Califonia Bountiful

It's a bountiful life: Longtime farmers market vendor now a manager

May/June 2022 California Bountiful magazine

Farmers market manager Michi Ward makes her rounds at the Saturday market at Laguna Beach. Ward manages this market and four others in Orange County. Photo: © 2022 Lori Fusaro

For many years, Michi Ward stayed busy working for her family's Yasutomi Farms in Pico Rivera and selling its produce at area farmers markets. She enjoyed chatting with the shoppers, answering their questions and giving them tips on cooking her uncommon Asian vegetables.

Trish Harrison, a longtime farmers market manager for the Orange County Farm Bureau, noticed Ward's customer-service skills and suggested she'd make a good market manager.

So, Ward applied to the Farm Bureau in 2007 and was hired to launch and manage new farmers markets. Over the years, these have grown to five: in Orange, Fountain Valley, Laguna Beach, Laguna Niguel and a brand new one in Brea.

A shopper buys produce at the Laguna Beach Farmers Market, managed by Michi Ward. Photo: © 2022 Lori Fusaro

What are your behind-the-scenes duties? Mostly emails and phone calls and planning. I work with farmers and crafters and the cities.

I'll get applications from potential vendors and try to fit them in, especially if they have something unique. Like if a market doesn't have any mushrooms and I find a mushroom farmer, I'll try to bring them in.

I make sure crafters actually make the items they bring. I'll also visit the farms and make sure they're growing what they say they're growing and picking when they say they're picking.

I take measurements and figure out how many farmers can fit at a location. You want to fit as many as you can but leave room for customer parking.

What do you do on market day? I have to get there early to help set up and fix any problems. If the market starts at 9 a.m., I'm there by 7:30 to make sure it's clear and there are no cars or anything that might be in the way.

I have my phone with me and if farmers have a problem and can't get there, they will call me. I measure to see the best way to fit the vendors in. I make sure everyone's going to be there, and, if not, then I work to fill in that empty spot.

I usually have extra tents in case one breaks and just try to help the farmers with whatever they need.

A saxophonist provides background music for Laguna Beach Farmers Market customers. Photo: © 2022 Lori Fusaro

What about after shoppers show up? I talk a lot with the customers and ask them what they would like to have at the market—what they like or don't like. I always tell them, "Thanks for coming!"

I'll walk around and make sure everything looks really nice. So, like, if I see a piece of fruit that doesn't look good, I'll pull it out and tell the farmer. Every hour or two, I'll do another walk.

If a vendor needs a bathroom break, I'll watch their stand for them for five minutes. As the customers are leaving, I say, "See you next week!" When the market closes, all the vendors pay me their fee (a percentage of their sales). I'm usually the last one out. I make sure all the vendors leave things as clean as they were when they came.

How has the pandemic affected the markets? I ensure safety. I passed out gloves and masks for everyone to come in. I would remind my vendors about social distancing and take chalk and mark off 6 feet for the customers. Some locations we had customers come in one way and out another. So, if they forgot something and started to turn around, I'd have to say, "No, keep going forward," and they'd be mad at me at first, but I would tell them, "Just think of it as exercise!" (laughing)

At some locations, I didn't have that many vendors (of processed foods like jams, breads or desserts). But then people started losing their jobs and wanted something to do. So, I asked them, "What are you good at making?" So, like, if they could make good jam, I would make sure they were local and then do everything I could to help them get started.

What do you enjoy most about the job? When the customers come in and they say, "We love coming here! This is our regular routine every week." I'm so happy when they say they look forward to the market days. They appreciate coming because they're getting their food fresh. Farmers pick the produce every day to get it to the markets. Farmers love it too because they like talking about what they grow with customers. I love being a market manager. It's a pleasure to get to know a lot of customers and what I hear from them makes me happy. It's a good feeling.

Linda DuBois

Follow us on: Facebook Twitter YouTube Pinterest Pinterest