Farmers’ Market, a culture of fab food and products, friends, and familiarity that brings people back

Story by DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It’s obviously not Cheers, but on a bustling Saturday, Farmers’ Market is a place where everyone knows your name, or it seems so, as I hear shoppers greeting their friends and favorite vendors. I guess if you see the same people every week, there’s a certain camaraderie and comfort. And that’s not even taking into account the comfort of knowing there’ll always be an extraordinary quality and variety of products filling every space.

The Ballesteros Group has just recently become a co-sponsor (joining Mamas OC Food Services) of the market, and their grocery bag giveaway this last Saturday warranted a special visit and some information gathering. They are hoping to bring in more visitors via social media and word of mouth.

Michi Ward, manager of the market for the past five years, says, “Everyone is so friendly. The booths are all family run. Vendors are either owners or family members of the owners.” Ward has been in farming (Yasutomi) since 1995 and her brother still farms. 

Farmers Market Ballestros

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(L-R) The Ballesteros Family: JJ, Christian, Andrea, Cruz

And I soon find out just how friendly everyone is, vendors and patrons alike.

As the Ballesteros hand out the grocery bags, a shopper takes advantage of the giveaway.

Steve Quarles, a local, has his boys in tow. He says, “We come here once a month, and the first places we hit are the honey stix stand, the juice place, and the Empanada vendor.” 

It appears that everyone has their favorite spots to hit. 

Bart Zandbergen says, “I’ve been coming every Saturday for a long time. I go to the Greek yogurt vendor, green juice, the orchid lady, and the almond guy.”

Dips to die for

And because I love all things avocado, I try the guacamole from the first vendor, Conscious Dips, who has been at the market for four years. 

Miguel Moreno explains, “It’s a small family owned business, and a family recipe that has been handed down in my family from generation to generation.” Alma Ortiz assists him. 

The guacamole is fabulous, and they have several other gluten free, vegan dips.

Sola Foods, which has been at the market for several years, also has a bevy of tasty dips, one that contains feta, and it’s great. They specialize in 100 percent natural sweet and spicy salsas, jams, spreads and relishes. 

Sarah Castillo says, “Come and try them. Your taste buds will thank you.” 

Farmers Market Zukkee

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Alexandria Phillips and her daughter, Sophia, wait on customers

At the market for two and a half years, Zukkee, a bakery stand that caters to people with special dietary needs, has a continuous flow of customers buying breads, cookies and granola. Alexandria Phillips (who co-owns the business with Bill Devin), is the chef, and specializes in gluten free and paleo baked goods. These are Phillips’ original recipes, and she has standing clients who arrive when the market opens and stock up. A woman arrives to purchase several loaves of the vegan sourdough bread, packing them into one of the giveaway bags. Phillips, with the help of her daughter, Sophia, accommodates the crowd of customers. I sample each product, all impossibly good.

Phillips says, “Ninety percent of my customers have special needs diets.”

Although they have online ordering, “Some come from as far away as San Diego and LA,” she says.

One customer, Susan Shusko, who has been coming to the market for 15 years, says, “I found the granola about a year ago and now I’m a regular customer.”

Farmers Market Spice

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Paul Greer, owner of Spice Merchants, has a store in Laguna

Paul Greer, owner of Spice Merchants, has been selling spices, oils, and teas here for four years. He says, “I work directly with small family growers, so the products are direct and fresh. Some of them, I blend in the store.” (In South Laguna in the HIP district.) A few of his specialty rubs are Mushroom Pepper and Rosemary Rapture, and he has pumpkin seed oil that sounds great for baking.

Market like a subculture

At Spice Merchants, I run into Beverly Butler, who has stopped for some steak rub. She’s already bought so much at the market that this is her third trip back from stowing bags in her car. “I’ve been coming forever, for veggies, meat, eggs, pasta, oil, everything. They have the best fruits and vegetables anywhere, and you see the same people every week. It’s like a subculture.”

One of the newest sellers at the market (he’s been a fill-in for two weeks) is LB resident Joe Resnick, who invented a new product called SandErase, a webbed cloth that takes sand off everything – toys, your body, whatever. A former graphic designer, Resnick took two years to develop his product, and from the number of mothers with toddlers hovering around the booth, it appears to be a hit.

Farmers Market SandErase

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SandErase inventor Joe Resnick, a market newbie

I forge on to Blessed Booch, which I soon find out is a woman owned and staffed company that makes artisanal handcrafted kombucha. Founded by local Christy Rumbaugh, the company was born from her passion and belief in the healing powers of kombucha. She began experimenting with home brewing “booch” in the spring of 2015. The flavors are seasonal. The one I bought, white grapefruit and jasmine flower, is incredible (and made from the seller’s father’s grapefruit).

Blessed Booch right next to Bear’s Youthful Elixir

Although they don’t allow dogs at the market, they have products for dogs. Bear’s Youthful Elixir is an all-natural, raw organic vegan dog-food booster. It’s locally crafted and bottled. Invented by pet nutritionist Jeannie O’Donnell, it prevents, promotes, heals, boosters and enhance dogs’ health. She formulated it when her dog, Bear, began showing signs of arthritis, and now the condition is gone. She has been at Farmers’ Market for two months.

Farmers Market Sunny Farms

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Sunny Cal Farms furnishes samples galore 

Sunny Cal Farms anchors a large corner of the market with table upon table of scrumptious fruit and nuts, and samples of everything. Plop your purchases in a basket they provide and you’re in business. Local Shaun Rosendahl, the owner, has been coming here since he was in high school, 20 years ago. Although his company sets up at 15 markets a week, and the products are shipped in, he says, “The best of the best produce comes here.” 

The Farmer’s Daughter

Andrea Ballesteros introduces me to “The Farmer’s Daughter.” And that’s not just a nickname. A real farmer’s daughter, Ashlie, runs her parents stand, Da-Le-Ranch, the only directly sourced meat supplier in Orange County. Her parents own a small sustainable family farm, and all the animals are raised there (including grass-fed beef and lamb, game birds, and rabbit), and they provide free tours of their property. 

“Most of our product is pre-ordered, and the customers pick it up here,” she says.

Ashlie describes Laguna’s market as, “A real foodie market. I fell in love with the community’s passion for food.”

So many vendors, so little time. If one of your favorite sellers wasn’t mentioned here, look for our ongoing series showcasing the vendors. Next time, we will feature Avo-Co and Beachin pure coconut oil, to name just a few, as well as pass on more facts about the market.