February 21, 2014
Three days a week, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market appears, as if out of thin air, with a bounty of local produce, artisanal products, and hot foods to please loyal shoppers and tourists alike. But careful planning and orchestration are needed to make the whole show go off without a hitch. CUESA’s Director of Operations, Dexter Carmichael, Associate Director of Operations Lulu Meyer, and about a dozen staff members keep the market running smoothly, come rain or come shine.
Dexter is currently serving as CUESA’s Interim Executive Director, so we thought this a fitting opportunity to reintroduce our most senior staff member and get a behind-the-scenes look at what makes the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market tick.
CUESA: How did you initially get involved with the CUESA?
Dexter: I had worked with Sibella Kraus [founder of CUESA] in the 1980s on her Farm-Restaurant Project, and then at Greenleaf Produce in the 1990s. In 1994, I became involved in setting up the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market as a part-time job. I would set up Meet the Producer and Market Cooking for Kids programs, and I became familiar with the sellers here. I worked for nine months, then I was hired by Whole Foods. Then in 1999, Sibella asked me if I wanted to be market manager. I was involved in some of the transition from the Ferry Building to the Green Street parking lot. I left for other work for a while but stayed connected to the market, then came back again as market manager in 2003.
CUESA: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen at the market in your time?
Dexter: I’ve seen demographic changes, location changes, and several generations of San Francisco food lovers come through the market. We were the third farmers market in San Francisco, after Alemany and Heart of the City, and this year there are about 28 markets. When we moved back to the Ferry Building in 2003, the success was unexpected and overwhelming. It was amazing.
CUESA: Describe your role as director of market operations.
Dexter: I oversee the farmers market for CUESA with our Associate Director of Operations, Lulu. My role is to represent CUESA as the market director and to introduce and maintain our market policies. We schedule sellers, determine what products they can sell, process applications, and take care of bookkeeping. We source new sellers and create and sustain the overall mix of the market. I also deal with the Port and other city agencies that have jurisdiction over our location and that regulate our activities.
CUESA: What does a typical Saturday look like for you?
Dexter: We usually arrive around 5:00-5:30 a.m. We have already marked out spots for sellers with chalk the day before, unless it rained. We set up the market, settle the sellers into their spaces, manage parking, set up the Info Booth, and handle any issues that come up. Some 20,000 or more people can roll through on any given Saturday. I also make sure to talk with the sellers at the market, face to face. They tell me what’s happening that day, how their production is going, and what crops or products will be coming up.
CUESA: How and when do you decide to bring in new vendors?
Dexter: New vendors are really important to the market’s health and continuing evolution. Customers tend to like change, so we bring on new vendors when we can. That said, the Ferry Plaza is a mature market and openings are very limited because we have a community of sellers who have been here a very long time. When a seller does leave, we have the opportunity to bring somebody in based on the market’s needs, criteria, and values. Our yearly application, which gathers detailed information on sellers’ practices, and our sustainability frameworks are designed to encourage sustainability. We love to see our sellers continue to move toward a more sustainable food system that this organization is focused on and believes in.
CUESA: How have your criteria changed over the years?
Dexter: I love the traditional farmers market model, where the focus is on the farmers, but the pressures of having a viable market have pushed us to have more prepared foods on weekdays to bring in new vendors. In terms of the food vendors, local sourcing has become more important and more developed, which wasn’t the case 10 years ago. Today, many of our prepared food vendors and artisan producers are utilizing local products from our farmers. I think we’re going to see much more of that, more interconnected food systems, because people increasingly want to be involved in local food.
CUESA: How does education fit into the market?
Dexter: Education infuses the market, from the conversations between farmers and customers to cooking demonstrations that show people know to prepare food at home. Issues of sustainability change over time, which makes education, both inside and outside the market, important to reaching our urban community. From talking with farmers and shoppers, I’m seeing a strong interest in getting away from rural/urban divisions. We have more in common with each other, and we are all part of the food system. We can’t have one without the other.
CUESA: What additional responsibilities are you taking on as Interim Executive Director?
Dexter: I’m doing more administrative and budgetary work, interfacing with the board, and meeting with groups and businesses. Staff has also assumed more day-to-day administrative tasks. We’re putting a lot into the search process for a new director, and we believe we’re going to get a great return out of it.
CUESA: What keeps you getting up at 4:00 a.m. in the morning?
Dexter: Coffee, maybe. [laughs] The market is a show; it’s real event. We do it three days a week, and each one is a little different. We help set it up, stand back, and let farmers and customers do what they do best. Over $10 million a year in revenue comes out of this market, and that’s in just produce alone. Those are great numbers for a farmers market. We’re lucky to be in San Francisco, where people understand and are interested in where their food comes from. I’m really proud when people visit, and they are just blown away by the variety and spirit of what’s here. When it’s a beautiful Saturday, there’s no better place for food, quite possibly, in the world.
CUESA is searching for an Executive Director. Click here to view the job description and details on applying. The deadline to apply is March 28, 2014.
Photo by Tory Putnam.