Building our green town squares: Nesh Dhillon talks growth, future of Santa Cruz farmers markets

Nesh Dhillon of Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets
Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Nesh Dhillon has managed Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets for more than 20 years. In that time, he has ushered in an expansion of five thriving markets from Felton to Live Oak and the inclusion of the global ready-to-eat food now satisfying our appetites. 

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Santa Cruz Community Farmers Markets head Nesh Dhillon

It’s hard to imagine anyone who loves farmers markets more than Nesh Dhillon. Although he’s been the head of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets for more than 20 years, his voice still sounds dreamy when he talks about some of his favorite things to buy at the markets. “One thing that’s wonderful about farmers markets is that you get stuff that you can’t get anywhere else,” he says, including his favorites, Blenheim apricots, cherries and fresh figs. He also buys one or two bouquets of flowers every week: “The flowers last so long because they cut them so fresh. It’s like putting a new painting in your house every week.”

Dhillon was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and came to Santa Cruz in the early 1990s, intending to take some time off before applying to medical school. He worked “thousands” of jobs, and one was at the downtown Santa Cruz farmers market. He was soon asked to assist one of the managers. “I’ve always been a big supporter of local agriculture and community-driven events, especially when it’s around food,” says Dhillon. “So it was an easy yes.”

Not long after that, the manager walked off the job and Dhillon was offered the position. “I thought, sure, why not?” he says. “That was 22 years ago.”

Over the past two decades, Dhillon has become a champion for local agriculture, and guided the markets through a period of expansion in the early 2000s.

The rapid growth in the early aughts was aided by a growing national consciousness about our foodways, spurred by people like author Michael Pollan, who released his blockbuster “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” in 2006, and by Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, founded in 1995. The enthusiasm in the Santa Cruz community for local agriculture — seeded in the early years of UC Santa Cruz, with its early concentration on organics that has grown into the UCSC Center for Agroecology — has never slowed. With Dhillon’s guidance, the markets continue to flourish with new innovations.

From 2003 to 2009, the organization grew from one market in downtown Santa Cruz to five. In 2003, SCCFM absorbed the struggling Live Oak market and helped it become the thriving community gathering place it is every Sunday morning.

In 2007, Dhillon worked with Ow Properties to establish the Westside farmers market for families and farms on the county’s north coast. In 2009, SCCFM merged with the seasonal Felton farmers market, which was established in 1987 and is one of the longest-running markets in the county. In 2009, Dhillon worked with the city of Scotts Valley to establish a seasonal market there as well.

Under the SCCFM umbrella, all five markets have thrived and offer valuable community resources through services like CalFresh, which provides food benefits to low-income families. SCCFM has been a certified nonprofit since 1995 and, with all five markets combined, offers one of the largest selections of organic produce in the country. Today, the five SCCFM markets host 75 farmers, artisans and vendors. Thousands of people shop at the markets every month, contributing substantially to the local economy. The organization is run by a small, but scrappy, crew of five employees. Vendors are charged a fee to set up shop, and some, like Molino Creek Farm and New Natives organic microgreens farm, have continued to operate at the downtown farmers market for more than two decades.

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Under Dhillon’s watch, these markets became more than just a place to buy fresh fruits and vegetables; they’re garden beds of culinary creativity. He welcomed prepared food vendors and, more recently, a rotating calendar of food trucks, many of which represent food communities not often seen in the rest of the county. While you shop for olallieberries, pasture-raised proteins, organic bread and fresh fish, you can grab a Salvadoran pupusa, Sicilian pastry or Slavic borscht.

Now, Dhillon is about to guide the downtown market through a new era once again, as the new downtown Santa Cruz library is planned to be developed on its current home, Lot 4, bounded by Cathcart, Center and Lincoln streets, though that placement is now being challenged by a November citizen initiative. Dhillon says he is hopeful about finding a new permanent home for the downtown market, but insists nothing has been decided. While Lot 7, which runs along Front Street, is a strong candidate due to its accessible location and viability as an event site, Dhillon says the discussion is still in its early stages and that obstacles, including the pandemic, have delayed the investigative process. The Church Street lot currently occupied by the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries has also been considered, but Dhillon says it won’t be available for years. “There are too many unknowns for our attention right now,” he says, summing up the questions.

Here, Dhillon shares his insight into the markets many of us know and enjoy.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers' Markets.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How do you choose vendors at the market?

Nesh Dhillon: We have an open application process online. Even if we don’t have any room in a market for a particular category, we still allow people to apply. We call it an interest form, and that way we can see who’s out there and, if there’s something that’s really great that comes our way, we can at least communicate with them about possibly doing something in the future. We don’t have a waiting list or anything like that.

But a big part of the markets’ growth over the last 15 years is due to me personally recruiting people. If I find out about somebody, I’ll call them and say, “Hey, we’d love to work with you because you’re doing something that’s so unique.” A couple years ago, I brought in Freddy the Forager, who is kind of this underground cult hero. Everybody loves Freddy. He’s always sold [wild mushrooms] directly to restaurants and would knock on the back door of Shoppers Corner Market and stuff like that. I’d always fantasized about having him in the markets because of this wealth of knowledge and history in the region. He’s really a really important part of the agricultural story of Santa Cruz County. My fantasy came true and I got him. Now he’s been selling seasonally at the Westside market. Stuff like that is really where I’m at — trying to find those really unique specialty producers that are doing really interesting things here in the county, and also adjacent counties, and then trying to fit them into the markets.

Lookout: The number of prepared food vendors seems to have increased in recent years as well.

Dhillon: That’s on purpose. The markets are now broken into farming and then what we call “value added.” These are folks that are producing really interesting food items like a jarred or canned or a baked type of item, but utilizing raw ingredients from local farms. That’s one of the things that I really look for — I want to see a direct line between everybody that’s doing work in the market and the farmers. So farming is the pervasive theme. Companion Bakeshop is a good example. They started out with me as a startup and dedicated their practice to seasonality. They were using local wheat for a while from Coke Farm [in San Juan Bautista] and using seasonal ingredients in their breads. Penny Ice Creamery is another example of this, and the list goes on and on. So that’s the second component.

Then there’s the third component: food trucks and prepared food. I really wanted to develop a culinary scene because I feel like that, no matter what, is great for the market. More people exposed to the entire environment is better than less people. It definitely has to be balanced but that’s been a really fun growth.

We try to create a really diverse culinary experience. If you go to the downtown market, there are so many cultural themes. You’d have to go to San Francisco to find something like this, but now you can come to the farmers market and get it. You can eat from anywhere from Africa to Russia. It’s pretty cool.

Lookout: What impact did the pandemic have on the market?

Dhillon: People were just scared of everything for the first couple of months. But once everybody got over their initial shock, the markets were actually incredibly popular. In my estimation, they were kind of a de facto safe grocery shopping experience. I think there was just so much fear — rightly so — about being in an enclosed, indoor environment because we were dealing with a respiratory-driven virus. This was pre-vaccine so there was an extra level of fear.

I was in Baja, Mexico, trying to take a week off before my season was kicking into high gear, when I got a call from Catherine Barr [director of Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets, which runs the Aptos farmers market]. I was in Laredo, Mexico, and thought, “Why is she calling me so early? Something’s up.” She was panicking because she was going to get shut down — the Cabrillo market is on state land. I thought, “Oh no. What should I do? Do I get back on a plane and come home?”

Nesh Dhillon, director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers' Markets
(Kevin Painchaud // Lookout Santa Cruz)

Of course, then [Santa Cruz city officials] came to me and told me that they might have to shut down the downtown market because it uses a special-event permit. They thought it could be a health hazard. I actually had to negotiate from Baja from a remote location on WhatsApp in order to keep the market open. I was out in the middle of flippin’ nowhere, and I had the city people download WhatsApp. We would talk between 7 in the morning and 9 because that’s the only bandwidth I had in this little corner next to this cactus. It was crazy. I negotiated over two or three days and we kept it open and we kept the permit going. And then I extended my trip one more week, because I figured that might be the last time I traveled for a long time.

I just remember getting off the plane and going, all right, game on. I worked with my crew to create a pretty extensive line-management protocol so that people would be distanced. We chalked lines into the ground and we did it all ourselves. We were just trying to keep it safe and every week we just kept on revising and revising. It took three months before we finally found something that worked. It was nuts, but we got through it. And then the [CZU Lightning Complex] fires hit so that added a whole other level of stress.

But really, the pandemic was almost the best thing ever for the market. People were home, cooking and shopping at the farmers markets because it was safe. It was a good “perfect storm’’ for the farmers markets and we felt very fortunate that the market and farmers were being supported.

Lookout: What are some of the biggest challenges facing local farmers today?

Dhillon: Farmers are feeling all the normal inflationary pressures that we’re feeling. That’s having an impact on the labor class. Gas prices have come down a little bit, but they’re still quite high. Diesel prices are even higher and that has a direct effect on farming cost because most of the operations are run on diesel. Labor and input costs that have gone way up, which are based on a variety of things, including supply chain and general inflationary pressures. Interestingly enough, prices aren’t much different than they were before. I mean, there are some price increases, but not a wholesale uptick in pricing. The market is really good value right now. That might not last the longer these higher expenses hold out.

Labor has been a problem for years. California’s labor pool is mostly migrant, and that’s been severely hampered. There’s nobody jumping at the opportunity to jump out the field and do really hard work. So you’ve got less people to pick the food, and that’s an issue. Now with smaller producers, smaller growers, that’s not as much of a problem because it’s all family or you don’t have a big labor pool that you have to rely on. But when you’re talking about farms the size of Lakeside Organics [in Watsonville, the largest family-owned and -operated, 100% organic vegetable grower and shipper in the U.S.], it really has a profound effect. They’re dependent on that consistent labor pool year in and year out.

One of the things that the county could do is get serious about workforce housing for farming that’s permanent. They need to look at zoning laws and land use, because if you want farming and you want food, you need to have a stable labor force to be able to support it.

Lookout: Why are farmers markets important, especially in Santa Cruz County?

Dhillon: If a market is designed and operated correctly, it allows for a whole bandwidth of small- to medium-sized producers to exist. The direct-market model simplifies the selling process to the consumer. It’s also much more profitable for a grower to sell directly to the consumer versus through a middleman. So that in itself is probably the core reason why farmers markets should exist. You need to provide a platform for these growers to sell to the community and then on the flip side, the community then has access to its farmers. They get to get educated every single week, talk to the people that are growing their food and support that economy. And they get to feed themselves with the freshest foods available. The consumer wins; the community wins; the farmer wins.

The markets are also a gathering place. It’s a town square, where everybody comes and meets once or twice a week and checks in. It’s a way for us to stay human and take a look at our priorities as a society and as individuals, especially now that we live in such a hyperdigital world. We’re going so internal, but the farmers market makes you go the other way. You have to interact, have conversations, negotiate, smile. The farmers markets are really extremely important for the health of society and the health of the agricultural economy. They’re also just fun places to be.