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Organic Odyssey 

It's all about good PR. Manish Shah wanted to get the word out about his newest farmer's market; it runs from 1-5 p.m. on Fridays at El Con Mall. Well, when his press releases went ignored, he turned to pears. Yes, pears. We were so stunned to receive a press release with a small box full of ugly pears, we decided to talk to Shah to find out what's going on. In addition to running the new El Con Mall market, which started the Friday after Thanksgiving, Shah, 33, also runs the markets at St. Philip's Plaza and in Oro Valley. He got into the farmer's market biz as a tea vendor; he still runs his Maya Tea Company. We sat down to talk to him at the El Con market last Friday.

I have to ask: Why pears?

I have a pear vendor from Willcox who sells these hideous, amazing organic pears. They're ugly--you've seen them--but they're great.

Interesting. I had no idea pears were in season in December.

It's the last of his pears; he's at the end of his season. I also sent the pears, because I liked the play on words--the pairing of the Tucson Farmer's Market and El Con. Plus, with the fruit being organic, that's part of the farmer's market angle.

I hear that a couple of your vendors today are snowed in.

Well, one's snowed in, and the other one was rained out. They go out to pick just before they come in, and the ground was too mushy. This is unusual; usually, weather's a problem for outdoor farmer's markets. That's one of the reasons we did this (started the indoor market).

Late November and December seems like a strange time to start a farmer's market. Why now?

That's when the mall wanted to. It's a good time, as it gives us a chance to begin when some of the crowds are already here during the Christmas season. Plus, there's still plenty of stuff (produce) to be had--squashes, potatoes, greens and citrus are all coming in. To be truthful, there's not a bad time to start a farmer's market. You wouldn't start one during the summertime, because the town's so slow, but in terms of produce, there isn't a bad time here.

How big is the El Con Farmer's Market supposed to be, in terms of vendors?

At the other two, we average between 24-30 vendors. We started out here with 14, and hopefully, we'll grow. A lot of folks can't come out on Friday afternoon because they have jobs during the week, but most of the full-time vendors are here.

What's the life of a traveling vendor like?

I don't go anywhere besides Tucson--I have, but anymore, I don't travel much to sell tea outside of Tucson. The life is pretty fun; you get to see all sorts of different places.

What's the weirdest thing that's ever happened at a market?

As a coordinator, I had to throw someone out for practicing voodoo on other vendors she didn't like.

Wow.

She started spreading powder around vendors she didn't like to protect herself. Ironically, the vendors are usually the nicest people you'll ever meet. They always help each other out. She must have been unusually sensitive. I guess that's a very PC way of putting it.

Why did you choose El Con for this market?

This is the center of town, and there's a certain sense of revival here that I want to be a part of. I think that a thriving El Con is an asset to the community and surrounding areas. On the flip side, El Con has everything I'd want: parking, bathrooms, shade and space, of course. Add to that the fact that's indoor for the summertime, and this could be a really fun event, if it gets larger, to do on a Friday afternoon.

Have you gotten along with all of the mall tenants, or have you had to go kick someone's butt, like at Foot Locker?

No, we haven't been obtrusive, so until we start throwing things into the shops, it's good. We're working to make the whole center better.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen sold at a farmer's market? What was the voodoo lady selling?

She was selling plants. This is not at any of our farmer's markets, but at ones I've participated in, I've seen people who wanted to sell socially correct mutual funds and real estate. Since it was socially responsible, they felt it fit the organic profile. A lot of people want to do medical things, like spinal adjustments, but I no longer allow them.

How could real estate fit the "organic profile"?

You have to understand that many people into organic food have a certain psychographic profile. They're interested in creating more person-based developments, things of that nature. That's the only thing I can think of. I really have no idea.

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