Berkeley Bites: Aaron Betesh, Blue Heron Farms

by Sarah Henry on October 1, 2010 · 37 comments

in berkeley bites,farmers' markets,food businesses,vegetables

For 10 years, Blue Heron Farms vendor Aaron Betesh has been selling organic vegetables to customers at all three Berkeley Farmers’ Markets.

Betesh is part of the Blue Heron crew which, for much of the year, hawks salad greens and Asian greens, herbs, and flowers, along with carrots, kale, and broccoli.

The produce comes from a small, family farm in Corralitos, near Watsonville. It’s owned and run by Lori Perry and Dennis Tamura.

Farmers’ market customers don’t always realize that not all sellers at the markets are farmers. In fact, Betesh hasn’t been to the farm for a couple of years. He’s too busy working, he says.

Still, the 29-year-old — who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, decamped to Santa Cruz, and then headed to the East Bay — enjoys his job because it’s a way for him to stay connected to the land, especially as an urban dweller.

He lives on the Oakland-Berkeley border.

We talked at the Thursday market while he helped set up the Blue Heron booth.

What do you like about Berkeley customers?

They’re into community; they want to get to know the farms and the vendors. They’re really knowledgeable and care about food and where it comes from. But, even though they’re serious about food, you can have a joke with people here — and I do. It’s a fun crowd.

We have die-hard, loyal customers who have been coming to us every week for years. Some of them show their appreciation by bringing us food. We get homemade jam, cheese, and baked goods. It’s pretty great. Some people tell us that they believe our greens have literally kept them alive. That’s gratifying.

Is there anything challenging about serving people here?

Some customers come to the market with the attitude that they want to get in and out as quickly as possible. They’ll actually try and shove food in your face. We just explain that there is a system to the madness back here. We have a check-out line, people wait and take turns. It’s definitely a minority who do this; we try to deal with it in a polite way.

What’s good about working for Blue Heron?

Their philosophy about giving back to the land. They give the farm a break a few months every year and plant cover crops so the soil can replenish itself, instead of trying to suck as much life out of the ground as possible.

The owners, Lori and Dennis, don’t have kids; their employees are their family. They’re generous; full-time staff get benefits and all of us get bonuses if we have a good market day. The owners work really hard. All the guys and girls who work the farm work hard, and there’s not a lot of money in it. It’s definitely a labor of love.

Can you tell us about your favorite Blue Heron produce?

Sprouting broccoli and the Chinese green Gai Lan are two. I love good food but I’m lazy, I don’t want cooking to be a big production. I just saute these greens up in some olive oil with garlic and seasoning — and not for too long. I like my greens crunchy.

We’re well-known for our little gem lettuces, which are ready to eat as is, in salads.

I’ve really gotten into kale chips after customers who bought bunches and bunches of kale from us shared some of their homemade chips with me. And my roommate bought a dehydrator. With three bunches of curly kale for $3 and a couple of hours in the dehydrator I can keep myself in kale chips for a while.

Do you have favorite foods from the market?

Olive bread and chocolate chip cookies from Phoenix Pastificio and the pretzel-topped croissants from Octoberfeast;  heirloom tomatoes from Happy Boy Farms; apple cider from Bernie, the guy who’s usually next to us. [That's Bob Bernstein of Pomo Tierra Ranch].  Oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Company.

Our employers give us a certain amount of produce that we can use to barter with other vendors. It’s a great perk of my job.

Where do you eat in Berkeley?

Cheeseboard Pizza. Pizza is high on my list of foods, they’re right near the Thursday market, and they do it right — thin crust, tasty toppings, and good cheese. I don’t even bother to look on the board to see what’s on the menu. I know I’m going to like it. I like the little fish tacos from Tacubaya. They’ve got great flavor. Mostly, I eat at home. I have chickens, so I cook up eggs, add a bunch of Blue Heron cilantro, and chorizo from the folks at Fatted Calf — they’re farmers’ market vendors too. I eat that for breakfast almost every day.

Do you have a local food hero?

Novella Carpenter for her radicalness. She has this cool philosophy about farming in an urban environment that is so natural and instinctive. She just went with it and it worked out.

What keeps this gig interesting?

You never know what you’re going to get here.  The belligerent drunks barreling down the middle of the market, oblivious to everyone around them, the young families with kids in tow, and the people who look like they just got back from Burning Man on fuzzy bikes cruising the stands.

In the decade I’ve worked in Berkeley I’ve seen it all.

[This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.]

You might also like:

Berkeley Farmers’ Market Man, Ben Feldman

Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

Eat Your Greens

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 1, 2010 at 10:26 am

Oooh, kale chips in a dehydrator. I’ve tried them in the oven and always burn too much of it. However, I’ve got a friend with a dehydrator I can borrow. Thanks so much!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..My Favorite Marsupial

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Sarah Henry October 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I agree, oven crisped kale chips can be hit or miss (and require vigilant watching), though when you get it right they’re great.

Kale chips are a great anytime snack.

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Melanie Haiken October 2, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Kale chips? Who knew? What’s involved in buying a dehydrator; anyone want to chime in on that one?

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Sarah Henry October 3, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Happy to, Melanie, in fact, I already have, right here:

http://lettuceeatkale.com/2009/kale-chips-giving-thanks-for-greens-in-a-snack-pack/

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Dianne Jacob October 3, 2010 at 6:22 am

What an accurate and fun picture of the Berkeley farmers’ market. He nailed it, thanks to your questions. Made me feel great affection for him. I didn’t know that customers give the “salespeople” gifts. Will have to ponder that for my favorite vendor, Full Belly.

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Sarah Henry October 3, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Neither did I Dianne, until I talked with Betesh. I think it’s cool that local folks want to share their kitchen bounty with their favorite vendors. Good karma all around.

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M'Lisa Kelley October 3, 2010 at 7:01 am

Wow….great write up. Like Diane said, this really left me with a warm feeling. Aaron did nail so much of what makes Berkeley great….precisely why we chose to move here when our daughter became school age. Berkeley schools are a wonderful rainbow of colors and ethnicities and bring with them the culture enrichment to go with it. Last year, our daughter, who is greatly involved with me at the market each Saturday and LOVES to interact with all the vendors, drew pictures for all of our favorite market folk and gave them out for Christmas. I cannot tell you the joy on our friends’ faces when they received such a thoughtful gift from my little girl. I am so grateful that she is getting all of this, along with the best food on the planet.

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Sarah Henry October 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm

What a sweet holiday gift from your daughter — and a great way to give thanks for the abundance of this area and the people who grow produce and bring it to us.

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MarthaAndMe October 3, 2010 at 11:26 am

The gem lettuce sounds so wonderful.

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Sarah Henry October 3, 2010 at 3:56 pm

The little gems are a favorite of mine too, M&Me. I like to fill each individual leaf with some salad fixings that can be easily picked up and munched on — they’re like their own little boats. Favs include dry-farmed tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, or grilled nectarines, blue cheese, and candied pecans. Also with orange and avocado slices, strips of fennel, and walnuts. Or just with a few slices of Spring Hill Garlic Jersey Cheddar. How do other folks like to use these tender salad greens?

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MyKidsEatSquid October 4, 2010 at 9:47 am

I found mini bok choy (I’m sure that’s not the technical name) at an Asian market nearby but the little gems sound delicious. I bet just walking through the market gives you all sorts of cooking ideas. The kale chips sound tasty. I had fried spinach a couple weeks ago and it was so good. I’d never thought of frying spinach–granted dehydrating them would be a lot better for you. His comments just have an energy to them–this market sounds so cool.

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 9:52 am

I think “baby” bok choy is the non-technical term, MKES;) Fried spinach sounds like a treat — was it crispily good?

I’ve never thought of dehydrating spinach. Has anyone tried that?

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Merr October 4, 2010 at 10:38 am

This interview inspired me to get to our local market – sometimes the timing is off with my schedule but this week…I’m finding a way! Thanks for the inspiration.
Merr´s last [type] ..The 5-Question Author Interview- Susan Henderson

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Welcome, Merr.

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Roxanne October 4, 2010 at 10:44 am

I’m growing kale this year, but I ditched the dehydrator years ago as a silly kitchen gadget. Personally, I like kale in spicy soups.

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 1:34 pm

Me too, Roxanne (on the kale front). I also like it sauteed with garlic & chili pepper flakes & doused with lemon juice right before serving.

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Alexandra October 4, 2010 at 11:39 am

Every time I read your blog I wish we had similar stuff going on in this part of the country, Cape Cod. Wow, how fortunate you are. Love that kale photo. I’ve got some in my garden. I wonder if the kale there is as tasty as the kale grown here? After the first frost, kale actually tastes better.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..How Mushrooms Could Help the Local Economy

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I didn’t know that, Sandy, about kale tasting better after the first frost. I wonder why that is? Is it like the plant exudes flavor in response to the “stress”?

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Ruth Pennebaker October 4, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I think kale chips sound like the way to go (I speak as a reluctant vegetable-eater who’s crazy about anything chip-like). Any brands you recommend or do you have to make your own?
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..I Swear This is All True

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Yes, I’ve written about one local brand (see link above) that my family devours by Alive & Radiant Food: http://www.blessingsaliveandradiantfoods.com/

Another I’ve heard good things about but not yet tried are made by Kaia Food:
http://www.kaiafoods.com/store/home.php?cat=8

Happy, healthy snacking, Ruth.

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Stephanie - Wasabimon October 4, 2010 at 12:30 pm

I love Blue Heron – I shop at their stall every week. <3!
Stephanie – Wasabimon´s last [type] ..Crispy Fried Chicken Recipe Tips

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 1:43 pm

What’s your favorite produce to pick up from these folk, Steph?

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Alisa Bowman October 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm

At the risk of sounding completely shallow, I would buy anything from a man who looked like that. I think if he was the national spokesperson for organic fruits and veggies, it would change a lot of diets for a lot of people.

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Alisa, I can always count on you for a comment outside the box! I’m sure Aaron will be flattered to read your response to this piece. What you’d find if you met him is that he’s such a genuine guy who really believes in what he’s doing — and that shines through at the market, for sure.

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Lisa October 4, 2010 at 4:29 pm

Yum! Now I’m craving sauteed greens. I’ll have to try kale chips in the dehydrator; I dunno why I never thought of that.
Lisa´s last [type] ..Bay Area Discovery Museum Free First Wednesday

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Sarah Henry October 4, 2010 at 7:44 pm

Let me know how it goes, Lisa. And what else do you put in the dehydrator, pray tell?

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. October 5, 2010 at 4:12 am

When the ingredients are so good and fresh, cooking doesn’t HAVE to be a big production – Aaron’s got it right. That’s my favorite way to eat greens too.

And yes, kale chips – love ‘em! The groundhog got the rest of my garden’s kale (he doesn’t wait till the first frost) but I can still head out to the market to get my fix.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Food Faceoff- Mashed Potatoes

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Sarah Henry October 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

Couldn’t agree more, Casey, about simple cooking for great, fresh greens. Sorry to hear about the groundhog. At least he has good tastes;)

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Sheryl October 5, 2010 at 8:38 am

Love those little gem lettuces. They’re so hard to find around where I live, though.

And I make fabulous crunchy kale – resembling kale chips, I guess – from an old Jacques Pepin recipe that couldn’t be easier (and more delicious): http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/617694

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Sarah Henry October 5, 2010 at 9:22 am

Hey Sheryl,

Will have to check out how an icon like Jacques Pepin crisps his kale. Thanks for the link.

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Susan October 5, 2010 at 11:46 am

Kale chips?! Yum! Another fascinating interview, Sarah. Thanks for giving us a glimpse behind the scenes at Berkeley’s food scene.

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Sarah Henry October 7, 2010 at 7:31 am

Pleasure, Susan.

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Jennifer Margulis October 6, 2010 at 9:15 pm

I’m one of those farmers’ market folks who didn’t realize that not all sellers are farmers, though I do have friends who exchange volunteer time at the markets for fresh produce. I love love shopping at farmers’ markets, and it’s always fun to talk to vendors and get to know them a little bit. Will try to do that on Saturday when I go to our local market.

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Sarah Henry October 7, 2010 at 7:33 am

You’re not alone, Jennifer. Betesh illustrates in this interview that vendors & farmers share a commitment to quality produce and a sense of stewardship of the land.

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