The Backstory of California’s Farmers’ Markets

California is known worldwide for the volume of agricultural products that are produced; for the diversity of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains that are grown throughout the state; and for the high quality of these products.

Building this reputation was no accident, but was instead the result of the hard work of thousands of California farmers and the vision of the state’s leaders that put a system into place that helped to ensure that when California’s agriculture was shipped around the country and eventually around the world, that it would arrive in excellent condition and be of the highest quality. This system encompasses a set of rules defining how agricultural products were to be selected, packed and shipped. Today this system is often referred to as “standard pack.”

While the standard pack regulations helped to build California’s agricultural export business, they had an unintended consequence: it made it more difficult for small farmers to deliver their farm products within the state. A small farmer from the Fresno area, who wished to take 10 boxes of fresh peaches to San Francisco to sell, was required to pack his fruit in the same way as a large farmer shipping 10,000 boxes by rail for sale to a grocery store in Chicago. For the small farmer, it was not cost effective. The regulations threatened both the viability of small farmers and the ability of California’s urban areas to access California-grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

In 1976, a confluence of events spurred changes in California. A bumper crop of stone fruit was on the trees in California’s orchards but a statewide strike had shut down the state’s canneries, leaving many farmers without an outlet for their fruit. Many farmers tried to salvage their seasons by selling in the few farmers’ markets that were operating at that time, most operating somewhat informally in hopes of avoiding state regulation.

Farms that wanted to directly market their crops as an alternative to the canneries, petitioned Governor Jerry Brown for an exemption to the state’s standard pack laws.

In 1977 the state of California addressed this challenge by creating direct marketing legislation. These new laws and the regulations that followed allowed farmers to be exempt from standard pack regulations when selling their products in a certified farmers’ market. The direct marketing regulations also stated that only certified producers (farmers), local governments, and nonprofit organizations could operate certified farmers’ markets. This is still true today. Every certified farmers’ market has one of these types of entities as the legal farmers’ market operator, though some operators contract out the day-to-day operations to another organization, a business or an independent contractor.

Over time, this created a distinct certified farmers’ market industry in California, complete with its own regulatory framework and industry groups. The 2012 changes to the City of San Jose’s zoning codes and the 2014 changes to state law are just the latest steps in the evolution of the state’s farmers’ markets.

A Guide to Opening Small Farmers' Markets in San Jose, California