Despite the number of farmers markets that continue to crop up across Los Angeles, the trend of locally-grown ingredients sold in a communal setting is nothing new.
Though people are more familiar with upscale shopping mall The Grove, the expansive market located just across the way from the glitzy stores is the first and original farmers market in Los Angeles. Founded on July 14, 1934, this first farmers market grew out of the idea that farmers from the surrounding areas (such as San Gabriel Valley and San Fernando Valley) could sell their crops at stands in one central location.
“Roger Dahlhjelm, one of the founders, had a vision to help out the farmers who were more or less struggling through the Depression try to market their crops,” says Brett Arena, archivist for the A.F. Gilmore Company, which owns the land on which the farmers market operates. “It was his idea to try to get them to come down to the corner of Third and Fairfax, which was a vacant lot, as well as to invite artisans – weavers, cobblers and artists – to come and sell their wares.”
Dahlhjelm and his business partner Fred Becke approached Earl B. Gilmore, an oil mogul who owned the empty lot, according to Arena. “Gilmore’s own father was a farmer, so he loved the farmers market idea,” Arena noted.
On that fateful Saturday nearly eighty years ago, 18 vendors – 12 of whom were actual farmers – descended on the lot to sell their crops and produce. “The farmers showed up and they were charged 50 cents a day to sell their crops and Roger Dahlhjelm was the man who ran the show,” Arena says. “Soon, stalls were being built with canvas stretched over wood frames and these little stalls began to pop up after the market started.”
Today, more than 200 farmers markets take place each week in Los Angeles. Though produce stands continue to dominate many of these farmers markets, a number of vendors also specialize in other, more exotic, goods.
For instance, Chris Reid and Rhett Melbo, two twenty-somethings from San Diego, make frequent trips up to Los Angeles to sell oysters.
“We have to wake up at four in the morning and get to the warehouse in Carlsbad. We leave there at around 5:30 a.m. and head up to get here at 7 a.m. so we’re ready to open shop by 8 a.m.,” Melbo says.
Reid and Melbo spend much of their time selling their products at farmers markets (especially at the Hollywood Farmers Market, held on Sunday mornings), but the dynamic oyster duo also hosts a variety of events all over Los Angeles and supplies major bars and restaurants, such as L&E Oyster Bar in Silverlake.
But at the end of the day, a lot hasn’t changed for such vendors since the days of the original farmers market.
“We’re just an outdoor market shucking oysters,” Reid says.
And in that vein, farmers markets continue to support many smaller businesses that benefit from the crowds that arrive at the markets each week. Soledad Goats, a cheese stand run by Julian Pearce and his wife, Carol, serves as a perfect example.
“We were milking a herd in the U.K. of about 1,200 goat and we were selling liquid milk when we thought, ‘why don’t we start making cheese?’,” Julian Pearce says. “I’ve had experience making cheese since I was three years old, and there was a demand for it.”
The couple has 15 years worth of experience working with goats, and six years ago, they came to America to try their hand at crafting cheese. The duo visited Northern California, but ultimately saw more opportunity in Southern California and set up a dairy in Mojave.
“Northern California has a lot of goat farmers and a lot of cheesemakers who are all very successful. So why go with the crowd when we could do our own thing? We put a little herd of about forty goats together and now we’re milking around 300,” Julian Pearce says.
In addition to its original goat cheese, Soledad Goats also carries a number of uniquely flavored cheeses, including honey and lavender as well as tangy garlic and red-bell-pepper cheese.
But above all, Pearce prides himself on the principles his small business runs on, chiefly the no-kill policy that stands on his farm. “We are rescuers as well… we have a very humane farm and people say how magical it is,” he says. “We have dogs, sheep, chicken, goats, cows — all of them together in the same yard, and everyone’s happy.”
That policy is just one of many that differentiate farmers markets vendors from commercial producers. And whether the vendors are selling fruits or flowers or even oysters, you’ll find that an astonishing number of hours are put into each of these humble market stands, including the time it takes to personally raise livestock or crops as well as hours spent transporting products back and forth, from one farmers market to the next.
Though some markets, such as the Atwater Village and Los Feliz farmers markets, are somewhat farther away, there are also farmers markets located right in USC’s backyard.
Both the Pershing Square Farmers Market, which takes place every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the Downtown LA Farmers Market, held every Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., are just short Metro rides away from campus.
And if you aren’t feeling very adventurous, USC has its own farmers market every Tuesday along University Avenue, right off Jefferson Boulevard. The market boasts fresh produce, kettle corn, pupusas and baked goods.
So take advantage of the warm weather that spring brings and make sure to visit at least a couple of these markets. Whether you’re looking to stock up on groceries or simply suddenly get a sudden craving for goat cheese, you’ll likely find something new and delicious to fall in love with.