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(photo by Hannah Berkman)

DOWNTOWN — Every Wednesday Arizona Avenue comes alive with the many stands of the Downtown Farmers’ Market. This week, the seller at one of these stands was celebrating more than just the local produce.

Harry Nicholas, a World War II Navy veteran who has been farming in Orange Cove since 1946, celebrated his 90th birthday with co-workers, friends and customers at his stand in front of Locanda del Lago on Wednesday. Nicholas has been selling his produce at the Farmers’ Market since its inception in 1981.

“I’ve worked for myself all these years, worked on a farm,” Nicholas said. “I feel good, I’m healthy and I can do what I want to do, and I enjoy what I do.”

Although his actual birthday is on July 14, his co-workers and friends wanted to celebrate this momentous occasion with him at the place where he feels most at home — the market where he has been selling for over 30 years. Nicholas was presented with a cake emblazoned with his photograph at his stand by several co-workers and friends, including Laura Avery, the supervisor and on-site manager for the Downtown Farmers’ Market.

“We have a couple of farmers who are turning 90 this year, and Harry is one of them,” Avery said. “But he’s the only one who still continuously comes to the market who is 90 years old so it’s a real landmark.”

In addition to selling his fruits and vegetables to those who visit the Farmers’ Market, Nicholas also provides his produce to the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District for their fresh salad bar program. This program was started in 1997 when a parent asked for more fresh fruits and vegetables to be provided to children in the cafeteria, and has since expanded to include all the schools in the district.

Orlando Griego, SMMUSD director of Food and Nutrition Services, attended the birthday celebration.

“It’s a fantastic program that kids have access to fresh seasonal fruit all week, all year,” Griego said. “When you think about Mr. Nicholas and his grapes, it’s one of the most popular items out there. Kids love grapes, I love grapes, I’m like a kid when I see them, I can hardly wait to get them.”

Nicholas greatly enjoys participating in the salad bar program and providing his fresh fruit to the many kids at the 15 participating schools. He provides his fruit at a flat rate price even though the prices fluctuate as the season progresses, because he wants the children at these schools to eat fresh, healthy produce.

“They’ve been buying grapes from me for the last 14 years,” Nicholas said. “I enjoy that, and I’ve worked with them for many years so it’s a comfortable environment.”

Nicholas is an example of true dedication. He still drives 220 miles from his home in Orange Cove, Fresno County several times a week. He still grows many fruits including pomegranates, persimmons, grapes, plums, apricots, kiwis and oranges. His favorites are kiwis and persimmons.

“Well I’ve done it all these years and I’ve improved how to farm and what to raise and I only raise stuff that I like and that tastes good,” Nicholas said. “I think people like it, too!”

And people do like it. His stand is constantly surrounded by customers, and Griego believes that kids in the school district positively respond to the salad bars. The celebration of his birthday was also in effect celebrating all the work he has done for Santa Monica and SMMUSD.

This surprise for Nicholas also let people at the market know that some of these hardworking farmers have been at the market for three decades and they are still going strong, Avery said.

“We appreciate everything he’s done,” Avery said. “Not only that, he is a Navy veteran, so all the service he’s done for the nation, and then what he does for the market every week, he’s a treasure. He’s a gem and a jewel and we love him.”

news@smdp.com