Avid Valley gardeners no longer have to lug their melons to work or sneak anonymous tomato baskets on to a neighbor's front porch. They can join a growing food trend by swapping produce at a new kind of market that has sprung up in Clovis.
Outside Rosetti's Biscotti House on Saturday, tables displayed baskets of figs, eggplant, jalapeno peppers, herbs and Roma tomatoes. Folks inspected the produce and started bartering. A bowl of salted almonds for some Fay Elberta peaches? Or maybe some Roma tomatoes for Italian peppers?
"I have so many tomatoes," says Jennifer Reis, who uses them in dishes such as a corn, crab and tomato salad. It would be really nice to trade my extra tomatoes for something else that I would enjoy eating.
The Biscotti House Garden Produce Swap is held Saturday mornings outside the business at Clovis and Sierra avenues. It looks just like a farmers market, but no money is involved here. Instead, folks meet to exchange their fruits, vegetables, plants and recipes. Any produce left over goes to the Clovis Senior Center.
It's not a new idea. Neighbors have informally traded fruits and vegetables from their gardens forever, of course. More formal produce swaps have started in California cities such as Petaluma, Albany, Highland Park, Mill Valley, Novato, San Anselmo, San Rafael and Fairfax.
The movement is driven by a combination of trends: an interest in eating locally grown produce, the desire not to waste food and enthusiasm for sharing food during tough economic times.
Albany's events draw about 25 people "who are gardening and interested in eating local," says Robin Mariona, organizer of the City of Albanys garden swap. "I don't think there's anyone that's sort of desperately needing food."
In Petaluma, there are a mix of motives behind the 4th & C Garden Produce Swap. Ann Heatly started it after struggling to cook and eat about 500 cucumbers from her own garden.
"When you're new to gardening, you think more is better," Heatly says, laughing. "They don't say on the package how much you can expect out of each plant."
Heatly now has about 100 names on her e-mail list, a Facebook page and a website, 4thandcswap.blogspot.com. The meetings mostly draw avid gardeners who trade plants, produce and gardening tips.
"But some folks are trying to feed families and they're trying to save money," Heatly says. "When we have leftover stuff, we'll offer it to people."
The 4th & C Garden Produce Swap also sends leftovers to Petaluma Bounty, a nonprofit that distributes food to pantries and senior centers. The Petaluma events are the inspiration for The Biscotti House swap, apparently the first city-sanctioned marketplace of its kind in the central San Joaquin Valley.
Originally, Biscotti House co-owner Diane Rosetti wanted to install a farmers market in front of her store, but found it was easier to start a garden swap. She also saw an opportunity to address the Valley's agricultural bounty and problems with poverty.
"We've all seen trees dropping more fruit than one family can possibly eat, and we are also aware that there are other folks who can't afford to buy fresh produce," Rosetti wrote in a letter to the city of Clovis. "This concept of people sharing food can't get more basic than that."
The city of Clovis supported the idea, printing signs and fliers for the swap, Rosetti says. It launched Saturday with a small group of tables alongside Clovis Avenue.
Anyone can bring any amount of produce, flowers and plants to trade, Rosetti says. As the swap evolves, participants will get a better feel for the best amount of food to bring.
The Biscotti House will provide supplies such as tables, napkins, and baskets. But participants can feel free to bring their own materials for displays and samples.
"What we don't want them to do, necessarily, is bring it in a bag," Rosetti says. "We want them to put it in a pretty basket, so they can show off what they have."
Gardeners will determine the value of their fruits and vegetables and conduct their own trades, she adds. They can swap and leave, or sit on benches and chat.
Rosetti hopes The Biscotti House's swap will have regulars and new faces every week. She envisions extending more tables along the nearby Fresno-Clovis Rail-Trail as it grows.
Above all, she wants local gardeners to have as much fun as they do in Petaluma. "It looks like they're all having a good time, she says. And I just thought the social part of it would be a good thing."