Farmers' Market Tries New Approach

Anne Marie Schuler/Staff

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Berkeley is a city whose social fabric is held together by its local enclaves, DIY enthusiasts and, of course, eco-friendly food distributors who make their homes in Berkeley's thriving farmers' markets. And it is especially these markets that encourage active community engagement, providing the cultural paste to join independent outlets to the greater development of the community. But with three prominent Berkeley Farmers' Markets stationed at Center, North Shattuck and Derby, is there room for another one? Does the cultural paste need another adhesive element?

Co-founders Isaac Cronin and Julia Fry think so. For the past 14 Saturday mornings, at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Virginia Street in the Berkeley Adult School parking lot, the Beehive Market has re-conceptualized what a farmers' market could be and how it could function. Its official opening took place this past Saturday, launched by a heartfelt speech from City Councilmember Darryl Moore and culminated with a lively performance by rock band Grand Lake. Sure, it has green, local sustainability stipulations for its vendors, but where else can you find recycling outposts to discard decrepit electronic equipment, purchase hand-tailored bike apparel, listen to local Berkeley bands and engage in epicurean delights like pupusas and artisanal sauerkraut?

"Other markets only sell food, but we're a green-consumer project," notes Cronin, who in the '80s worked in marketing for organic food and green transportation. The idea of transforming the typical farmers' market into a holistic social gathering was conceived about a year and a half ago by Fry, whose bio-botanical laundry detergent was continually ignored by other local farmers' markets. Fry briefly saw an opportunity for a green pop-up store on Shattuck, but after that fell through, she looked to West Berkeley - a neighborhood to which many markets have ventured, full of promise, but have left empty-handed. "We're trying to change behavior in an area that hasn't had a stable farmers' market in almost 30 years," said Fry. Her complaint was that many other farmers' markets fell short of promoting a fully integrated green lifestyle, focusing on food production but excluding other important green domestic services.

The Beehive supplies customers with 30 to 40 vendors, including big names like Scream Sorbet and Soul Food Farm, that appear in a rotational shift each week, allowing new businesses and neophyte entrepreneurs to test their product. This dynamic offers what co-founder Steve Goldin describes as a setting for "incubation." UC Berkeley student and compost distributor Jerry Gorin, a friend of mine, recognizes this relationship as a viable opportunity. "The Beehive seemed like it was at a level of progress I was at," says Gorin. "I was starting out with something completely new and educating people about it, while the Beehive was also trying to expand the credo of what a farmers' market can be. Typically students don't have the capital or experience to open a store immediately, but for someone who has a hobby or strong desire, the Beehive is a place that will embrace you."

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Beehive's makeup is its fall concert lineup, curated by UC Berkeley student and NPR contributor Will Butler, also an acquaintance. Unlike the ukulele fondling or hippie yodeling one might find at the Center market, the Beehive navigates in an entirely different direction, culling local independent talent from all over the Bay Area, such as Emily Jane White, Man/Miracle and promising new acts like You Are Plural.

"I don't know of any place in Berkeley where you can go on a weekly basis and see a great band for free," says Butler. "I think that the northwest San Pablo corridor is an awesome area and is a safe and more vibrant strip than most students would imagine it to be. And yet it's still largely un-trafficked by the university population. Many of these bands have received serious critical acclaim, but they're still our local boys (and girls)."

Although in its nascent stage, the Beehive features ambitious projects like its underground dining program, offering a four-course meal every Tuesday in conjunction with a local winery, and is already hoping to expand the quantity of available vendors.

Cronin, who attended UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement, understands Berkeley's receptivity to new ideas and hopes that the community will come to appreciate this new model. In broadening the concept of a farmers' market, Cronin and company are pushing for progress, a place of congregation rather than stop-and-shop curiosity. And who could ever complain about that?

Keep away from ukelele fondling and hippie yodeling with Justin at [email protected]

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