Farmers Market - The Ultimate Insider’s Guide

Supermarkets? They’re great for staples. But for stunning variety, produce so fresh it’s glistening with dew, and the chance to enjoy some fresh air in the company of those who grow the food, shop farmers markets. Besides, that fresh-picked peach might just blow you away.

When it comes to farmers markets, I’m way gone. I’ve shopped at least one a week since I discovered the then-new Fullerton market in the early ’80s. The closest my son, now 21, ever came to having a toddler tantrum was when I steered his stroller away from a mountain of the dusky, sweet Italian sugar plums he loved. I’d created a monster, but I had a lot of help from my friends the farmers. Today, Orange County has 34 certified farmers markets, each unique in style and location. The six profiled here are but a fraction of the food fabulousness that awaits. So grab your reusable shopping bags and find your favorite.

Irvine
A locals’ favorite for its quality and variety, this 100-vendor market might just be world-class
Two indisputable truths about this big Saturday venue near UC Irvine: One, parking is worst at peak shopping time from 9 to 10 a.m., and two, it’s the very best market in the county. The Irvine Certified Farmers Market is absolutely world-class. 

For the past dozen years, it’s been managed by Irvine resident Trish Harrison, who takes a cheerful, iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach to wrangling the 100 or so vendors that create a temporary village each week in the University Center parking lot. (Read more about Harrison on Page 87.) Of the total, roughly 60 are farmers selling produce they grew themselves, with the remainder composed of food-product purveyors—bakers, cheesemakers, the hummus guy—and merchandise sellers.

But you go to see the farmers, and the fruits and vegetables of their labor. Almost every grower from other O.C. markets sells here, along with several exclusives such as Oxnard’s Scarborough Farms, which offers pristine lettuces you’ll see on fine-dining menus all over Southern California, and Cal Poly Pomona’s student-run farm store, whose hand-nurtured vegetables and herbs are especially prized by Saturday shoppers. Stehly Farms Organics of Valley Center in northern San Diego County provides vegetables and what seems like every kind of in-season citrus, plus ready-to-go fresh juices made with their fruit. Where other markets have one, this market has three Asian vegetable specialists, reflecting Irvine’s multiethnic makeup, and because this market just has more of everything good.

Once inside, labyrinthine twists and turns surprise visitors accustomed to the easy-to-navigate rows and rectangles of other markets. This complex configuration, a jigsaw puzzle solved every Saturday before opening, is the result of so many sellers squeezed into the relatively small footprint allotted by the property owner, The Irvine Company. Think of this market as a modern exponent of the ancient bazaar—wander (slowly, if it’s crowded), taking everything in, accepting cheerful offers of samples. It won’t take long before you have your bearings and know which peaches you’ll circle back to buy. 

Saturday
8a.m. to 12p.m. 
University Center, Campus Drive and Bridge Road
100 stalls
Early riser
Tough parking
Hot Tip: Early’s good, but never hesitate to arrive later—there will still be tons of great stuff.

 

Laguna Hills
If you’re looking for a stellar selection of goods, plus plenty of parking, this is the market for you
The Laguna Hills Farmers Market’s cluster of colorful pyramid-shaped canopies is like an oasis in the Laguna Hills Mall on Avenida de la Carlota. Its proximity to a throwback ’70s Sears store may seem an unlikely location for fantastic fruit and vegetables, but the truth is, this might be the finest display in Orange County for nuts-and-bolts ingredients-gathering. A real cook’s market, it offers a stellar range of produce vendors and no pesky crafts or other merchandise to distract from its highest and best purpose.

The closest farmers market to Laguna Woods, the city encompassing the former Leisure World senior community, it attracts a clientele that inspires in its variety and inclusiveness: life-long health addicts, lunch-hour business-casual ladies and gents, construction guys in panel trucks, tattooed twentysomethings, and parents with strollers. As a result, you’ll see every level of provisioning, from armloads of kale that denote serious juicing, to families restocking the weekly 25-pound bag of oranges, to dinner-party planners painstakingly hand-selecting tiny zucchini with attached blossoms. High-quality vendors populate the airy rectangle, with an island of  back-to-back stalls in its middle.

Parking is delightfully abundant and easy, making it possible to accomplish the rare farmers market pit stop: Run in for strawberries and be back on the road in less than five minutes. Of the four markets Trish Harrison manages, Laguna Hills is the one she founded. In its 12th year, it has since become her second-largest, after Irvine.

Friday
9a.m. to 1p.m. 
Laguna Hills Mall
Avenida de la Carlota, between El Toro Road and Los Alisos Boulevard
45 stalls
Ample parking
Lunch hour
Hot Tip: Mexican fare from scratch includes fab chiles rellenos, a tasty on-site bite.


Corona del Mar
If you don’t mind the close quarters, you’ll love the pageantry of this idyllic venue
Just off East Coast Highway in charming Corona del Mar, this compact market has an atmosphere all its own. Some of this is certainly site-specific, the compact ’hood effecting a boutique, jewel-box version of a farmers market. Dog-watching is practically a pageant, as residents exercise a variety of expensive, exceptionally well-groomed pets in adjacent Bayside Drive Park.

Another striking indication that we’re not in workaday O.C. is that among a mere 28 vendors, two sell flowers—double that of even the largest local markets. These vendors hawk their best in this tony beach village, and just about every shopper has a bunch or two of something bright, colorful, stalky, and dramatic peeking from his or her deep, handmade African market basket. 

Which is not to say the range of edibles is in any way lacking. The fruit and vegetables lining each side of the short aisle are, in a word, superb. This is one of only two O.C. markets where you’ll find Zuckerman asparagus and potatoes, and Yorba Linda’s Neff Ranch citrus and juice (both also sold at Irvine). Lettuces, greens, root vegetables, and a panoply of stone fruit in season are all abundant within these petite confines.

What is at a premium, not surprisingly, is street parking, though spots often can be found in a restaurant lot on the East Coast Highway side. 

Saturday
9a.m. to 1p.m. 
East Coast Highway and Marguerite Avenue
28 stalls
Tough parking
Fab flora
Hot Tip: Fantastic eggs and honey from Don Davis of Wildomar. Catch him at the San Clemente Sunday market, too.

 

Peter’s Landing
Petting zoo and pony rides? This marina-side site offers much more than just the right fruits and vegetables.
So far up Pacific Coast Highway you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s in Surfside, Huntington Beach’s Peter’s Landing is home to a thoughtful and lively Saturday farmers market that’s got all the right fruits and vegetables covered. This marina-side site is cool, beach casual, and welcoming. Walk its length, and at about midway there’s a switch to nonfood vendors, which merits a perusal—but only after produce provisioning. A petting zoo and pony ride are interesting additions, and somewhat jarring, but popular with families.

The south end of the market has the goods: greens, citrus, tomatoes, honey, almonds, eggs—and shoppers, some arriving on two wheels, stuffing their bags with good things. For those who cruise in on watercraft, guest slips are available, and parking’s a breeze for those who drive. In season, multiple berry vendors provide variety, including blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. The enticing, well-edited array of prepared-food vendors also is a reliable cut above, so avail yourself of the plentiful tables and chairs, and the accompanying live music. 

There are two older farmers markets in Huntington Beach: downtown on Tuesday evening, when Main Street turns into a pedestrian-only zone, and at the pierperhaps the quintessential SoCal beach settingon Friday afternoon. The Peter's Landing market, which marked its second anniversary in May and has been managed since its inception by Lee Ostendorf, is a worthy addition to the Surf City triumvirate.

Saturday
9a.m. to 2p.m. 
16400 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach
65 stalls
Ample parking
Extended hours
Hot Tip: With longer hours than most, this market’s easy to fit into your weekend.


Great Park
Come one, come all, to this dynamic food fest where even Fido is a welcome guest 
One of the brightest spots in the bumpy development of Orange County Great Park is this Sunday farmers market, which has the pleasant, laid-back atmosphere of a small-town festival, but with the distinct benefit of repeating each week. If the park’s ambitious plans had only stayed on track (see Page 92), its farmers market easily could have assumed a leading role as a gathering place for all of Orange County.

The market has grown considerably since it opened on Halloween 2010, currently hosting a solid, temptingly diverse array of 20 or so weekly farmers, or about 90 vendors. One stalwart is the Kawamura brothers' Orange County Produce, the only farm that grows some of its crops on Great Park property (see "Growers We Love," Page 85). There’s a large, separate section of merchandise and service stalls, from skateboard scooters to free advice from the park’s health clinic professionals, usually every second Sunday. But if you’re here for produce, it’s easy to make a beeline.

This market is a pioneer in bringing in food trucks, and several of the county’s best are represented weekly, including TJ’s Woodfire Pizza with its mobile wood-burning oven. Another Great Park exclusive is a large, partially shaded area dotted with wooden picnic tables and benches that make for relaxing eating while listening to better-than-average blues-rock bands.

At 7 a.m. on the first Sunday of the month, The Groves Antique Market opens up on a nearby parcel, having moved here more than a year ago from its longtime home at Irvine Valley College. The market begins an hour earlier that day, and the combination makes for particularly fulfilling one-stop shopping.  

Sunday
10a.m. to 2p.m. 
Enter from Sand Canyon Avenue at Marine Way, near the 5 Freeway
65 stalls
Ample parking
Dog-friendly
Extended hours
Hot Tip: Stroll the themed demonstration garden beds across the road from the market.


Fullerton
If you need a midweek chill, this park-side venue has much to love 
The Fullerton market opened in 1981, a few months after Costa Mesa’s Thursday fairgrounds market, the county’s oldest. Manager Mona Amoon has been on board from the beginning. A passionate and early adopter of whole foods, she has, over the years, cultivated an array of high-quality vendors, some of whom have sold at this site for decades. Others are newer—change is constant at farmers markets—but they are no less carefully chosen.

This Wednesday market along a strip of tarmac that borders well-used play areas is the center of activity in Independence Park. You’ll get the lay of the land at a glance, approaching from the ample, nearby parking. Don’t think for a second that the single wide aisle of goods signals a lack of shopping choices. Tables are loaded with a carefully curated selection of produce, just the variety shoppers look for at markets—mountains of citrus, bales of ruffly greens and lettuces, and, in season, a rainbow of stone fruits. You can always depend on eggs, honey, and fresh flowers, too.

There’s no need to rush because it doesn’t take long to traverse the market’s entire length. Allow time to appreciate the peaceful quietude. Something about this venue’s straightforward configuration, big-sky feel, and park-side location keep it from ever seeming frenetic, even when it’s crowded. Go-go energy can be a positive aspect of some markets, but Fullerton’s delivers the goods while maintaining an easy, restorative vibe. 

Wednesday
8a.m. to 1p.m. 
Independence Park, 801 W. Valencia Drive
24 Stalls
Ample parking
Early riser
Lunch hour
Hot Tip: DMV business? It’s right on the corner—visit on Wednesday and hit this market, too.


 

From lacy  lettuces to teeny zucchini, these farmers provide the best

Neff Ranch
›› Look for citrus—including fresh-squeezed juice—from the historical Yorba Linda ranch, and avocados grown on leased land in Tustin, the heart of agricultural O.C. Neff sells at two Saturday markets, Corona del Mar and Irvine. neffranch.com

OC Produce
›› Owned by the Kawamura brothers, Matt and former state agriculture secretary A.G., OC Produce sells its vast variety at eight local farmers markets. About a quarter of its 1,000 acres is certified organic, including the 100 leased at Great Park. ocproduce.com

Scarborough Farms
›› Supplier to many high-end restaurants as well as the SoCal Tender Greens chain, Scarborough grows exquisite lettuces and herbs in sizes from hard-to-find micro, to mini—yet mature—whole heads. Only at the Irvine Saturday market. scarboroughfarms.com

Smith Farms
›› McKay Smith grows certified organic produce and maintains farm stands in Irvine and Fountain Valley. He also sells at three local markets: Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach on Saturday, and Laguna Niguel on Sunday. 

Valdivia Farms
›› From this Carlsbad family farm come extra-fancy vegetables such as teeny zucchini with attached blossoms, tender haricots verts, and heirloom tomatoes in a spectrum of shapes and colors. Selling at many O.C. markets makes it easy to find.

 

Careful planning and consideration of others ensures a genteel hunt for provisions 

Survey the Market
Before deciding what to buy, quickly whip around to get the lay of the land, comparing and tasting, checking for quality and best prices.

Leave Room On Your List
Be open to temptation. Being seduced by an especially comely kabocha squash is pure market magic. 

Heavy Things First
Purchase potatoes and other weighty items first, allowing the lighter lettuces and tomatoes to ride on top in your tote.

Mind your bags
Keep them close to your body to protect fragile fruits and vegetables. And never rest heavy items on tender produce displays.

Carry small bills
Bring change, and keep money at the ready. When it’s cash ’n’ carry, proper money handling makes things go smoothly.

Ask questions
Farmers are proud of their produce, appreciate when customers show interest, and are happy to share information and helpful shopping tips.


Spend the Day
Pack a cooler for  purchases and make it a multimarket excursion

Saturday #1: Irvine  - Mission Viejo  - Old Towne Orange
Be at Irvine for its 8 a.m. opening, then hop over to Mission Viejo Civic Center, and finally, north to Old Towne Orange, where, after visiting the market, you can inspect the new Provisions gourmet grocery—with a Portola Coffee Lab inside.

Saturday #2: Dana Point  - Laguna Beach   - Corona del Mar  - Peter’s Landing Huntington Beach
A 30-mile Coast Highway market jaunt runs easily from low-key Dana Point to very well-attended Laguna Beach, through mini-luxe Corona del Mar up to Huntington Beach’s Peter’s Landing, conveniently open until 2 p.m.

Sunday: San Clemente -  Laguna Niguel  - Great Park
From charming Avenida del Mar, let the 73 Toll Road deliver you directly to beloved-by-locals Laguna Niguel before cruising Laguna Canyon up to the Orange County Great Park, where fruit, vegetables, TJ’s Woodfire Pizza, and food trucks await.

 

Market Maven
With a tough-but-benevolent style, Trish Harrison of Irvine manages four certified O.C. farmers markets 

Why are your markets a cut above? We appeal to every ethnicity in Orange County, every cultural group—they’re truly for everybody.

How much policing do you do? At my markets, the farmers have to grow what they sell. I don’t put up with any funny business—I have to be able to trust them. And they can trust me.

Biggest surprise for new shoppers? We have sellers of grass-fed beef, fresh fish, sausage—people think there’s only fruit and vegetables at a farmers market. And, bison! Who expects bison? 

Describe a typical Saturday. I get up at 4 a.m. and I’m at the Irvine market by 6, rain or shine. When I finally get home in the evening, I have at least eight hours of paperwork before I’m done. After Saturdays, I feel like I’ve been hit with a big stick. 

Après-market?  My husband and I have taken ballroom dance for five years. And we have two Chihuahuas. This sounds crazy, but he got me a webcam so I can watch the dogs when I’m at work. I bought them as puppies from a Hmong farmer, who brought them to the market in her pocket.

Tips From Trish
1. To be certain farmers actually grow the produce they’re selling, shop the certified markets—those verified by the Orange County agricultural commissioner.

2. To score a deal, arrive near the market’s start, when farmers are fresh and cheery, and fully stocked with their picks of the day. Politely ask, “What’s your best price for a flat?”

3. Be adventurous. Think pink grapefruit is sweeter than yellow? Try a pale oroblanco and you’ll be hooked. It’s a variety that isn’t really grown commercially.


Market People

1. Lifelong Silverado Canyon cattleman Frank Fitzpatrick sells his grass‑fed beef at three O.C. markets. 

Best-seller? My ground beef [$7 a pound]. I use the trim from steaks and roasts, plus lean cuts like bottom round, on up through the fattier chuck. 

How much of your business is at farmers markets? About a third. The rest is restaurants, my website, and Facebook. 

Do different cuts sell at different markets? I have more foodies at the Irvine market, more people buying roasts, and shank for pho.

Does grass-fed require special cooking? Low and slow, then sear at the end. It doesn’t have the fat of regular beef. If you put it over high heat, you’ll end up with jerky. 

At Great Park, Irvine, and Laguna Hills farmers markets; 5barbeef.com


2. Fountain Valley’s Farhan “Flash” Khan dazzles market-goers with his sitar compositions and an occasional cover song.

Does your sitar prompt questions? Older people are familiar with the instrument, but young kids ask, “What is that?”

How would you characterize your music? Bringing pop into traditional sitar.

Which market is the most receptive? I get good response at all of them, but do really well in Irvine—it’s the biggest and busiest.

When not playing here …I’m writing and performing with my wife in our band, Fontain’s M.U.S.E. 

Buena Park, Irvine, or Peter’s Landing Saturday farmers markets; fontainsmuse.org


3. Gary and Nancy Matsuoka take their pop-up Laguna Hills Nursery on the road, visiting local farmers markets.

Do customers of your former store find you at the markets? Oh yes—but one of the best things about farmers markets is all the new people you meet.

Biggest sale? We recently sold more than 300 San Marzano tomato plants to a guy who’s going to grow his own tomatoes for the sauce he sells here at farmers markets.

Best-selling plants? Herbs of all kinds—basil, especially. They might plant it, but people just take it home and use it!

Foothill Ranch, Great Park, and Mission Viejo farmers markets; lagunahillsnursery.com


Farmers Market Search

Food Illustration by Hong Yi

To read the full story, or order a print or digital copy of the August 2013 issue, click here.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of Orange Coast magazine.