Coastside Farmers Markets Become Community Hubs
While Erin Tormey grew up living what she calls “a typical suburban life,” it was during family trips to her grandfather’s ranch near the Oregon border that she began to develop the passion for agriculture.
“I sure wasn’t born to farming,” says Tormey, founder/manager of Coastside Certified Farmers Markets. “But I recognized that I’m most at peace where there’s some room around me and I can be an integral part of the environment.”
Starting a farmers market on her own was not in her original life plan. While building a career in nonprofit development and event management, Tormey was also growing a modest volume of specialty row crops for local restaurants on her Half Moon Bay farm. In 2002, a conversation with culinary entrepreneur Paul Shenkman changed her destiny. After Tormey bemoaned the lack of accessible distribution channels for small-volume farmers, Shenkman and his wife, Julie, offered the use of their Cetrella restaurant’s parking lot for a three-year experiment in direct marketing.
“The Shenkmans provided the site, the insurance and the seed money, but the biggest thing they did is they trusted me with it,” she recalls. “And that was priceless.”
To make an idea into reality, Tormey became the chief promoter, logistics liaison, support system, permit-getter, and creative fundraising force behind the new venture. The effort was sometimes daunting. But the Saturday Half Moon Bay market (recently voted Best Farmers Market in the 2013 Bay Area A-List) quickly attracted a loyal base of farmers, ranchers, fishermen and shoppers. People liked buying from their neighbors and learning how to cook the food from those who grew it.
“Without Erin, our lives would be very different,” says Paul Hamilton, who started now-thriving Greenhearts Family Farm five years ago with his wife, Aurora Wilson, when they had only a vision. “Erin gave us our first shot, took a risk, pushed us in the right direction, nurtured and stuck with us.”
Now in its 12th season, more than 40 vendors participate regularly in the market, most are from San Mateo County or surrounding areas in the regional foodshed.
In 2008, a second location launched in Pacifica, where up to 30 vendors can be found each Wednesday afternoon. “It’s a welcome addition; an event you can count on,” says Pacifica Chamber of Commerce CEO Courtney Conlon. “The market draws visitors and locals on a regular basis and surrounding shops see an uptick in business.”
For Tormey, using the market as a place for community-building is central to her mission and personal philosophy.
“As Americans, we don’t have that ‘gather up in the town square’ mentality that’s [so prevalent] in other cultures,” she says. “The idea of gathering to do something as fundamental as buying food for your family creates a conviviality that’s really astonishing, and we’ve made it a point at the market to promote that.”
Tormey also relishes the fact that the Coastside markets have become an essential gathering place for agricultural professionals, where “heritage” farmers who have lived and worked on the Coastside for generations get to know and trade knowledge (and food) with the new cadre of producers who are taking up the plow reins (or tractor keys).
When she’s not managing the markets or working her farm, Tormey advocates for sustainable agriculture as a director of the Coastside Ag Cooperative, advises the HEAL (Health Environment Agriculture Learning) Project and is a member of the San Mateo County Food Systems Alliance.
“Erin is a tireless advocate,” says Kerri Lobel, executive director of Pescadero’s Puente, a nonprofit providing services to low income and farmworker families on the South Coast.
“When we were starting our Pescadero Grown market, she was right there at every step, offering sage advice, support, love and guidance. She even trained our youth market manager.”
Tormey has also earned respect in the agriculture community for her own farming efforts, by cultivating a diverse flock of heritage-breed poultry and marketing their free-range eggs under her Farm Fatales label. She has also embarked on a multi-year project to re-establish heirloom apple orchards on her 48 coastal acres.
Known for her gracious hospitality, Tormey often opens her farm to aspiring farmers and students working on food justice issues. They stay a few weeks or months, learning as much as they want about produce, poultry and the mechanics of farm marketing.
“Hopefully, I’ll be able to pass something off to one of those young people who are going to take their own place in the natural order of things and carry it forward,” she says. “That’s our job while we’re here.”