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Fresh, seasonal and local

Food: Santa Clarita Valley farmers markets and Fillmore produce stands offer customers a wide range

Posted: June 17, 2010 6:17 p.m.
Updated: June 18, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Oranges from Francisco’s Fruits, also located in Fillmore off Highway 126, are picked straight from the farm located on the premises.

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When was the last time you bit into a fresh, unadorned tomato and experienced its succulent, tangy essence? At Newhall's Farmers Market, held on Main Street each Thursday from 3-7 p.m., Gabby Rodriguez of Holling Nursery offered customers free samples of strawberry tomatoes, plump little jewels grown hydroponically and in hothouses in Camarillo.

Dawnee Olson, of Castaic, and her daughter Jaimee stopped for a moment to try the tempting treat.

"Umm, that is delicious," Olson said as Jaimee Olson nodded in agreement, her mouth still full of the juicy fruit.

The duo ended up buying a couple of pounds of a larger variety from Rodriguez, who offers up to six different types of tomatoes in her stand at up to $2 a pound, for a homemade pico de gallo. It was the Olson's first time at Newhall's Farmers Market, though they tend to shop at this type of venue whenever possible.

"It's the freshness, the price and knowing that our food is grown locally, not shipped halfway across the world to get here," Olson said. "Why would you buy garlic from China when it's grown in California?"

According to the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, most fruits and vegetables sold at U.S. supermarkets travel an average of 1,500 miles from their original source while farmers market produce is typically sold no more than 50 miles from where it is grown.

At Francisco's Fruits in Fillmore, produce is often transported just yards from the field to the stand, where it is sold after being picked from owners Francisco and Francesca Cardenas' farm located on the premises.

"Ninety percent of what we sell here is from our farm or other local farmers," Francesca Cardenas said proudly. "Some is pesticide-free, and we work with other farmers to provide organic produce. Once it's picked, we don't add anything else. We just clean it and put it out to sell."

Summer at Francisco's Fruits means an abundance of strawberries, blueberries, boysenberries, oranges, avocado, lemons, grapefruit and select squashes. Cardenas noted she and her staff are happy to offer preparation and storage tips for maximum usage. Honey, nuts, dried fruits, beef jerky, flavored oils, olives and even beeswax-based beauty products and Mexican ceramics are also available for sale.

Open for 25 years, prices at Francisco's Fruits are very reasonable, especially for those looking to buy in bulk. In the summertime, a 40-pound box of oranges can go on sale for as low as $15.95, which equates to approximately 40 cents a pound.

"It's direct to the consumer," Francesca Cardenas explained. "We have the best prices and you can't compare our quality. Fresh picked just tastes much better."

At Rancho Camulos, the closest Fillmore produce stand to the Santa Clarita Valley, located just a few miles from Interstate 5, Debra Weddle, of San Luis Obispo, lingered over a mound of ripe avocadoes. Weddle shops at farmers markets at least once a week.

"It's fresher, the price is right for what you get, and it helps the local economy," she said. "Especially in the last five years, I've just become much more aware of local farmers, so I stay away from grocery stores as much as possible."

Weddle is not alone. Fueled by customer demand, farmers markets across the country have increased their presence dramatically over the last 15 years, growing from 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Besides the Newhall Farmers Market, Holling Nursery participates at two additional local markets each week, where Rodriguez offers customers first-hand knowledge on which tomatoes are just right for their recipes.

"They all have their special uses. The strawberry tomatoes you can eat plain while the orange and yellow tomatoes are good for people looking for a lower-acid variety," Rodriguez said. "All our tomatoes are picked the day before we take them to market, so they're very good and very sweet."

Just down Main Street underneath a white canopy, Carol Letus, a saleswoman from Soledad Canyon Goats, ran through the array of cheeses the company produces at their facility in Hanford from the milk of goats humanely raised in Mojave.

There was a smoky, hard goat cheese reminiscent of gouda and chevres, or soft spreadable goat cheeses, available in flavors ranging from savory chive to sweet cheesecake or packed in olive oil with fresh herbs and spices.

"Goat cheese is higher in selenium and HDL, which is the good cholesterol, and it's perfect for lactose-intolerance. It processes much more efficiently than cow's milk," Letus said. "Our cheese is mild enough yet flavorful enough to appeal to more people. It just tastes less goaty than other goat cheeses."

As mariachi music played and corn roasted, Gerilyn Richardson wandered the Newhall Farmers Market, slowly taking in the goods on offer, from fresh tamales to perfectly ripe strawberries.

The Canyon Country resident shopped at markets like this when she lived in Italy, from where she recently returned.

"I prefer to buy from local farms. I always ask if the produce came from close by," Richardson said. "I'd rather support local farmers than big corporations."

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