Merced farmer El Hullana sliced a piece of cantaloupe, and offered it to a patron. The burst of flavor seemed to temporarily immobilize the man, who gazed in curious admiration at the stack of melons.
"You want something really good?” Hullana taunted. “Try those orange honeydews.”
Long before the words “organic” and “sustainable” became staples of every food conversation, Hullana was knocking over people with his homegrown produce at the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in San Francisco’s U.N. Plaza.
On Wednesday, the farmer-run market celebrated its 30th anniversary with live music, cake and a visit from San Francisco mayor Ed Lee.
The market began in June of 1981 with just a handful of farmers peddling their wares – among them Hullana. At the time, he recalled telling his wife he would “try it for one year and then we’re done. We’ve been here ever since,” he laughed.
Though the Bay Area is filled with farmers’ markets selling fresh fruits and vegetables, none may be as culturally distant from the farm as the market in U.N. Plaza. Tucked-in between the gritty Tenderloin and the struggling mid-Market area, its self-proclaimed mission is to provide reasonably priced produce for a neighborhood in need.
"It’s kind of a low income area and this needed to be done to help the people here,” said Hullana, who serves on the market’s board of directors. Hullana said he’s experienced the markets ups and downs over the decades. He remembered in the 1980s, business took a hit as non-stop AIDS vigils took place nearby. These days, the burgeoning farm-to-table movement has kept the weekly Sunday and Wednesday markets packed.
"You have a lot of the low income people buying this produce,” said Hullana pointing to a stack of peppers. “It’s the same produce you see in other markets but a lower, lower price.”
In many ways, the market saved Mike Cartwright’s life. Ten years ago, the San Francisco man was homeless and struggling to kick a drug habit. After volunteering to help the farmers, he was given a permanent job picking up trash at the bi-weekly event. He credits access to fresh fruits and vegetables with helping him beat bladder cancer seven years ago.
"The prices are reasonable,” Cartwright said. “Sometimes people can’t afford everything that’s high end so they come here and they can afford to shop here.”
While the spotlight might be on produce, the market is also a prime spot for people watching. During Wednesday’s festivities, a bluegrass duo serenaded the crowd as a homeless man performed what kindly might be called interpretative dance. It’s all part of the character of an event that mashes-up everyone from office workers, to drug addicts to dot-commers.
With San Francisco City Hall as a distant backdrop, farmers barked-out the virtues of white peaches, heirloom tomatoes, locally produced olive oils and honey. Food trucks sold the lunch crowd everything from tamales to kettle corn.
A worker from a nearby courthouse showed off her take of Asian pears, kale and tomatoes. And a woman waded through the crowd offering samples of Fair Time Yellow Peaches. “Great for eating, jamming, canning,” she said. “Heaven on earth sir, give it a try. “