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Sunday, November 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Farmers' Markets Making Comeback In Modern World

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - Yellow bell peppers, plump strawberries and fresh asparagus compete with kitschy souvenirs on the burdened stalls at the Original Farmers Market.

In the parking lot, gleaming Range Rovers nestle next to dented compact cars that have seen better days. Under umbrellas, elderly residents from the surrounding Jewish neighborhood eat lunch next to celebrities from CBS studios.

Farmers' markets, once considered anachronisms in super-suburbanized America, are making a comeback, reclaiming their spot as places to meet, buy, sell and gossip.

But they are more than the traditional dusty lots where farmers sell produce from pickup trucks. Today, they are providing common ground in American cities, tying together food enthusiasts with immigrants seeking a taste of home.

"One thing I really like is the diversity of people here," said Jill Anderson, a 33-year-old Los Angeles paralegal who set down her bulging briefcase to check out banana bunches. "It's a good place to be outside and be around people."

The number of farmers' markets across the nation grew 20 percent from 1994 to 1996, from 1,755 to 2,411, a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture says. New figures for 1998 are showing another 10 percent increase, to 2,675.

Some markets are strictly outdoor venues that sell only produce. Others, such as Pike Place Market in Seattle or Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, look a lot like flea markets, welcoming vendors of handicrafts, folk art and T-shirts into long-neglected buildings refurbished as urban meeting places.

One reason people go: fresher, more varied, often organically grown produce, said David O'Neil, a consultant with the non-profit Public Market Collaborative in Philadelphia, which helps renovate markets across the country.

"Foodies will travel for good ingredients," he said.

So do upscale chefs, who for years have scoured stalls for rare items like cilantro and epazote to add to off-beat recipes.

"You know the stuff is fresh. They picked it that morning. It doesn't get much better than that," said Susan Spicer, chef at New Orleans' Bayona Restaurant who shops the Crescent City Farmers Market.

Spicer says she knows growers well enough to tell them what does and doesn't work for her. Sometimes, new specials for her French Quarter restaurant develop from finds.

The experience isn't new to those moving to the United States from Latin America, Asia or Europe, where markets date back to earliest times. They grew up strolling among stalls, haggling with vendors, and even setting up their own tables.

Better-traveled Americans now also know that tradition and want to repeat it here.

"Certain kinds of people prefer to shop in a more European style," said Blaine Mallory, marketing director for the Original Farmers Market.

Modern small farmers see advantages in these informal trading places. Low overhead is one. They don't have to pay high rents, store much inventory or hire a large staff.

Adaptability is another. Small farmers who can retool with organically grown produce, for example, can stay afloat without having to go head-to-head with corporate mega-farms, says Richard McCarthy, who helped organize Crescent City.

"They're the new face of agriculture," McCarthy said. "Their decisions about what to grow start on a Saturday morning when a shopper asks for arugula."

Markets also appeal to advocates of neighborhood renewal.

Unlike malls and supermarkets, which send profits out of town to central headquarters, the money that vendors earn in a market stays and gets spent in town, McCarthy said.

Crescent City merchants take home an average of $20,332 a year, says a study by Tulane University's A.B. Freeman School of Business.

The vendors don't always stay small.

Behemoths like Seattle's Starbucks Coffee, which jump-started an entire gourmet coffee industry, and The Body Shop, which now sells body care products at malls, began in markets, according to the Economics Institute of Loyola University.

But as markets' popularity grows, some are dealing with unforeseen problems.

In Seattle, New Orleans and Los Angeles, vendors and customers worry that growth will squash the special character of farmers' markets.

The owners of the Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles announced plans this year to turn nearby land into an open-air mall with big-name retailers like Nordstrom's. A spokesman said it won't affect the market, but vendors worry higher rents will force them out of business. Patrons fear the market will turn into another mall.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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