Paula Downing, a force for Sonoma County farmers markets, dies at 82

Paula Downing gave local markets a vibrant quality that drew larger audiences.|

Sonoma County lost a treasure last week, and I lost a dear friend. Paula Downing was 82 and died in her Sebastopol home, overlooking the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

Right about that time, mid-afternoon, I called about the early dinner we had planned. I called three times and then tried to ignore what my body was telling me. I went to bed and thought about my friend. I wouldn’t learn of her death until the next evening.

Paula transformed Sonoma County farmers markets, and I saw her handiwork before I knew her name. Year-round markets were good, as were the markets that opened in late spring and closed near Thanksgiving. But most lacked a certain vibrant quality that would have made them essential to a broader audience.

The first market Paula managed was the Santa Rosa Original Certified Farmers Market, held at that time in the east parking lot of the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. At first, changes were slow and subtle. But within a season or two, the market began to blossom in dynamic ways. There were new farmers, more variety, better quality and more ways to engage with the market and its vendors. (This market is now located at 50 Mark West Springs Road, adjacent to the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts and managed by Pegi Ball.)

Not long after Paula began managing the Sebastopol Farmers Market, she expanded it to be held year-round, something locals, including me, had longed for.

Paula would go the distance for just about any farmer. She visited each member farm, and if a farmer needed help, she gave it herself or found someone who would. She was a genius at connecting people. She also loved and understood farmers more than anyone I have ever met.

One of our many mutual friends is Jill Adams, who had a small farm in Santa Rosa before moving to Maine for a few years. She is back now, living and gardening in Sebastopol.

“Sonoma County lost a fierce and vibrant woman on Monday ... an unapologetic defender of and advocate for small farmers in our beautiful agricultural community. Every generation of market gardeners henceforth will be better off for the profound impact she had on building a vibrant market community,” Jill wrote online.

“She gave Crescent Moon Farm the window of opportunity we needed as a fledgling farm in 2006 to show what we could do to bring the best produce we could to our soon-to-be-loyal customers,” Jill added.

Paula’s markets hosted special events throughout the year. There was always a tomato tasting, with guest chefs offering tomato delights. She held customer-appreciation days, raffled off Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets of everything needed for a holiday feast and kept farmers in line, too.

One of the most important things Paula did during her tenure at the center of our agriculture community was to insist farmers be paid. Up until then, farmers — like chefs, cheesemakers and winemakers — were asked endlessly to donate time and produce for charity events. Paula stopped that in an instant. When she had a chef make a presentation at one of her markets, she gave them a stipend, either in cash or market bucks. She wrote thank you cards and often included a gift for anyone who made a special effort on behalf of a market.

Paula wasn’t one to tolerate rule breakers or vendors who tried to skirt health department requirements. The late Nancy Skall of Middleton Farm summed it up perfectly when she said, “Paula’s tough, but fair.”

There is so much to tell about Paula, about how she lived with the Cockettes art/theater group in San Francisco in those early heady hippy days, about her time in Oregon living off the land, about her many projects, including helping Russian River Slow Food save our Gravenstein apple and writing grants to support farmers markets.

Paula’s presence was felt at last weekend’s Gravenstein Apple Fair. Some stalls displayed her photo. She was mentioned many times on Saturday during a panel discussion about Sonoma County agriculture. By Sunday, word of her death had spread and friends hugged each other, many of us hoping that somehow, she felt our embrace.

Farm Market Salad

Makes 10 - 12 servings

This salad is quite flexible. You can make it smaller if need be, and you can make it bigger. I suggest, when feeding a large group, that you make it as several side salads rather than one enormous one. The ingredients are flexible, too. Read through the recipe for the spirit of the dish, then make it yours.

10 medium or large slicing tomatoes, a mix of colors, trimmed and cut into ¼-inch rounds

3 small fresh sweet peppers, a mix of colors, stemmed, seeded and cut into very thin rounds

3 lemon cucumbers, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds

2 red torpedo onions, trimmed and cut into very thin rounds

5 small tomatoes, about 1 ½ inches in diameter, a mix of colors, cut into wedges

2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered

6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Flake salt

Black pepper in a mill

⅓ - ½ cup best-quality extra-virgin olive oil

6 ounces dry Jack or similar cheese, grated or shaved

Several sprigs of currant tomatoes, red and yellow

Handful of fresh basil leaves, plus several basil flowers

Arrange the sliced tomatoes on a very large nonreactive platter, alternating colors; start on the outside of the platter, creating concentric circles. Tuck the peppers and cucumbers here and there between the tomatoes. Add a ring of onion slices on top of the second outer ring of tomatoes.

Scatter the small wedges of tomatoes on top of the salad randomly, followed by the cherry tomatoes. Scatter the garlic over everything.

Season generously with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Scatter the cheese on top and add sprigs of currant tomatoes here and there, followed by basil and basil flowers.

Cover lightly and let rest 1 hour before serving.


  • Omit the grated cheese. Instead, cut 8 ounces of mozzarella fresca into thin sounds and tuck them here and there between the tomatoes before adding other ingredients.
  • Top the salad with tinned sardines that you have drained, after adding the cherry tomatoes but before adding the salt. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon after adding the olive oil.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “The Good Cook’s Book of Tomatoes,” from which today’s recipe is adapted. Email her at

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