Sebastopol Farmers’ Market manager Paula Downing set to retire.

In 1991 or so, Paula Downing was newly transplanted to Sonoma County from rural Oregon, working as a paralegal and having to stay indoors all day long, five long days a week. So, she built herself a greenhouse and started growing plants.

The Sebastopol Farmers’ Market at that time was tiny, Downing remembers, maybe six vendors. She was one of them, selling her plants. If she made $50, she considered it a good day. But she was outside, she was meeting people, she was growing something. Things were fine.

There wasn’t much market management, but what little there was just kind of “evaporated,” Downing says. The vendors got together to keep it going and she somehow just kind of ended up managing it. The market was only open a few months of the year and the budget was tiny. It was easy.

Carrots Flipped

Michael B. Woolsey Photography

Some 24 years later, the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market is a year-round nicely budgeted Sunday affair with a robust slate of farm stalls as well as chefs, craftspeople, artisans, and the usual West County flux of varied religious affiliates all collaborating to create a cheerful weekend morning visit.

After 23 years of managing the market, Downing is poised to retire from it this fall. She’ll work as a paralegal again, but she’ll probably still have plenty to do with food and farming. There’s AB 1871 regulating cottage industry food production and greatly impacting farmers’ markets to implement once the Ag Commission hands down its edict. Downing says she’s been “thinking about it for a year and I feel that I should keep doing that.” There’s the Market Match grant for CalFresh recipients that needs tending to, though Downing laughs that it would be easier to just take a gig waiting tables than to continue to wade through the government paperwork surrounding the funding. “You’ve got to give them your life’s blood,” she sighs comically. There are the people—and there is the apple press, the ostensible topic of this article.

Run by Slow Food Russian River, there are two apple presses onsite at Sebastopol’s Luther Burbank Gold Ridge Experiment Farm free for the public to use through October. It’s gorgeous in its simplicity. Reserve a weekend spot through their website, bring your apples in buckets, figuring 20 pounds of apples per bucket equals one gallon of juice, and press them with others. The press is open from 9am until the yellow jackets get too crazy mid-afternoon. There is no cost; there’s plenty of gold.

Downing says that the press attracts folks from all walks, from senior citizens who remember juicing apples as a necessity to the Silicon Valley gentleman farmers who are snapping up Sonoma County second homes and enjoying the occasional dip into bucolic rural labor. But it’s the kids that she enjoys most. “They work,” she says. “They love pressing, and they will take over as soon as they get the system. It makes them feel like they’re doing something real, and they definitely don’t have their iPads with them.”

So yes, Downing is leaving her managerial position, but she probably won’t be an absent figure.

“If you believe the whole Wendell Berry thing that community is the salvation of us all and the corporate world is a spirit-killer and it’s really hard on real people, if you believe that community is important, and that’s the point of all we’re doing here, it’s really inspiring,” she says.

“The market is community. The press is community. You can kind of feel it. You can’t underestimate or undervalue how important that is.”

Schedule your time with the apple press at

—Gretchen Giles


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