markets throughout the U.S., according to the department, including dozens in the North Bay area that are now selling food, staging cooking demonstrations, and many moving to year-round operations. At the same time, they’re trying to combat unhealthy diet trends, along with the ability to simply order produce delivered to your home, or even the makings of a meal.

And next month, as part of National Farmers Market Week (Aug. 5-11), the Agricultural Institute of Marin will launch a mobile farmers-market program called The Rollin’ Root, said Andy Naja-Riese, CEO of AIM. The Rollin’ Root will help low-income people who don’t have their own transportation by bringing them healthy foods and education about healthy eating, Naja-Riese said.

The program will begin in Marin, and eventually be available throughout the North Bay. The exact rollout date is pending.

Throughout Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, organizations that manage farmers markets remain focused on supporting local farmers, protecting the environment, advocating for the underserved and educating consumers.

“I’ve been kind of a farmers-market junkie all my life,” said David Layland, president of the Napa Farmers Market Board. Before taking over as president four years ago, he frequented the markets and occasionally provided chef demonstrations on pickle fermenting and cooking with tomatoes.

Chef demonstrations are held weekly at the Napa markets, with the goal of educating people on how to cook healthy meals at home using fresh and local products, Layland said, who also serves as chair of the Napa Local Food Advisory Council. The Napa Farmers Market supports more than 60 small regional farms, with offerings ranging from heirloom apples and Delta asparagus, to potatoes, nursery seedlings and pasture-raised meats.

Next year, the Napa Farmers Market will begin operating year-round rather than its traditional April through November season that runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Layland said.

“We finally felt there was enough demand from the community, and also from our farmers,” he said. “And there’s certainly demand from the community engaged in local artisan foods.”

Three years ago, the market moved from its First Street location to the South Napa Century Center shopping complex, a move that provided much-needed access to electricity and water, and an opportunity to help the environment, Layland said.

“We don’t sell anything in plastic bottles at the market anymore,” he said. “We offer a free water-bottle refill station and sell metal water bottles at about what they cost us.”

More food operators, especially on the bakery side, have been popping up at the farmers market since the Cottage Foods Operations program was enacted into law in 2012, Layland said. The law allows vendors who meet specified requirements to prepare and/or package certain foods in their home kitchens.

The Napa Farmers Market also participates in the CalFresh food stamps program, he said. CalFresh is also known as SNAP, the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“I think (SNAP) is such an important program,” said Carmen Snyder, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Trails, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization formed in 1973 to create community among food producers, and establish a stronger connection between farmers and the public. Although Farm Trails doesn’t directly oversee farmers markets, many of its farming members participate in the 22 markets located within the county, Snyder said.

“All of our work is toward ensuring farmers are economically viable,” Snyder said, adding that it’s difficult for them to make a living. “Everything we do is to keep farmers farming. As a county, I think we value and appreciate the rural traditions, landscape, incredible food … we want to keep reminding people of that and encouraging them to support their local farmers and food system into the future.”

Snyder said modern-day trends like the convenience of online ordering and door-to-door operations such as Hello Fresh and Blue Apron, are making it a struggle for farmers markets and the farmers.

On the other hand, certain advancements are necessary to ensure farmers markets’ viability for the future, according to Kelly Smith, executive director of Kenwood-based Agricultural Community Events Farmers Markets.

“Finding new ways to operate that work in this modern world is essential,” said Smith, who oversees 12 farmers markets in Sonoma and Marin counties. “I am always looking (at) new accounting methods, ways to create maps to share with the vendors, (finding) a way to have a database that is sharable with our farmers’ market managers and (easily) creating social media content.”

ACEFM promotes agriculture and agricultural-related products through community farmers markets in a variety of ways, including supporting farmers who are able to make it to market by offering lower stall fees, helping them find competent and trustworthy employees, and publicizing their worth to the community at large, she said.

“We invest a lot in advertising and outreach,” Smith said, noting that the organization spent $65,000 in advertising last year.

ACEFM’s farmers markets also participate in the CalFresh — or SNAP — program and offers Market Match vouchers for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The way it works is when someone uses their SNAP card at the market, we are able to match the amount they take off the card with Market Match,” she said. Market Match is a healthy-food incentive program that matches SNAP benefits dollar-for-dollar. If someone spends $10, for example, the Market Match program will match with an additional $10. “We are able to do this with help from a nonprofit called Farmers Market L.I.F.E. and a federally funded USDA grant.” The Napa Farmers Market also participates in Market Match.

In general, farmers markets are still mostly an all-cash business, Smith said, noting that farmers and other vendors like to keep things simple.

But that’s not entirely possible.

“At all of our farmers market information booths we offer market money that can be purchased through Square transactions, which we run through an iPad or our phones,” she said. A nominal fee is charged to cover costs ( $1 for $20 and under; and $2 for $21 or more). The vendor uses this money to pay their stall fees, or if they have more than their stall fee costs, then they are reimbursed for the excess, she said.

“I think the farmers market for the most part is one of the last places where you can find low-tech or no-tech in the marketplace,” Smith said. “It makes it refreshing for a lot people and challenging for the young people who are tech-dependent.”

The San Rafael-based AIM operates seven year-round farmers markets, comprised of its two flagship markets that operate on Thursdays and Sundays at the Marin Civic Center; two farmers markets in San Francisco and three in Alameda County.

Like the other Bay Area farmers markets, AIM participates in the CalFresh and Market Match programs.

AIM also represents more than 300 family farms, specialty-food purveyors and artisans, said Naja-Riese, who joined the organization in May.

Prior to joining AIM, Naja-Riese served for nearly three years as branch chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food and nutrition service for the Western region.

When Naja-Riese stepped into his new role, he inherited the organization’s fundraising initiative to build a permanent structure on land adjacent to its current location at the Marin Civic Center.

“In 2017, AIM and Marin County signed a memorandum of understanding that lays out the terms of development for a permanent farmers market,” he said. For now, though, he’s reevaluating how best to move forward.

First steps could include building a permanent canopy, which would protect from the summer heat and rain while maintaining the outdoor, open-air environment of farmers markets; establishing space for a teaching kitchen and possibly a food incubator; and creating energy generated through solar panels, he said.

“We’ve been fundraising, but right now I’m really working with our board to define the project to make sure we’re very clear about what we need to build,” he said. “We’re only going to do this once, so we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

Contact Cheryl Sarfaty at or 707-521-4259.

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