Berkeley Bites: Ben Feldman, Farmers’ Market man

This weekend, Berkeley’s Saturday farmers’ market reaches its 20th anniversary milestone. Ben Feldman is program manager for the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, a project of the Ecology Center. Previously, Feldman worked as a market manager for the Pacific Coast Farmers’ Market Association.

The 30-year-old lives in Albany with his wife and two young children.

The Tuesday farmers’ market began in 1987 in South Berkeley. Three years later, Saturday’s downtown market started, followed in 2004 by the Thursday market in North Berkeley.

At the height of summer some 65 farmers or food purveyors stock the three markets; in the course of a year about 100 vendors sell their edible goods. Roughly 10,000 customers a week seek out produce from small-scale, sustainable farmers they trust.

The Ecology Center also sponsors a food justice program, Farm Fresh Choice, two weekly farm stands in South and West Berkeley set up to provide pesticide-free produce at an affordable price to the city’s poorest people.

Farmers’ market vendors provide produce for two other community farm stands at Spiral Gardens on Sacramento Avenue and The Local on the UC campus.

Find out what’s in season at the farmers’ market by reading Romney Steele’s Market Reports on this site.

I spoke with Feldman at the Ecology Center’s office on San Pablo Avenue in the lead up to the celebrations, which include a series of free cooking classes courtesy of Kitchen on Fire.

What are some highlights of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market?

We’re zero waste and plastic free. We encourage vendors and customers to use reusable bags and packaging. Unsold produce is donated to Food Not Bombs, a local free food program.

We don’t allow GMO-products in any of our markets, and the pesticides methyl bromide and methyl iodide are banned. The Thursday market is all organic.

Culturally, the markets are the heart and center of the the local food movement. They connect consumers directly with local producers.  The people selling the food make or grow the food. That’s a special link.

What kind of challenges does the market face?

Sometimes we run into situations where a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Most of our customers are well informed about produce and food matters. But some of them also have strong opinions and aren’t always willing to listen to an alternative point of view. They’ll make assumptions about some things.

Organics is a good example. Some people will only buy food that’s certified organic. But maybe if they talked with a vendor they’d find that the farmer actually grows food in accordance with organic principles but hasn’t gone through the organic certification for whatever reasons, often financial.

Some people also have strong opinions about what should and shouldn’t get sold at the market. We have people who firmly believe we should sell meat and those who think we shouldn’t. The same is true for prepared foods and raw milk.

Do you have a local food hero?

Joy Moore of the Berkeley Food Policy Council who co-founded Farm Fresh Choice about 10 years ago. She’s made access to food for Berkeley’s under-served communities a major part of her life’s work.

What’s the best part of your job?

Working with farmers. They work incredibly hard to bring quality food to the people of Berkeley. I’m fortunate that I get to work with a diverse and talented group of local growers who put a lot of thought and care into what they produce.

People like Carl Rosato from Woodleaf Farm who grows peaches in Oroville. What he’s able to grow in relatively poor soil is a testament to his understanding of terroir. His peaches are outstanding.  Or Annabelle Lenderink from La Tercera Farm in Bolinas. She brings an unusual variety of flavorful dried beans and greens for a relatively short period of time in the summer.

What do you personally enjoy about the farmers’ market?

I find new things to cook with all the time that I don’t know what to do with. As a vegetarian, I’m always looking for news ways to work with produce.

Recently it was pea shoot tendrils. We have a recipe for these in our latest newsletter.  Lemongrass was another one. I learned to just put it into the rice while it’s cooking so its flavor permeates the rice. If there’s fresh garbanzos I’ll make hummus. (Editor’s note: In markets now but briefly so buy some while you can. Fresh garbanzo beans make delicious raw additions to salads.)

And I think it’s great that someone can go to the market and get all their food shopping needs met. In addition to produce and meats we sell rice, bread, flour, olive oil, beans, eggs, yogurt, ice cream, preserves, honey, herbs, fresh pasta, juice, wine and pastries.

You can make an entire meal from a trip to the farmers’ market. We want people to see it as a place where they can shop regularly for their staples and save them a trip to the grocery store.

What’s missing from the market?

We’d like to have a vendor selling raw milk, as we have had in the past. I’d also like to see a supplier selling a large range of different kinds of dried beans, like calypso beans. I’m thinking of the kind of selection Rancho Gordo offers.

Where do you go for lunch?

Tacos El Rey, the taco truck near Ashby at Potter and 7th Streets.  I buy vegetarian tacos. I’m a regular. They know my order.

Each Friday in this space food writer Sarah Henry asks a well-known, up-and-coming, or under-the-radar food aficionado about their favorite tastes in town, preferred food purveyors and other local culinary gems worth sharing.

Henry is a freelance writer whose stories have appeared in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Washington Post and San Francisco Magazine. A contributor to the food policy blog Civil Eats, she muses about food matters on her blog Lettuce Eat Kale. Follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

If you have an idea for a Berkeley Bites interview, send your suggestion to or leave a comment here.

To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.

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  • That’s wonderful that the farmers’ market has been around for so long. Happy 20th anniversary!

  • I love the point about certified organics. I’ve talked to a number of growers over the years who simply couldn’t afford the process of certification. A shame. Farmers’ markets give them a change to talk to potential customers about it. Many, like me, are happy to support uncertified organic products.

  • This was fascinating- a behind the scenes glimpse at a great farmers’ market. I love that it is waste and plastic free. Is that a growing trend? I also thought it was interesting to hear about all the different opinions about what the farmers’ market should and should not carry! I miss going to the farmers’ market.

  • Love this column! I wish we had a farmers’ market like this near our house. Right now, the trend seems to be to have a ‘European’ or ‘French’ farmers market–I don’t even know what that means, but the emphasis is on different sorts of goods, like artisan breads, not necessarily the produce. And I think it’s great his favorite haunt is a food truck.

  • Susan

    Wow – I knew Farmers’ Markets had been around for a few years, but I didn’t realize this one had existed for 20 years. What a wonderful tradition!

  • Sheryl

    So interesting to learn the behind-the-scenes ways of a successful Farmers’ Market. Wish we had one like this near us – you lucky Berkeley-ites!

  • EBGuy

    I bet dealing with Food Fundamentalists is his favorite part of the job.

  • My favorite vendor is the sprout guy – he sells some of the most amazing varieties you really find nowhere else. I live on his peanut and lentil sprouts, which are a great source of nutrients that are available year-round!

  • Steph, your plug for the sprout guy reminds me of a fav farmers’ market story: A couple of years ago, with two 3rd graders in tow, one of them turned to me to ask for a treat. I expected to be badgered for a Frog Hollow pastry or one of those massive chocolate cookies courtesy of Phoenix Pastificio.

    Wrong on both counts. He was after a handful of sprouts from the sprout man.

  • Wow – that’s terrific! And here’s to another 20 years–and more!

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  • Great profile! I’m going to add a link in our next farmers market story!