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August 1996
The War Against the Grocers Lobby in San Francisco

An Interview with John Brucato,
Founder of a Pioneering Farmers Market

His critics called him a radical and a communist. John Brucato wasn’t either of those things but he was sure angry -- and determined to change -- the economic system that placed the Bartlett pear growers of Marin County in such desperate straits in the fall of 1943. If they were lucky enough to sell their crop at all, farmers got a fifth of what consumers less than an hour’s drive away were paying for their pears.

This little lesson in primitive economics started San Franciscans thinking," Brucato recalled in his autobiography, "A Sicilian in America" which he published in 1992. "It was an age-old question. Who’s getting all the money between the producers and the consumer? The farmers reasoned that something must be wrong with our system of food distribution."

The farmers, led by Brucato who in turn was backed up by an invaluable "citizen’s committee," set out to change the system -- by setting up a farmers market. It was the first real farmers market in California in modern times.

Though it seemed like such a wholesome thing, the market encountered fierce opposition. But it thrived and is still in operation on the site on Alemany Blvd. at Bayshore that it has occupied since the 1940s.

Brucato was born in Sicily in 1904 and left four years later. His family immigrated to New York to escape a depression in Europe. Building on his father’s lifelong interest in gardening, he studied agriculture in college on Long Island. After graduating he fulfilled a dream of coming to California when he enrolled for graduate studies in viticulture at the University of California’s ag school in Davis. Brucato eventually was hired by the San Francisco Water Department to oversee its vast holdings of farmland scattered over important aquifers throughout northern California. In the meantime, Brucato owned and farmed with his two brothers 75 acre of vineyards and orchards in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County.

Beyond those responsibilities, Brucato immersed himself in civic activities, following advice that his father had given him as a young man. Brucato recalled in a recent interview with In Season: "My father used to preach to us when we were growing up, ‘This is the country where you are going to make your living. You’ve got to give something back.’ I used to say to my father, ‘Pop, what do you mean?’ He said, ‘Get involved.’"

The Alemany farmers market in San Francisco is one indication that Brucato followed through on his father’s advice. Brucato, who is an alert 92, told the story of his role in the creation of the market.

'Our bitterest
enemies were the
wholesale merchants.
But the newspapers
were on our side. We
made the merchants
look ridiculous.'

The farmers didn’t
want peddlers
taking over.
How could
they compete
with someone
who could buy
whatever they
needed at the

'Farmers markets
are the salvation
of small farmers.'

SEASONAL CHEF: How did you decide to start a farmers market?

BRUCATO: It started in a very innocent way. The war was going on and food was scarce and a story appeared in the San Francisco News about what vegetables could be planted. It happened to be the month of December. But the writer was talking about warm-weather vegetables like tomatoes and zucchini. So I objected. I called up the city editor. He eventually asked me to write a series of articles on victory gardens.

After that a decision was made that a group should be formed to organize the people of San Francisco to start gardens on a citywide basis. I had four garden editors as my assistants. I had a citizens committee. Our victory program became one of the best in the country. We had over 800 gardens in Golden Gate Park. Every park in the city had gardens. Every vacant lot was growing vegetables.

That’s why the agricultural commissioners and farmers thought we could help them when they were in trouble. And we could help them. But how? How are you going to help these farmers?

SEASONAL CHEF: Why were the farmers in such big trouble.

BRUCATO: The small farmer had big problems because he had to send his produce in on consignment. I had a little experience with that. I had a ranch up in Healdsburg. I raised mostly wine grapes but I also had apples and pears and prunes. I had store outlets. But I used to ship some of my pears and apples to the wholesale produce merchants. If you put it on consignment and the market was hot it would sell and that would be OK. But if it didn’t sell, it would lay around and the inspector would come by and put a red tag on it because the food was deteriorating. You could either take it back or dump it. That was the situation the small farmer faced. So the agricultural commissioners of the local counties asked if we couldn’t do anything about it.

The farmers were up in Novato, in Marin County, which at that time was mostly agricultural. They were raising Bartlett pears and they had no market because of the war-time conditions. The canneries were backing up. A lot of the farmers had sons that went into the army. They couldn’t get help to run the farm. So we publicized going to the ranch and bringing your own container to pick up pears. The farmers were selling 25-pound lugs for 4 cents a pound. In the retail markets in San Francisco, pears were going for up to 22 cents a pound. We got tremendous publicity. People went up and in two days we cleaned up the crop that was already in boxes and in the next few days we picked the rest. And we saved the pear crop.

That excited neighboring farmers in Napa, Sonoma and Santa Clara Counties. They said we, too, have apples and pears and we need help. But at that time we couldn’t get many people to go to the ranches because of gas rationing. So we figured that if we can’t go to the farmer, let the farmer come to town. That’s how it started. There was no plan. Things just happened because it was wartime.

SEASONAL CHEF: Was the market an immediate success?

BRUCATO: We set an opening date on a Thursday. But only six trucks came in. Everyone was scared off. There were stories in the paper about trouble. The second day about 12 trucks came in. On Saturday, 160 trucks came in from all over the state. We had so much publicity and farmers realized, ‘Hey this is for us.’ Who were these farmers? They were small family-sized farmers. They were the ones who needed help.

People accepted the markets immediately because of the fact that they were getting something fresh. Corn was picked yesterday. If you buy it in the market, it is three or four days old and it has lost most of its vitamins. And the fact that there was a friendliness, too. A lot of farmers developed regular customers.

SEASONAL CHEF: Who opposed the market?

BRUCATO: The bitterest enemies of the market were the wholesale produce merchants. They were one of the most powerful political groups in San Francisco. They were major contributors to local politicians. That’s why out of 11 supervisors, we always had six against us. We had some outstanding supervisors on our side. But they were always in the minority. The one thing that helped us was that we had the newspapers and the public on our side.

We eventually had to go on the ballot to ask the people of San Francisco whether they wanted a farmers market or not. This was a year after we started. It was one of the bitterest fights in the history of San Francisco. But the vote was 145,000 to 25,000 in favor of the market.

That was not the end of our troubles. We had to got back on the ballot again the following year so the city could find a location for the market to operate. That started another fight.

We had to accept a compromise to get the city to agree to let us use city-owned property on Alemany. We were restricted to just distressed fruits and vegetables. I kept asking what they meant by distressed fruits and vegetables. The Department of Food and Agriculture couldn’t give us an answer. They tried to enforce that restriction but they never got anywhere because my little group was always fighting them. And we had the newspapers on our side. We made them look ridiculous. They were imposing something that nobody had a definition for.

I guess I must have been stubborn or pig-headed or whatever. But I took an awful beating. I was accused of being a communist, a radical, a dago, a wop, all those pretty names. But we survived because I had a very good group of people, a citizens committee. They were all heads of civic organizations, union representatives and people from various groups.

As time went on we had the ordinance changed to allow farmers to sell dried fruit, nuts and honey. Later on we changed it again to include flowers. Now anything that the farmer raises they can bring in.

SEASONAL CHEF: Were city officials supportive of the market once it became clear that it was a success?

BRUCATO: We always had problems in the early years with the San Francisco agricultural commissioner because of his close association with the retailers. But all the other agricultural commissioners all around were very helpful. We had to rely on them because they would certify farmers. Nobody could come in without a certificate from their agricultural commissioner with a description of the farm and a listing of whatever he raised. We had to do that to protect the whole thing. I would have never stood for peddlers. The idea of the market was to help the farmer and not put a lot of peddlers in the business.

SEASONAL CHEF: Was peddling a problem?

BRUCATO: The critics of the market were always accusing us of not being farmers. But we had strict supervision. We put that responsibility up to the agricultural commissioner. He was not a friend of ours. Most of his work in those days was in the wholesale produce district. But he did a good job. Any farmer that was buying stuff and selling it as their own was thrown out. It was pretty well patrolled. And the farmers did a good job, too, because this was their market. The market was their salvation. They didn’t want peddlers taking over. How could they compete with someone who could buy whatever they needed at the wholesale district?

SEASONAL CHEF: In your opinion, what are the prospects for small-scale farmers these days?

BRUCATO: Today, I would say that the farmers markets all over the country are the salvation of the small, family-sized farmer. They have all been going into the cities to find jobs, not being able to make a living on the farm. But most of the small farmers left will stay on because they know they can make a living. They have an outlet which they never had before.

This interview first appeared in the September-October 1996 issue of Farmers Market Outlook.

Copyright 1997 Seasonal Chef