Abstract: California's Exceptional Farmers Markets: A Story of Regulation and Its Consequences

Louise Nelson Dyble


In 1943, a bumper crop of pears that could not be sold to consumers brought protesting farmers into San Francisco, eventually leading to the creation of the city's first farmers' market. In 1975, farmers dumped surplus peaches on the steps of the capital building, capturing the attention of Governor Jerry Brown and finally leading to the legalization of farmers' markets. Both incidents were protests against California's strict quality controls, including packing and labeling requirements designed to support commodification that were adopted in the 1930s. Both incidents brought attention to the limits and disadvantages of those laws. The struggle to legalize farmers' markets resulted in their distinctive institutional characteristics today. Regulations were relaxed in 1977 to allow farmers to sell their products directly to consumers. However, exemptions came with restrictions. In no other state does government regulation so thoroughly shape farmers' markets. Elsewhere, voluntary associations and independent organizations have developed guidelines for markets but have little authority to enforce them. In California, resolute opposition to farmers' markets by powerful conventional farming interests generated a unique system of state oversight and regulation. The very rules that were originally intended to conscribe farmers' markets have been critical to their integrity and success.