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Neighborhood farmers market celebrates eight years of service

On a recent Sunday, baskets of firm, hand-picked organic apples and tubs of freshly squeezed cider vied for attention with racks of plump pluots, trays of sweet grapes and exotic fruits such as pomegranates and organic strawberry guavas. Vegetable sales were brisk, as mounds of late-season yellow squash, purple heirloom tomatoes and thick bunches of basil and sage disappeared into shoppers’ bags.

Growers smiled as customers pinched and poked, tasted and finally purchased produce. The La Jolla Open Aire Market, a cross between a neighborhood block party and a street fair, bustles. And after eight years of continuous service to the community, the market has much more to offer than vegetables.

In honor of the eighth anniversary, the market will celebrate with a variety of family activities Sunday, Oct. 29, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the La Jolla Elementary School upper playground. All proceeds from the event will go to Friends of La Jolla Elementary, a nonprofit fund-raiser for the school.

In addition to fresh produce, the market will feature seasonal events for children and adults. Children’s activities will include a costume parade, a cupcake walk, children’s choir performances, pumpkin decorating, face painting, clowns and balloons. Adults will enjoy such activities as an international food court, chair and table massages, live music, and fitness demonstrations by La Jolla trainers.

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The La Jolla Open Aire Market is the brainchild of Sherry Ahern, entrepreneur and parent of La Jolla Elementary graduates. When Ahern conceived of the market 10 years ago, she wanted to raise money to improve the school library and hire a librarian so that her children would benefit from updated resources.

“The library was in the cafeteria,” A-hern said. “And I saw books in there that said, ‘Someday we will walk on the moon.’ I mean, there was some really old stuff.”

Ahern put her business background to use and began to think of money-earning projects. The farmers market idea seemed like a natural for La Jolla, but Ahern had no idea at the time how much work it would take to bring the idea to fruition.

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“When I got the idea, little did I know what it would involve,” Ahern said. “First, I had to work with the San Diego Unified School District. A school had never run a farmers market at a school, so we really had to reinvent the wheel.”

Then Ahern put her efforts into helping her idea gain acceptance among community groups in La Jolla.

“Our biggest challenges at first were space, parking and marketing,” Ahern said.

After two years of groundwork, A-hern’s wild idea gained enough community support to fly, and the La Jolla Open Aire Market opened its gates in 1998. Since then, the event has grown from its original 14 vendors - some of whom are still involved in the market - to between 100 and 140 vendors, including 70 artisans, a food court and weekly live music concerts.The farmers market has also grown into a lucrative and essential fund-raiser for La Jolla Elementary School in an era of district-wide budget cuts. Revenues from the market, including $45 vendor fees and 8 percent of farmers’ gross sales, have gone to the Friends of La Jolla Elementary School foundation."The money we make at the farmers market goes into a pot with other fund-raisers for our foundation,” Principal Donna Trippi said. “The foundation has given us money for our music teacher, a library aide, a tech support provider - in fact, all our technology - an art expert for our art program. They give us money toward instructional supplies and our math program. It has been a tremendous support to our school."The market has also become an essential part of community life. According to Ahern, people return week after week and appreciate that the produce is fresh and local.The growers, all of whom represent their own farms and one or two other California farms, include San Diego farmers such as the Maciel Family flower growers, Kawano Ranch produce growers from Oceanside and Julie Gamas of Valley Center Growers.Open Aire Market manager Darcy Young believes her vendors are the best in the business."We are really thankful for the vendors we have. We have retired doctors and lawyers, teachers, really fantastic people,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s also an honor to be part of our market. It’s a very good market, we have a good customer base, and it’s well put together. We are a little stricter than some markets, so we get the best of the best."The market organizers are focused on strict adherence to standards and regulations set up by both the San Diego County Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Health."We get surprise inspections from both departments,” Young said. “My personal goal is to meet and exceed expectations as far as cleanliness and food handling is concerned."Gamas and other growers like the Open Aire Market because sales tend to be brisk compared to some other local farmers markets."We look for high sales, consistent customers and a good crowd,” Gamas said. “Having other things there is good for us - the music, crafts, popcorn. It brings more customers for us. Markets that don’t have food and crafts tend to be slower.”