Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bounty of Ojai

Farmers’ Market bustling with community as holidays begin

By Linda Harmon

The social chatter and shouted greetings took on an even more spirited tone this holiday week at Ojai Farmers’ Market, which is held each Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking lot between Matilija and Aliso streets behind the Arcade.
Shoppers filled their baskets, cloth bags, wagons and even strollers with farm-grown produce and artisan-made products, as scattered musicians played everything from classical violin to country and bluegrass.
According to market manager Cynthia Korman, the market, which began in December of 1991, brings more than 45 vendors and their wares to participate in Sunday’s market, bringing character and flavor to holiday tables.
Freckled 7-year-old Copper Clark is standing next to one longtime merchant, Vickie Cohen, at her popular stop offering handmade lavender soaps. Clark is quick to state that this isn’t her first market.
“I work here,” said Clark, looking at Cohen. “My mom’s really close with her. I come down all the time.”
Cohen can’t help but grin.
“She gives me a helping hand and earns a little spending money,” said Cohen, whose lap is filled with 2-1/2-year-old Biggs, who is visiting his grandfather from up north for Thanksgiving. “Copper comes in 8:30 or 9:00 and leaves just before the markets ends.”
Across the aisle is Les Bles D’or, a local bakery stall staffed by Beth Sichel, another familiar Ojai resident. She’s lived here since 1969.
“We’ve been doing the Farmers’ Market here for about nine or 10 years,” said Sichel during a pause in the action. “I’ve been doing it for about two years. It’s fun, I love it. We do eight markets altogether.”
As we finish our conversation Mitch Cornelius comes up to join the conversation and make his purchase.
“Actually this is my third or fourth time at the market,” said Cornelius, an Oak View shopper stopping off to peruse the handmade breads and cinnamon rolls.
Not every vendor is from Ojai. Take Marcie Jimenez, of Marcie’s Pies. Jimenez sells homemade pies, preserves, pickled vegetables and her home-grown produce from Santa Ynez.
“I’ve been doing this market for three years now,” said Jimenez, who makes the drive each week. “Stephanie comes with me, and Matt, who lives in Ojai, joins me here. They are a great help. We do 14 markets. Sometimes we do five markets a day.”
This is Jimenez’s second career. She started farming seven years ago after selling a business she and her father founded, Matsukas Food Company and its Santa Barbara Bay brand.
“You may have seen the label at Costco,” said Jimenez, “Those are all my family recipes. We grew it big so we were able to sell. My father wanted to retire.”
Next, there’s the Chows who come from Carpinteria with their vegetable and flower stand.
“I’ve lost track of how many years we’ve been coming. I think we’ve been around for at least six or seven years, at least that. We have lots of friends here,” said Rodney Chow, standing next to his wife of 54 years, Joy. The couple brings in loads of apples, plums and peaches, as well as colorful plants like the hot pink azaleas they are selling today. “We’ve been farming eight or 10 years. We started out just as an orchard and then, to fill out the season, we started growing flowers between our trees. We do three markets. Everyone asks us for our apples but we’re out now. We don’t store. That’s why our apples have such flavor. They’re picked right from the tree.”
A little farther along the aisle is the Perez family, Damian, Carlos, Olga and Jennifer, who travel to 17 markets for their cousin’s Cortez Farms in Santa Maria. They have been coming to Ojai for several years, and members of their family have been farming and selling through markets for more than 20 years.
“My aunt started when she was pregnant with my cousin who is five years younger than me,” said Perez.
The market’s customers get to know and treasure their favorites and notice a change in the regular cast of characters. Take the cheese vendor.
“I’m filling in while Bill gets his cheese head wedge made up. He has to get an overhaul once a year,” said Mark Lauren, referring to the regular “cheese dude” from Spring Hill Dairy, who sports a cheese hat. “The dairy has been selling at the market for a little over four years. We make about 32 types of cheese. We have a couple of raw cheeses, but everything else is pasteurized. Primarily we make the Jersey milk cheeses because we have over 400 Jersey cows, all grass fed, organic. We have goat cheese from our neighboring farm, their goat milk and our cheese processing. We’re out of Petaluma and have a refrigeration unit down in Ventura and service all the Southern California markets.”
Down the row is another regular character who makes the trip from out of the area.
“They call me Papa Bono,” said 89-year-old Bono,” you know like Sonny Bono. I’m been doing this market for about 10 years now. I got to know the people in the area real well. California has become a big part of my life. I do the Pasadena, Torrance, Channel Islands markets and a couple markets during the week.”
Bono is cracking his biggest seller, macadamia nuts, with his patented nutcracker he sells at markets and home shows. He has 1,200 trees down in Fallbrook. His son, Michael, is keeping him company today, visiting for the holiday from Maui.
“I’m thinking about moving here,” said the younger Bono. “I’m more into a country atmosphere and it’s getting pretty crowded over there. I like already like it here and the people are friendly.”
There are not many places that can rival Hawaii, but I guess on a November morning with the leaves turning and the bounty flowing Ojai could go to anyone’s head.

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