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Fresh Controversy: Second market plans to open by Gallo center

For more than three decades, the Modesto Certified Farmers Market has been a place for people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

The overhanging branches of tree-lined 16th Street, between H and I streets, provide plenty of relief from the heat as shoppers and vendors cheerfully chat away. Breezes push the smell of kettle corn, strawberries, peaches and barbecued meat around tented booths.

But amid this seemingly tranquil setting, there's a battle brewing.

A rival farmers market will open Saturday in front of the Gallo Center for the Arts along 10th Street, just six blocks away. Dueling markets is the result of a split among the original market's organizers and vendors.

Launched in 1978, the original market increasingly has focused on selling nonproduce items, some breakaway farmers claim. They say that prompted them to organize another market offering only food products and flowers.

The new market's organizers are working with city and public safety officials to get approval to close down part of 10th Street between H and I streets. They received temporary approval for Saturday, but discussions continue about a weekly market.

Gallo Center Farmers Market director Marion Bogdanich said each market has different vendors and interests. He said some vendors, such as Ellie & Charley's Organic Produce and Classic Wine Vinegar, also wanted to move the market closer to downtown's core, and the Gallo Center site accomplishes that goal.

Bogdanich said the new market wasn't meant to drive the original out of business and his group hopes to offer produce to a different niche of customers.

That explanation doesn't sit well with George Kosmas, president of the original market.

"Considering (the new market) is (less than) a mile away and will be held at the same time, and the vendors have solicited many of our members, it's a clear attempt to destroy our market," Kosmas said. "It breaks my heart to see this divide. I know it's upsetting for many people."

Get to know farmers, artisans

Farmers markets are places for customers to have direct contact with farmers and buy fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods, most of them grown in Stanislaus County. Many markets also sell craft items, such as handmade jewelry.

Ceres, Turlock, Oakdale, Riverbank and Patterson also have farmers markets.

Shoppers at Thursday's Modesto Certified Farmers Market said they would check out the new market but wished both could be in the same place.

"It's too bad it couldn't be bigger, and go around the block," said Patrick Tyler, who was chaperoning a second-grade class from Wilson Elementary School. The students were crowding around a balloon-animal maker.

"I might visit the new market to see, but this is the home of the farmers market to me," Tyler said, adding that he's come to the market on 16th Street since it started.

Kosmas appreciates some of the disgruntled vendors' concerns but wishes they had shared them with the original market's board of directors before striking out on their own.

One of the defectors, retired Patterson farmer Charley Fernandez of Ellie & Charley's Organic Produce, did send a letter to the market's board of directors in February, claiming that organizers were replacing farmers with nonfood sellers. For 15 years, he's sold tomatoes, lavender, fruits and herbs at the downtown market.

Though the 16th Street farmers market offers vendors that sell nonfood items, Kosmas said, the majority sell vegetables, fruits and nuts.

"We're a farmers market. It's all about the farmers," he said, adding that arts and crafts vendors help fill spaces when certain fruits and vegetables are out of season.

"It's also based on customer demand. We're fueled by what customers ask us to offer," Kosmas said, adding that turnout for opening weekend May 1 was the best for the market in years.

Fernandez and others were suspended in February once word spread they were meeting to form another market, Kosmas said. Fernandez said he then resigned from the board of directors.

"The only way to survive was to start another market based solely on food," said Fernandez, adding that farmers markets are the sole source of income for many farmers.

Of the 49 vendors listed on the Modesto Certified Farmers Market Web site, 31 sell fruits, vegetables, nuts or flowers; 11 sell food products such as kettle corn; and seven can be categorized as crafts vendors.

A partial list of 27 vendors for the new market includes 20 that will sell produce, nuts and flowers. The rest plan on selling food such as sausage, doughnuts and coffee.

Competition not desirable

"We shouldn't be competing against each other. We should be supplementing each other," said John Bava, whose Bava Farms sells tomatoes, peppers, onions and more at many Stanislaus County farmers markets.

Some vendors said they feel they're stuck in the middle of a political fight. Bava said his operation is large enough that he could have booths at both markets, but he wants to see how the new market does.

Amber Szabo comes to the farmers market to get fresh produce. She said there's enough interest in fresh, local and organic produce to support two markets.

"It gets busy here on Saturdays, so it might be nice to spread the crowd out," said Szabo, who bought apples, cauliflower, broccoli and strawberries Thursday with her three children.

Though organizers are using the Gallo Center for the Arts in the new market's name, the center is not a sponsor, Gallo Center Executive Director Lynn Dickerson said.

"They're using our name to give the location, but we're not sponsoring it and we're not providing any funding," Dickerson said. "We think of it as a win-win for us — that its shoppers can be prospects for the center and might not know about the center."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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