Meet Gail Hayden, the godmother of California farmers markets

Hayden has been at the forefront of the farmers market revolution in California for 40 years.

(To be published by South Bay Accent magazine)

Farmers markets have been supplying towns and villages with fresh produce for eons, with these lively bazaars feeding citizens worldwide as well as serving as social institutions in the community. Thomas Jefferson reportedly bought his meat, eggs and vegetables in the early 1800s at a Georgetown farmers market and billions of less-renowned individuals have historically relied on such operations. But unlike in Europe and Asia, farmers markets in America dwindled away as industrialization rose, farms got fewer and larger and bureaucracies interceded.

Gail Hayden helped change that.

While she’s been called the godmother of California farmers markets, had Hayden been born with a natural knack for chemistry, the Bay Area farmers market scene might not be flourishing to its current degree, with well over 100 markets operating in peak season. Her initial goal after entering UC Davis in the mid ’70s was pre-med but her first midterm results sent her in a new direction: agricultural economics, which utilized her math abilities. To repeat a trite phrase, the rest is history. Or rather, herstory.

In the 1800s, farmers markets like this were common in the United States.

While Hayden was studying topics like consumer behavior and demand analysis as a UC Davis student, California farmers were largely forced to grow their produce to fit standardized shipping containers that went to distributors and middlemen. “A tree-ripened peach wasn’t marketable because it wouldn’t make it to New York,” explains Hayden. Produce in those days was supposed to travel long distances and “food was ripening on trucks instead of trees,” she notes.

In earlier centuries, farmers relied on markets in town to sell their goods.

An East Bay native who had always lived in the ‘burbs, Hayden was hired in 1979 as part of a five-person team to work for the California Department of Food and Agriculture to implement a pet project of Governor Jerry Brown, in his moonbeam days.  In the midst of the gas crisis of the late ’70s and a cannery strike that shut shipping down, Brown was incensed that regulations made it difficult for farmers to sell locally to consumers.

Regulated shipping containers made it difficult for farmers to sell all they produced before Hayden helped implement California’s Direct Marketing Act, a pet project of Governor Jerry Brown in the ’70s.

“He thought, how can this be in the salad bowl of the world?  There’s got to be a mechanism so our family farmers can sell their products within a short distance and not have to abide by the shipping standards that covered 40% of the produce in America,” Hayden recalls. In those days, up to a quarter of produce that was too big, too small, ill shaped, marked or sunburned wasn’t sellable while at the same time, the masses shopping in supermarkets “had no idea where their food came from and how it was grown,” she says.

Gail Hayden is a pioneer and leader in helping Californians eat fresh, healthy food.

At the time of the cannery shutdowns, one desperate farmer from north of Sacramento “was arrested for selling tree-ripened peaches on a street corner,” reports Hayden, which symbolized how out of whack regulations were back then. With the imprimatur to de-regulate shipping standards and much more, she performed intensive market research, developed programs to help consumers find sources in nearby farming areas and, most significantly, launched the first certified farmers market program in the state.

Hardly any markets then

Back then, just a few farmers markets existed or were soon to be created. California’s oldest, San Francisco’s Alemany market, was launched in 1943, and the city-run downtown Palo Alto market started up in 1981. Other “original” markets were located in Davis and San Jose. In those days, market patrons were likely to be immigrants looking for specialty produce or those enlightened souls that existed long before the term “foodie” was coined. “There were a few people around who realized that a peach from the supermarket was mealy and lacked the taste peaches had in their grandparents’ time,” explains Hayden.

The Alemany farmers market in San Francisco is the oldest in the state, begun in 1943 during the second world war.

After finding positive answers to the question of how many consumers “would be willing to do something as inconvenient as get their food once a week at a farmers market,” Hayden and her teammates set up 170 markets throughout California in eight years, she recalls. “Now, there are close to 800 markets in California and it’s been estimated there are a million people shopping at a farmers market somewhere in our state each week,” notes Hayden.

Farmers in those earlier days tended toward monoculture, Hayden says. “They’d have 20 acres of plums and they’d harvest those plums in three weeks. They were lucky if they got paid six months later,” she explains. “That same orchard now might have been grafted over and start producing in late May and produce fruit through Labor Day weekend. The farmer has cash flow. They can sell a plum that’s too small or too big.” Besides delivering greater flexibility to farmers, the farmers market trend has been profitable. “We did an economic study to show that the farmers (selling in farmers markets) were able to put 56 cents out of a consumer dollar into their pocket versus 30 cents on the traditional market. They had immediate payment and they didn’t have all the added costs of the shipping.”

“Certified” farmers markets are those where the farmer participants grow what they sell, with reselling produce grown by others not allowed. Such certification doesn’t mean the products are organic but increasingly, such fruit and vegetables available at Bay Area farmers markets often are grown organically. As Hayden describes it, the produce sold locally “leans toward flavor and freshness rather than cosmetic beauty,” which is fine with the health-conscious throngs patronizing regional farmers markets.

Shoppers all over France have long relied on local farmers markets to supply their fresh food.

More education, more likely to buy at farmers markets

When Hayden first started setting up certified farmers markets in the state — a mammoth job involving permits, marketing, endless negotiations and more — she used her economic training to study the optimal audience and then, as now, “the big factor is still education” when it comes to who will shop at a farmers market, she notes, which helps explain the Bay Area farmers market revolution over the past 40 years. Most cities in the region have a market now and some have several.

In the beginning, “When we’d set up a popular market, other communities would say, ‘We want a market like that one,'” Hayden recalls.  Many early markets were held in fairgrounds, municipal parking lots and similar locations. More recently, with regional malls being decimated by online shopping, these entities are requesting people-generating farmers markets be held on their property, she reports. But behind the success of the state’s farmers markets is California’s glorious climate for growing crops. “We have melons one hour away and berries on the coast an hour the other way,” she notes, which makes the state the envy of some other parts of the world that would like more home-grown farmers markets. “Canadians are so jealous,” reports Hayden. “They have just one microclimate. Here, we have strawberries from April to Thanksgiving.  In Canada, they have them for 12 weeks.”

This bounty at the Fort Mason farmers market in San Francisco, managed by CFMA, demonstrates why those who care about fresh, healthy produce prefer to shop at these markets compared to buying what’s available in supermarkets, whose offerings will likely be shipped from far-off locations, stored in warehouses and thus be much less fresh.

During her eight years with the state agriculture department, Hayden not only launched dozens of new farmers markets but expanded the portfolio of goods available. “Little by little, we added things,” she says. “Bakery items, fresh pasta, bread. That was a lot of work, regulation wise.  Adding honey, eggs and flour took us seven years to get into the markets.”  In the mid-’90s after a trip to the United Kingdom, “I saw what they were doing with grass-fed animals and I wanted to do that here. So we worked with U.S. growers on how to get through all the USDA bureaucracy to bring grass-fed meat to the markets,” recalls Hayden.

Among the many non-produce offerings Hayden brought to Bay Area farmers markets were baked goods, eggs and meat.

In the midst of all her efforts with the state agency, she earned her master’s degree in business administration. “My thesis was on food marketing,” she explains. “Why were people buying tortilla chips instead of corn or buying canned salsa rather than mashing up a tomato and putting in some onion and garlic?”

Launching new farmers markets organizations

Having become a walking encyclopedia of farmers market operation, Hayden next was hired to set up the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, launching 11 markets for the organization in the region. This position began in 1987 and demonstrated a trend that was to grow exponentially. Explain Hayden: “We saw early on that the Silicon Valley was ideal for farmers markets. A third of the residents in the Silicon Valley are foreign born and went to markets in their home countries and they like to access products they can’t get at Costco.  The opportunity was obvious” when combined with the region’s higher education levels, she notes.

While Europe has celebrated its incredible farmers markets for centuries, such as this lovely market in Aix en Provence, Hayden had never been to one before starting her career in 1979.

This farmers market pioneer established her own organization in 1994, where she still remains. Called the California Farmers Market Association (CFMA), it launched two markets a year until recently, with the current total approximately 36 markets in the Bay Area. However, many of them — such as the phenomenal market at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza — were eventually turned over to other non-profit organizations to run and CFMA now directly operates 14 regional markets, including thriving South Bay operations in Los Gatos, Saratoga, San Jose/Oakridge, San Jose/Santana Row, Los Altos, Mountain View and Morgan Hill. “An average of 26,000 people a week go through our 14 markets in peak season,” she reports.

The delightful market in Santana Row is one of several run in the Bay Area by Hayden’s organization.

Hayden’s institutional knowledge of the agriculture business and market processes makes her a sought-after guest speaker at international conferences. Having overseen the opening of so many markets, she knows the economics and dynamics of successful operations and regularly advises on state, county and city legislation, fruit and vegetable standards, as well as participating in merchandising and sales workshops. One of the factors that has made CFMA’s markets so popular is the informational activities Hayden’s team runs at their markets.

“We’ve done demos where we’ve taught people how to make 20 different salad dressings in 10 minutes,” she reports. “We’ve explained the difference between a GMO and hybrid fruit. We’ll do a demo tasting an apple grown in the mountains versus an apple that grows in the valley. They taste different. People love the tastings — apple tastings, tomato tastings,” she proudly notes.

A family business

Hayden’s role as the California farmers market doyenne has turned her avocation into a family business. Her husband Doug, a former PG&E marketer, is now part of CFMA along with their daughter Kayla, who “grew up in the markets,” according to Hayden. The Walnut Creek resident can rattle off just about any statistic needed when it comes to farmers markets. How big does a town need to be to support a farmers market? “We know we’re looking at two or three percent of the population that has the propensity to go out of their way on Saturday morning to go get their food. If you have a town of 100,000 people, you’re going to have a market attracting 3,000 people,” she explains.

CFMA started the renowned farmers market near San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, which has a spectacular indoor food hall adjacent to the outdoor stalls.

With so many markets already in the Bay Area, will the trend diminish? “They’ve been asking me that for 35 years,” she says. “I think we’re past the trend point but we’re also past the growth point. We have flattened out but I think the existing markets are here to stay.” She believes that the future will see higher percentages of city residents shopping at farmers markets. “It will increase as there’s more awareness that people don’t want preservatives in their food,” she opines. Also, “There’s the whole European thing of going to the market every day to get fresh things.  The grocery stores just can’t compete on corn, tomatoes — for anything that ripens on a plant or on a tree, they can’t compete because they’re driving 1,500 miles around to different warehouses (as their source). If you’re a foodie and you want good flavor, you’re going to a market.”

Farmers market shoppers quickly become passionate about their market, says Hayden. She recalls the time a few years back when city fathers in Mountain View wanted to close the hugely popular market there on Super Bowl weekend. Patrons had a meltdown. “They said, ‘What? You’re going to shut down our food supply for a football game!’ (The city) got the message real quick. I told them, the market is bigger than you or me.”

The bustling Mountain View market is so popular that patrons were outraged when city fathers wanted to shut it down for Super Bowl weekend.

When Bay Area skies were filled with smoke last fall due to the massive wild fires, bureaucrats wanted to close some farmers markets, including Oakland’s beloved Grand Lake market, telling farmers just 15 hours before the market was to open in the morning. “The trucks were already loaded and (the farmers) asked me, ‘What should we do?’ I said, go anyway because the people will put a mask on and come out,” recalls Hayden.  And that’s just what happened.

Consumer devotion to local farmers markets makes residents happy but has other advantage, she notes. “A market anchors the downtown. People want a market in their town.  In one study, having a market was more important to people as a quality of life issue than their schools,” she says. Plus, buying directly from the farmers who grew the crops increases consumer confidence in the safety of what they’re eating. Explains Hayden: “Look at the romaine lettuce problem. People who buy romaine lettuce at a farmers market don’t have a problem. There’s a certificate that says which field it came from. Consumers don’t have to trace it around.  We have not had one problem at a market in 40 years.”

CFMA recently started running the farmers market in Los Gatos, which is located next to the charming plaza downtown.

Hayden herself is surprised over her enduring career. “I had no idea when I got involved in this in 1979 that it would be this long lasting,” she says. “And now we’re on our second generation where today’s young mothers were in strollers when the program started. It’s been very interesting to see it develop.” Her belief in this new generation of millennials is reflected in her CFMA team, made up of young college graduates who have traditional knowledge in areas such as economics as well as newer skills like social media.

“We figured out early on that this generation isn’t like ours,” she says. While today’s millennials might need some instruction in food preparation, their commitment to freshness is more prodigious than that of their parents, she believes. Concludes Hayden: “I’m passing the torch to the millennials. They really get it.”

The young staff of Hayden’s CFMA represents the next generation that will carry on the farmers market tradition in California, she believes.

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