The Vibe of the Valley: Ojai Community Farmers’ Market
Story by Kerstin Kuhn • Photos by Misty Hall
It’s a Thursday afternoon in November and it’s chilly in downtown Ojai. The clocks have just gone back, and dusk is settling in on the valley. But the cold and dark are no match for the Ojai Community Farmers’ Market (OCFM), where things are in full swing. There’s a workshop happening with a group of people sitting in a circle learning how to start a medicinal herb garden. Little kids are intently focused on their story-time session with the Ventura County Mobile Library, while a pair of local musicians are setting up to play. Shoppers are perusing the farm stalls, tasting strawberries, hand-picking produce, buying loaves of sourdough bread, and pre-ordering their Thanksgiving turkeys.
“I’ve done farmers’ markets from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara, but this one is by far my favorite,” says Kristen Hermanson, who is manning the Casitas Valley Pastures stand, a local farm that produces organic pasture-raised meat. “It’s so sweet and mellow, and I love that each week there’s live music and kids running around and it’s just such a supportive community. You really feel that.”
Indeed, the whole idea of the OCFM is to celebrate its community and help it become self-sustainable. Founded by a group of five passionate Ojai residents, its goal is to bring together local farmers, food producers, creators, and makers, and present them with the opportunity to sell their products while giving residents and visitors alike access to the food grown in the Ojai Valley. “We have an incredible farmers’ market in Ojai on Sundays, but unfortunately, there isn’t room there for a lot of our local people,” says Julie Gerard, an OCFM founding board member. “We wanted to create a space that complements the Sunday market but is more local.”
Running since June 2021, the OCFM is an eclectic mix of local vendors that have been carefully curated by the organizers to showcase the very best the Ojai Valley has to offer. In one stall you’ll find Wild at Heart Ojai, founded by biologist and self-declared rebel Michelle Lopez; she creates probiotic bio sodas, beet kvass, pickles, sauerkraut, and salsas designed to aid digestion and strengthen the immune system. In another stall, there’s Mission Beekeeping, with local honey, including orange blossom, avocado, wildflower, and raspberry, as well as beeswax candles. There’s also Frecker Farms, which sells a host of seasonal organic produce, as well as two organic meat farms which provide meat, bone broth, eggs, hides and even churro wool for weaving or knitting.
Many of the vendors trade only at this market, adding to its unique Ojai vibe. A case in point is Mama Tree, which grows citrus, olives, and walnuts on a 20-acre ranch in Upper Ojai. The team took over a conventional orchard and through a variety of permaculture methods is transitioning it into a regenerative organic one. Mama Tree produces dry-farmed walnuts and walnut butter, small-batch marmalade, including one made from Ojai’s famous pixie tangerines, and citrus-infused vinegars. Farm manager Natalie Buckley says Mama Tree is committed to promoting the longevity of the land. “Saving water is our utmost priority; we are installing earthworks that allow our farm to more efficiently plant the rain from large storm events back into the soil of the Upper Ojai groundwater basin. And we are trialing more drought-hardy crops,” she says. “We’re also very proud of our extra virgin olive oil, which has a light, smooth, and buttery profile, with a little spice on the back end. We feel honored to be a part of the OCFM, where we get the chance to have conversations with the community about our farming practices and the ways they influence our products.”
Then there’s Eric Hodge, a local fisherman who takes his boat out to San Miguel Island, about 60 miles from Ventura Harbor. There he catches — among other species — vermillion, a rockfish perfect for ceviche, which he sells at the market and is some of the best you can get. Using the ikejime method, a traditional Japanese technique of instantaneously killing fish in a humane way by inserting a spike into the brain cavity, he is able to preserve its flavor and texture as it ages. Hodge supplies top restaurants, such as the two-Michelin-starred seafood temple Providence in Los Angeles, where dinner can set you back as much as $400 a plate. But this is his only farmers’ market. “We want to make sure the people of Ojai get the best fish possible,” he says.
The vendors’ passion for their community is equaled by the OCFM board. The market is a non-profit that not only supports local businesses by giving them a much needed platform but is also fiercely committed to helping the local people. Brought to life through a series of grants, donations, and local generosity, the market works with a number of Ojai-based charities such as the Help of Ojai food bank, to which vendors donate all leftover produce at the end of the market day. OCFM also participates in the CalFresh-EBT and Market Match programs. “We have a very large contingent of people in Ojai who live below the poverty line, and we want to make sure that they’re able to shop locally for fresh fruits and vegetables,” insists Gerard. “If you come to our market with $20 of nutritional assistance, we will match that $20 giving you $40 to spend on fresh, locally, and organically grown produce. It’s a win-win situation and people are so grateful for it.”
There’s also a big educational aspect to the market. During the fall and spring there are seasonal workshops, ranging from pie making to healthy snacks for the whole family, from animal first aid to chicken raising techniques, and from a beginner bonsai class to growing a salad garden from seeds. Then there’s a kids’ corner, offering different activities to children of all ages: from story time and face painting to chess club and a kids’ entrepreneurial class.
While families are picking up delicious-smelling pies from Air Pizza’s mobile pizza oven and setting up picnic blankets as the band begins to play, it becomes evident that the OCFM is achieving exactly what it set out to do: create a unique, inclusive space that promotes healthy lifestyles and deeper community connections, while at the same time giving visitors a real taste of the Ojai Valley. “Everything here is as organic and local as you can get,” says Gerard. “We are the vibe of Ojai.”
The Ojai Community Farmers’ Market is open Thursdays from 3 to 7 pm in the heart of downtown Ojai at 414 E. Ojai Avenue. For more information, visit ojaicommunityfarmersmarket.com