Like many San Luis Obispo County farmers’ markets, the Wednesday morning Arroyo Grande event is a bustling hub. People ranging from certified chefs to home cooks move through the long row of booths stretching over the parking lot, while vendors promote a little bit of everything, including fruits, vegetables, flowers, baked goods and salves.
With his tent tucked in the middle of all the bustle, Ibrahim “Abe” Abuhilal, wearing a massive yellow cheesehead hat, calls out to those passing by, encouraging them to take samples of his sheep cheese.
Abuhilal, who owns the Fresno-based cheesemaking company Chateau Fresno Organics, sells aged sheep cheese. The rich, 2-pound yellow rounds are the product of a lifetime spent around sheep farming that he shares with Central Coast farmers’ markets.
“I came from a farming family,” he said. “I’m Middle Eastern and we used to milk the sheep because the sheep is a more domestic animal. We learned to take the sheep to graze out near the Dead Sea … but unfortunately, we can’t anymore because (the military) controls the area there now.”
After graduating with a degree in viticulture, Abuhilal went to earn his master’s in agriculture in Sardinia, Italy where he was further exposed to the sheep farming lifestyle.
“There are 4 million sheep to 1 million people there,” he said.
Abuhilal then came to the Central Valley, one of the world’s most productive agriculture areas, to raise sheep and sell their cheese. He explained that Chateau Fresno Organic’s cheese, while similar to pecorino, manchego or romano, isn’t the same because the cheese is made from his own recipe.
“This is Californiano, not Italiano,” he joked.
When working farmers’ markets, Abuhil explained that one of the best things for him is to be able to educate people on what they’re eating and to talk to them and answer their questions about the food.
“This is not like a big chain,” he said. “We’re, you know, small farmer artisanal. People come here and they ask me, ‘What do you feed (the sheep)? What do you give them?’”
Glenna Evans, co-owner of San Luis Obispo-based Breaking Bread, which entered the farmers’ market scene about six months ago, added that it’s nice for her to be able to see buyer’s involvement with their food.
“I’m finding that the people who go to the farmers’ markets, they’re serious foodies,” she said. “They want good quality food. They love to be able to come and actually talk to the people that own it and make it.”
Similarly, Rafael Castellanos, who works for Best Apple Co., an apple orchard and bakery based out of Nipomo that has been involved with farmers’ markets for the past 20 years, likes to involve himself in the farm-to-table process because he sees it as a positive influence on the entire community.
“Farmers’ markets are awesome for the community, for people with kids, for jobs. Just — it’s good for everyone,” he said. “You get out of the big corporations that, I feel, don’t really care about you. And you get these farmers who you talk to and they usually live on the farm — it’s more personal.”
Cal Poly students who may want to look into farm-to-table eating but can’t necessarily make it out to farmers’ markets on a regular basis have the opportunity to participate in the farmers’ market community on campus.
The Cal Poly Organic Farm, hosted in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department, is a certified organic farm that opens a booth on campus at the edge of Highland Drive on Wednesdays from 2-6 p.m., according to Cal Poly’s website.
Evans added that for her business, location was a key factor in choosing to join the farmers’ market circuit, because not all of her potential customers have the opportunity to make it to the downtown San Luis Obispo shop.
For her, being able to bring the food to the customer and find out what they’re looking for in food is important.
“It’s great to get that person feedback straight from the customer in between the merchandiser,” she said. “It’s nice to see people that really care about the quality of the product and really want to know what’s in it. And they usually spur you on to good ideas. Like, for instance, today I had several people ask if we made rye, and we do — so they’re all excited now that they know that I can bring rye because I know I have the right customer base for that.”
Further, for the vendors themselves, just being involved in the farmers’ market culture and being able to talk to different people about what they sell is a huge plus.
Castellanos explained that one of the best things about farmers’ markets, for him, is easily “the people, and the connections you get from meeting other people.”
Being able to consistently talk to different people from all over the world who come through the San Luis Obispo area, along with the regulars that visit his booth is a nice juxtaposition, according to Abuhilal, as well as a climate that can change drastically depending on what market he is set up at.
The Thursday night downtown San Luis Obispo and Saturday afternoon Village in Arroyo Grande farmers’ markets usually attract a mass of tourists, but others are more likely to bring locals and repeat customers.
“Every day it’s a new day,” Abuhilal said. “You see different people probably from all over the nation and internationally. That’s what makes us different.”
In the upcoming months, as Abuhilal’s business grows, he plans on setting up a farm area off Highway 1. The secondary site, he said, would include a greenhouse and area to raise sheep, and would allow customers to find his products at a set location so they wouldn’t have to follow the farmers’ market circuit.
Ideally, he said that he would enjoy having college students help with farming.
“I want to use the students to help me with the farm,” Abuhilal said. “To give them a chance to come and understand their study, so they come practice and they can do a job in their specialty.”
That way, he said, students and the community in general would have another opportunity to connect with the food that they eat.
“(People) need to know from where their food is coming,” Abuhilal said. “They need to ask, ‘Who’s your farmer?’ … And then you understand your produce or your cheese or your kiwis or your grapes. Know ‘Who’s the owner?’”