‘We’re kind of a big family’: Inside the Aptos farmers market, Santa Cruz County’s first and biggest

Catherine Barr has managed the Aptos farmers market for 30 years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For 30 years, Catherine Barr has managed the market, from its infancy hosting 15 scrappy farmers to now 70 and thriving each Saturday. As the pandemic ebbs, she outlines the market’s innovations, including a new cookbook exchange this year, a revived chef series and do-it-yourself crafts.

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A Q&A with Catherine Barr of Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets

In 1992, when a young Catherine Barr applied for a job as a market manager for a small but growing farmers market in Aptos, she had never been to a farmers market before.

But she had been a farmer. Barr grew up on Beach Hill in Santa Cruz and married her high school sweetheart. His family grew flowers at Sun Day Farm in Watsonville, and Barr joined the family business. When she applied for the farmers market job, Barr had recently returned from two years abroad in Mexico, where she and her husband raised flowers in the Lake Chapala region of Michoacan.

After returning home to Santa Cruz County, she saw an ad in the paper and became one of 97 applicants for the job — and got it.

That was 30 years ago. Back then, the market was made up of 15 or so scrappy local farmers trying to gain a foothold against larger agricultural operations, and ran only seasonally from May through September. “There were no year-round markets anywhere in California,” Barr said.

Under Barr’s guidance, the Aptos Saturday morning farmers market has become a cornerstone of Santa Cruz County’s culinary scene. Operating year-round with more than 70 vendors, the market at Cabrillo College is not only the longest-running farmers market in the county but also the largest. Its operating body, Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets, includes three other markets, all in Monterey County — one in Carmel and two in Monterey.

At the helm, Barr brought the market into a thriving modern era. Now, many of the vendors accept credit cards, but a few still don’t. Barr established a token exchange program so cashless visitors wouldn’t have to run out to find an ATM. The market accepts EBT, which allows those who receive benefits from programs like CalFresh and SNAP to purchase groceries at the farmers market.

Locals, tourists and chefs wander its booths every Saturday seeking the freshest local ingredients and inspiration for the day’s menu. Farmers woo visitors toward overflowing tables with an offering of first-of-the-season blackberries or a slice of shockingly red tomato. Vendors remember regulars by name and greet them with bags already packed with their favorite fruits or vegetables.

MBCFM has a friendly relationship with Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, the county’s other main market organization, although the operations are separate. Barr says she and SCCFM executive director Nesh Dhillon speak weekly and are good friends.

Like most markets in Santa Cruz County, the Aptos farmers market is a California Certified Farmers Market. The high standards required to meet this certification might seem in conflict with the romantic atmosphere often associated with a farmers market, but as Barr explains, that beloved customer experience could not exist without it.

Barr lives in Corralitos, as she has for 30 years, where she grows tomatoes, olallieberries and tends a grove of 40 olive trees, producing olive oil for friends and family. She spoke to Lookout about how the market has changed in the past 4½ decades and how it achieved its status as a premier market in the region.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

The Aptos farmers market recently celebrated its 46th anniversary.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How did the Aptos farmers market get its start?

Catherine Barr: When this organization started in 1976 there were four farmers: Jerry Thomas from Thomas Family Farm, Manuel Neto from Neto Farms, Nick Pasquel and Bob Harris, who we knew as “the egg man.” They got together because it was very hard for small farmers to compete with the larger farmers when they were doing wholesale or trying to sell to restaurants. These farmers said, let’s see if we can kind of come up with something, and they ended up starting the market.

They had about 15 vendors at the time, all local farmers around this area, and it only went from May to September. There were no year-round markets anywhere in California at the time. When I came on board in 1992, there were about 400 markets [in California]. Now there are more than 850. We are governed by the State of California for our direct marketing and there are a lot of rules and regulations that we need to follow in order to keep the integrity of the farmers markets. That’s for the California family farmer, and I’m proud of that.

Lookout: What are some of those rules?

Barr: When people see “certified farmers market,” they initially think that means that everything’s organic. But no. In order to be certified by the state for direct marketing, an inspector comes out to your farm at least twice a year to make sure that there are crops in the ground. If you go to a market, you can look at somebody’s producer certificate, and it’ll say the name of the farmer, where their farm is located and what crops they sell. It also tells you the season that the crops are grown in. So if you see somebody selling peaches in January, you know that those aren’t from California. It’s kind of a way to kind of keep the integrity of what farmers markets are about — farmers selling direct to the consumer. Any consumer can look and see what crops any farmer at a market will grow. The organization is also inspected several times a year by the health department and the county agricultural department. They will check the scales to make sure they’re sealed and that the farmers have the proper paperwork. If they are claiming to be organic, they will also check for that. It’s good not only for the farmer but also the consumers.

Lookout: I didn’t realize there was that much regulation.

Barr: [Laughs] Yeah. Sometimes we joke that we’ve been regulated to death, but it’s in a good way. You want to make sure that the farmer is representing their own crops, and that they aren’t buying and reselling. We’ve had a few of those in the past, and I would be the first one to turn them in to the state. It just keeps everything above board.

Lookout: Why do you think the Aptos farmers market has such a loyal following?

Barr: There was a movement 10 or 12 years ago where people really wanted to know where their food came from. Grocery stores can be impersonal. At a lot of farmers markets and especially the Aptos farmers market, the farmers know their customers by name. They know exactly what they want. For instance, we have Fred and Joy Minazzoli [of F&J Minazzoli Farms] who grow stone fruit and are the main cherry people. They’ll see their customers come in, and they know that they need to put some really good peaches into a bag for this customer. You get that community sense when you go to a farmers market and I think that’s a big plus.

Once people get into the Aptos farmers market, they rarely ever leave. It’s a good market. Often, we will see the next generation of farmers in their family coming up, which is great. You want to see those kids taking over that family farm. We’ve had some farmers that have farmed in the Pajaro Valley for 100 years, and this is the third or fourth generation coming in to take over. I think that’s really good. The growth comes from vendors wanting to come in and support the community. Because if you don’t have that you really don’t have a viable farmers market.

Lookout: What is your vendor selection process like?

Barr: It’s a little different than how Nesh [Dhillon, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets] does his markets. In our organization, we only allow a percentage of what we call “non-farmers.” These are the food people — the fisheries, the bakeries, all that kind of stuff. We concentrate on farmers. First they send in the application. We have a board meeting, and we discuss whether they can get into Aptos market or one of our other markets, or we put them on the waiting list. Sometimes the waiting list is 10 years long because we can only have so many carrot growers or lettuce growers, for example, and we don’t really need another one at this time.

But if we increase the customer base we can sometimes let them in. At the end of the market, I go around to see what’s left on people’s tables. If my lettuce people were all out by 11:30 a.m., I ask if they could bring any more lettuce. If they can’t, then we would bring in another lettuce person. We base it on supply and demand. We also don’t have just local farmers. We’ll accept any farmer that’s in California. We don’t grow dates up here so we bring them from down south. Cherry season, for example, starts late here, but it starts early up in Linden and Stockton. So you can extend the cherry season longer than if you just had somebody who just had local cherries. We open it up to any California certified farmer.

Lookout: Do farmers ever agree on pricing?

Barr: No. In fact, one of the rules of that direct marketing is that there is no price gouging. As a market manager I have no say in what farmers decide to do with their prices, which is good. And that’s why we always encourage people to walk around the market first. If they’re looking for a specific item, look at all the farmers that have it, because you’ll see the prices are different. It also depends on whether it’s conventional or organic.

Lookout: How did the pandemic affect the Aptos farmers market?

Barr: During COVID, there were so many different regulations that we needed to follow. I went a little crazy. It was a good crazy, because I wanted to make sure that we stayed open, that these farmers and vendors had someplace to set up and sell. But we lost a few [vendors] because they couldn’t manage it. And a lot of people weren’t showing up for work. That’s what we’re seeing now, too. A lot of these farmers and vendors cannot get workers either to get the crop in or to work farmers markets for them. It’s been tough for these vendors for the last couple of years.

There were a few smaller farms that didn’t make it. They just said, I’m done. They had less than 5 acres and they just couldn’t keep up with it. That’s heartbreaking to me because I have known them for so many years. We’re kind of a big family.

But some good things have happened as well. We have seen an increase of customers coming in. We just celebrated our 46th year — we would have done a big event for our 45th, but of course we didn’t because of the pandemic. We started the cookbook exchange this year. You can donate cookbooks that you no longer use and we have a big book stand where people can come take whatever you want. Next year, we will start our chef series again where chefs do cooking demonstrations. We will bring back do-it-yourself crafts where you can make a wreath out of succulents and things like that. I’m looking forward to that because I really like that part of the business.

I’m also seeing more of the farmers themselves coming into the Aptos farmers market. No. 1, it’s social time for them. They get to see old friends they haven’t seen for a while. So I’m really honored that they like to come and hang out. But I also see that they sell more products than if they had sent a marketeer person. Sometimes when you have a farmer or farmer family member selling they do better because they’re invested in their crops. They want to show it off as much as they can. That’s kind of a win-win for them.

Lookout: How does the Aptos market differ from other markets in the area?

Barr: We really strive for the California farmer. We want people to get their produce and so forth, go home and make stuff. At the Aptos market, we have a ton of chefs that come to the markets as well, in order to see what’s fresh and what’s going to be on the menu for that night of that weekend. I’m honored that they do that.