At last, the Modesto Certified Farmers Market will come to life this weekend for its 2008 season. A closed-off downtown city street will be home once more to a variety of products -- from Patterson garden salad greens to "Hickman Chicks" eggs to Sciabica family olive oil.
Market manager Steve Christy expects at least 30 of the peak season's 60 vendors to be ready to go at 7 a.m. Saturday. But, Christy says, since temperatures have been inconsistent this year, some regular spring offerings might be missing. He cites Mike Wassum's Hughson cherry crop that needs two more weeks for maturity. Charley and Ellie Fernandez of Patterson, though, report "just about everything" is ready for their sought-after and generous bags of organic salad greens.
Parking is ample around the market's blocklong street between the Stanislaus County Library and First United Methodist Church. Sixteenth Street is hospitable for walking, pushing baby paraphernalia and even wheelchairs. There's the smell of popcorn, strawberries, soaps, fresh bread, even barbecue. Guest musicians play. Professional cooks give demonstrations. On hot days the huge old street trees provide shelter. Sometimes city bigwigs make official visits.
Vendor families come back year after year. Their children at first play behind the booths, then grow big enough to tote boxes and arrange rows of fruit, then grow into high school, go away to college and, in some cases like the Tyson Hill booth family, come back to help during vacations.
Another impression that remains year after year is of two long and colorful lines of fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers, with dew still on them early in the morning. Vendors gladly discuss how their produce has been grown. They also like to offer ideas for how their specialties might best be eaten or used.
Because Modesto's is a certified farmers market, the county agriculture commissioner has checked that vendors themselves have grown what they're selling. Yearly market memberships cost vendors $80. Space rental is $30 Saturdays and $20 Thursdays, when crowds are thinner. Next year, Christy says, the Modesto market expects to have a satellite location Wednesdays at the Kaiser Permanente medical complex on Dale Road.
Christy credits the downtown market's long life with the quality of what's available. "It's dependable, and it's good," he says. "We stress attractive displays and genuine friendliness, like inviting people over to a booth for a taste."
Another element that makes the market interesting as the year goes on is how vendors come and go. Laura Van Ostende, for instance, is the eagerly awaited "Apple Lady." Come mid-September she'll set up every Saturday until her Maze Boulevard crop sells out.
Not available this year are the popular USDA stamps available to limited-income seniors age 60 and over. The $20 sets of stamps can be used for fruits and vegetables.
The federal government is sponsoring the program nationwide to aid farmers, but according to Jill Erickson of Stanislaus County's Area Agency on Aging, California's Department of Aging is declining application for the stamps as a way of shaving state administrative costs.
Brooks, a longtime Modestan, wrote columns for the Lifestyles section for years. She's now joining the lineup of community columnists on the Opinions pages. Write her at email@example.com.