Trading practices are actually common among L.A. farmers market vendors.
Trading has come a long way since the “Oregon Trail” days when hunters would swap beaver pelts for provisions. The notion may seem counterintuitive considering modern conveniences like credit cards and Venmo that would probably give Lewis & Clark fits, but bartering is still in play for many farmers market vendors.
To be clear, farmers don’t invest their time, labor and resources to grow fruits and vegetables and then haul those prized yields hundreds of miles round-trip just to exchange goods. Farmers and their employees need to earn a living, so cash and credit are still king. But as part of a community effort, and when it makes sense for both parties, trades ensue. Business owners have more wiggle room since employees aren’t always allowed to trade under company policy, but at farmers markets spanning from Torrance to Brentwood, tomatoes can suddenly turn into tamales, and avocados can magically become aguas frescas.
Chul Shin has worked for Ha’s Apple Farm for 22 years, selling Arkansas Black apples, jujubes and Bosc pears at five to six markets per week. He’s typically open to trading for a head of cabbage or tomato if he needs one at home. Ultimately, it comes down to whether he connects with the other vendor. A friendly approach is key. “If you have a good attitude, fine, go for it,” Shin says.
At The Arepa Stand, Mercedes Rojas and brother Zeus Ferrini griddle, slice and stuff Venezuelan cornmeal pancakes with themed fillings named for geographic areas like downtown L.A., Venice and the Valley. The siblings typically trade arepas for either food or fresh produce at farmers markets.
“We have been working with most of the farmers for over four years and have a really good friendship with them,” Rojas says. “When we started selling arepas it was just sort of natural that we would feed them breakfast, and then they got to enjoy some of the best produce ever.”
So what do Rojas and Ferrini trade for?
“Fresh burrata at Mar Vista and also we trade with Tamai [Family] Farms for their amazing greens. Carlos [Enriquez] from Bakers Kneaded comes to us on Sundays with bags of his insanely delicious pastries and we feed them arepas as well,” she says. “We pretty much will trade with anyone.”
Pedro Gallardo started Pedro’s Organic Ranch in Fallbrook 14 years ago and initially focused on avocados before adding “exotic” fruits like finger limes, cherimoya and sapote to distinguish his stall. He regularly swaps with neighbors. “We trade because we know each other, we’re like friends and we’re working together,” Gallardo says. “If I need some eggs or meat, he’s not going to charge me. He just says, ‘Give me a couple avocados.’ That’s the way it works.”
Shinichiro “Shin” Okano helps his wife Misa and her family run Rice Man, a Koda Farms stall that sells heirloom rice and rice-based Japanese comfort foods ranging from Spam musubi to sushi at the Torrance farmers market on Tuesdays and the Mar Vista market on Sundays. Okano considers trading customary and exchanges food for useful ingredients.
“Most vendors need something very healthful in the morning, so they want to try our Japanese food,” he says. “Also, they give us some beautiful vegetables. I’m using the vegetables. It’s kind of a good relationship.” He even recalls one surprising moment when an underwater diver came to the market straight from the ocean bearing lobster in exchange for sushi.
Naturally, not all market trades are consummated, since not all proposed trades are equal. It’s not like the Lakers would trade superstar LeBron James for an undrafted rookie. Along those lines, Black Cat Bar-B-Que pitmaster Phil Martin rarely sees equal value. He’s smoked meat for three years and sells brisket, ribs, chicken and other meats at Thursday’s Century City market and Sunday’s Beverly Hills market. “I sell USDA prime brisket that’s smoked for 14 hours and it’s very popular and folks love it, but other vendors will come over with macaroni salad or a bowl of rice and want to get some brisket. Not a fair trade,” Martin says. “Only thing I trade is money. I’ll give you a discount, but don’t come over here with your goods and services, because I don’t want them.”
Oftentimes, the ability to trade with fellow vendors requires building trust. Travis Desmond runs The Walrus and The Hedgehog with Sean Cardamone and Shannon Clapham. Find them on Sunday at the Hollywood farmers market and on Wednesday evenings in Altadena. They construct each menu from market ingredients and primarily purchase raw materials, but trade all the time.
Desmond recounts his company’s trading progression with farmers like 2 Peas in a Pod and The Garden Of… in Hollywood. “At first, they don’t know who I am,” he says. “‘Oh, you’re a vendor here and cook food? Sure, we’ll give you a vendor discount.’” So, he displayed their names on the menu to cross-promote. “Slowly, over time, they just want food and give us more than we can handle,” he says.
Now, some of the vendors he trades with call him the “walrus” and sing a song about a walrus coming to feed them when they see him. For Desmond, and other vendors, it’s not only about trading, but it’s also about being part of something bigger. He reflects: “It’s just a fun community vibe.”