Richmond Farmers Market stays fresh after 40 years

Richmond Farmers Market is still fresh after 40 years
Aaron Coleman, manager of the market and on the Board of Directors, and Tom Cloman, the director of the market. (All photos by Kathy Chouteau)

By Kathy Chouteau

Any Friday at the Richmond Farmers Market at 24th St. and Barrett Ave., you can spot Tom Cloman amid the broccoli, Jalapeño peppers, honey and freshly popped popcorn—laughing, chatting and mixing it up with the locals. He’s got every right to be there because he is essential to the market’s existence.

The Richmond Standard recently caught up with Cloman, director of the market, who gave us a history lesson on the Richmond Farmers Market and also provided a glimpse at the possible future plans for it.

The first thing you’ve got to know: Its official name is the Richmond Certified Farmers Market Association, but that’s been whittled down over the years by locals to the “Richmond Farmers Market.”

Back in the early ‘80s, Cloman was active in the California fresh produce world as a manager at Consumer Cooperative of Berkeley (“Berkeley Co-op”), and before then, working with California’s Direct Marketing Legislation, which brought certified famers markets into existence.

Cloman’s background led to him being recruited by then-Governor Jerry Brown during his first term to work for an initiative under California’s Department of Consumer Services that was headed up by Alice Lytle. Called the Coop Development Program, Cloman was brought in as managing principal and was tasked with setting up supermarkets in at-risk communities. His work took him all over the state, to Los Angeles’ Watts neighborhood to Willowbrook and Compton in Southern California to the Tenderloin and West Oakland in the northern reaches of the state.

We “organized groups around food deserts and provided the state’s hand in making dreams come true,” said Cloman about his work for the state. “The issue of the day was the adequate distribution of fresh fruits and vegetables in what was called at-risk communities. During that time, there was not a supermarket west of San Pablo Avenue,” he said, noting that corner, liquor and little pop-up stores were people’s primary food resource.

Nearing the end of his state contract, Cloman was acutely aware that his work needed to continue in his own community of Richmond. A Discussion Group gathered—which sprang up from the Richmond Buying Club, led by Mary Otani—and first considered starting a supermarket in Richmond, but then decided to start a farmers market instead. “It just did not pan out,” said Cloman about the supermarket idea at the time, “but we were still able to realize the primary goal, because now we were able to bring fresh fruits and vegetables directly from the farm to the consumers.”

“And so that was our first step,” said Cloman. “And, of course, the rest is history.”

Cloman said that the long ago Discussion Group evolved into a Board of Directors for the Richmond Farmers Market and represented various community groups from North Richmond to the Iron Triangle and so on. He said they were careful to include a board member per area and “always had farmers on board as well.”

The Richmond Farmers Market was officially established in 1983, said Cloman, at a time when there were only nine certified farmers markets within Northern California. Initially it was located at Broadway St. and Macdonald Blvd.—moving in front of the Richmond Public Library around 1985 and to 24th St. and Barrett Ave. in the early 2000s—and was modeled on the West Oakland Farmers Market. The organizing group was able to attract a diversity of farmers to the Richmond Farmers Market from as far south as Fresno as far north as Santa Rosa, he said. “We’re able to have Asian farmers—also, of course, American, European American farmers, African American farmers—and each of them brought a certain flavor, if you will, to the market.”  

“I have literally heard seven, eight different languages spoken in that market space over the years and I’ve been told that I was barely scratching the surface by some of the Asian farmers,” said Cloman about Richmond’s Farmers Market.

Cloman said that one of the prerequisites of a certified farmers market, such as Richmond’s, is that the farmer must be the person who sells the product. “Each of our farmers come directly from their farm, or they have a representative from that farm,” said Cloman, adding that’s why you’re never going to see a pineapple for sale there. “It’s the certified nature that distinguishes us.”

He also said that some of the farmers begin picking Wednesday for the Richmond Farmers Market. “You can’t get it any fresher,” said Cloman. On a recent Friday visit to the market, the winter bounty included greens of all kinds, onions and citrus. “We have a mixture of everything grown in CA” said Cloman, not to mention Richmond Gold Honey, fresh popcorn from Kettlepop and Latin cuisine.

When asked if Richmond has a better Farmers Market than others in the area, Cloman said, “Unequivocally, yes. It bears out that been existence since 1983, without interruption, and our growth has been more or less steady…We have a sustainable market.” He added that some of the same vendors have been in Richmond for decades.

Cloman said that the City of Richmond “has been a real partner in this inception” making sure that the Richmond Farmers Market had the space and “any other technical assistance” over various administrations. “That’s one of the reasons why we have been successful, because we have the support of our city,” said Cloman.

So what’s in store for the Richmond Farmers Market’s future? Cloman said that he’d like to move it back to in front of the Richmond Public Library. However, since the library is going through renovations soon—and needs space for construction materials—it will take about two years for that move to potentially happen. He hopes that by moving it, even more people will discover the wonders of the market.

The Richmond Farmers Market is open on Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but by approximately 2:30 p.m., most of the farmers are gone. A popular time to go is 12 p.m. It’s located in the parking lot at 24th St. and Barrett Ave. in Richmond. Questions? Contact Cloman at [email protected].