Berkeley Bites: Aaron Betesh, Blue Heron Farms

Aaron Betesh. Photo: Sarah Henry

For 10 years, Blue Heron Farms vendor Aaron Betesh has been selling organic vegetables to customers at all three Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.

Betesh is part of the Blue Heron crew which, for much of the year, hawks salad greens, Asian greens, herbs and flower — along with carrots, kale, and broccoli.

The produce comes from a small family farm in Corralitos, near Watsonville, run by Lori Perry and Dennis Tamura.

Farmers’ Market customers don’t always realize that not all sellers at the markets are farmers. In fact, Betesh hasn’t been to the farm for a couple of years. He’s too busy working, he says. Still, the 29-year-old — who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, decamped to Santa Cruz, and then headed to the East Bay — enjoys his job because it’s a way for him to stay connected to the land, especially as an urban dweller. He lives on the Oakland-Berkeley border.

We talked on Thursday at the market while he helped set up the Blue Heron booth.

What do you like about Berkeley customers?

They’re into community; they want to get to know the farms and the vendors. They’re also really knowledgeable and care about food and where it comes from. But, even though they’re serious about food, you can have a joke with people here — and I do. It’s a fun crowd.

We have die-hard, loyal customers who have been coming to us every week for years. Some of them show their appreciation by bringing us food. We get homemade jam, cheese, and baked goods. It’s pretty great. Some people tell us that they believe our greens have literally kept them alive. That’s gratifying.

Is there anything challenging about serving people here?

Some customers come to the market with the attitude that they want to get in and out as quickly as possible. They’ll actually try and shove food in your face. We just explain that there is a system to the madness back here. We have a check-out line, people wait and take turns. It’s definitely a minority that does this; we try to deal with it in a polite way.

The Blue Heron Crew: Roger Mihalko, Alana Florez, Aaron Betesh, Kelly Brown. Photo: Sarah Henry

What’s good about working for Blue Heron?

Their philosophy about giving back to the land. They give the farm a break a few months every year and plant cover crops so the soil can replenish itself, instead of trying to suck as much life out of the ground as possible.

The owners, Lori and Dennis, don’t have kids; their employees are their family. They’re generous; full-time staff get benefits and all of us get bonuses if we have a good market day. The owners work really hard. All the guys and girls who work the farm work hard, and there’s not a lot of money in it. It’s definitely a labor of love.

Can you tell us about your favorite Blue Heron produce?

Sprouting broccoli and the Chinese green Gai Lan are two. I love good food but I’m lazy, I don’t want cooking to be a big production. I just sauté these greens up in some olive oil with garlic and seasoning — and not for too long. I like my greens crunchy. We’re well-known for our little gem lettuces, which are ready to eat as is, in salads.

I’ve really gotten into kale chips after customers who bought bunches and bunches of kale from us shared some of their homemade chips with me. And my roommate bought a dehydrator. With three bunches of curly kale for $3, and a couple of hours in the dehydrator, I can keep myself in kale chips for a while.

Do you have favorite foods from the market?

Cooking up kale.

Olive bread and chocolate chip cookies from Phoenix Pastificio and the pretzel-topped croissants from OctoberFeast;  heirloom tomatoes from Happy Boy Farms; apple cider from Bernie, the guy who’s usually next to us. [That’s Bob Bernstein of Pomo Tierra Ranch].  Oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Company. Our employers give us a certain amount of produce that we can use to barter with other vendors. It’s a great perk of my job.

Where do you eat in Berkeley?

Cheeseboard Pizza. Pizza is high on my list of foods, they’re right near the Thursday market, and they do it right — thin crust, tasty toppings, and good cheese. I don’t even bother to look on the board to see what’s on the menu. I know I’m going to like it. I like the little fish tacos from Tacubaya. They’ve got great flavor. Mostly, I eat at home. I have chickens, so I cook up eggs, add a bunch of Blue Heron cilantro, and chorizo from the folks at Fatted Calf — they’re farmers’ market vendors too. I eat that for breakfast almost every day.

Do you have a local food hero?

Novella Carpenter for her radicalness. She has this cool philosophy about farming in an urban environment that is so natural and instinctive. She just went with it and it worked out.

What keeps this gig interesting?

You never know what you’re going to get here. The belligerent drunks barreling down the middle of the market, oblivious to everyone around them, the young families with kids in tow, and the people who look like they just got back from Burning Man on fuzzy bikes cruising the stands.

In the decade I’ve worked in Berkeley I’ve seen it all.

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 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 sarahhenry0509@gmail.com or leave a comment here. To read previous Berkeley Bites profiles click here.

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