Harvindar Singh, Whole Foods Market’s Local Forager for the Northern California area, hands me a fresh cup of locally roasted coffee just as I greet him at the center of the Friday morning Oakland, CA farmers market. It’s a good, bold roast and takes the chill out of the air. Before I’ve even taken a sip, we are on the move.
“Come over here, I want you to check this out.” Harv motions me towards something I’ve never seen at a market before. A man in rubber overalls reaches into what looks like a derelict hot tub on the back of a rusty pickup and pulls out a still flopping rock cod. He throws it in a plastic bag for an elderly Chinese woman and trades it for a wad of cash. “This is what I love about this market, there’re some really interesting things here. Like all the Asian produce over there,” he motions to a row of Hmong and Chinese farmers. Their tables have familiar crops like carrots and snap peas but are overflowing with peppery greens and fist-sized, wrinkly melons. We weave in and out of different stalls, examining stone fruit and Purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes. Most of the farmers don’t know what Harv does for a living, but many recognize him as a regular and present him with samples. No one gives him the hard sell, they just offer foods they’re intensely proud of, knowing a taste is all it takes to make the sale.
An Afghan baker drives by just as Harv is explaining the peculiar political history of his native Fiji. He shouts out to Harv, “Hey, you were right about that new market, it’s really picking up, we got a booth now.” “Cool, tell your father I said hello.” “Will do,” says the driver. “Let’s walk over to his booth later, he’s got awesome spinach bolani and sweet pepper jams.” As it turns out, he helped bring this vegan bolani from East & West Gourmet Afghan Food to the shelves of Whole Foods Market. Since then it has gone national. This is the essence of what being a Local Forager is all about. Harv helps small, local producers advance their business and he introduces food lovers to great flavors. In addition to having a gourmand’s taste buds, he is a savvy businessman and keen marketer, offering as much to the businesses he works with as he does to Whole Foods Market. Harv began his career in local food in 2001 when he moved his family to the Victorian seaport town of Port Townsend, in Washington’s North Olympic Peninsula. He managed the Port Townsend Farmers Market, growing it into a bustling market with over 50 vendors and annual sales exceeding $700k. His work helped to inspire confidence in the local food system and lead to the adopting of organic practices by many established farmers. He came to Whole Foods Market in 2005 as a marketing and community relations manager and assumed the roll of Local Forager in 2007. Harv also oversees our Local Producer Loan Program in Northern California. Small businesses can get low interest loans to help them grow. Recent loan recipients include Gelateria Naia, a California-based gelato maker who introduced a new line of gelato bars, and St. Benoit Yogurt, who used a loan to expand their production.
Harv says, “The cool thing about this program is it allows these really good businesses access to funds they might not be able to get from a bank.” Although the businesses don’t have to sell to Whole Foods Market, almost all do and Harv is exceptionally hands on with them. He has advised on packaging and displays, introduced vendors to local suppliers for ingredients and, most importantly, is a cheerleader for local producers. Before I leave the market I have three packages of bolani, two packs of thai basil beef jerky and a tiny bag (the kind you get goldfish in) of multicolored, lethally hot peppers. I’ve never had any of it before, and it’s all amazing. I’ll definitely be back for more. Harv has done his job again. Do you have a favorite farmer’s market or farmer’s market experience? We’d love to hear about it. Photo credits: Jennifer Lo