Growing waistlines and shrinking budgets have many Americans rethinking their food sources, looking now to local farmers instead of mega-grocers. That national trend is sprouting roots here, which explains why in our neighborhood… IT’S A FARMERS MARKET OUT THERE.
Three years ago in Dallas, if you wanted to buy local produce direct from the grower, the downtown farmers market was just about the only option. Last summer, however, at least half a dozen independent farmers markets mushroomed all over the city.
In our urban context, however, the increased number of neighborhood markets has come with its share of hiccups. Some markets have bumped up against Dallas regulations, which haven’t changed quickly enough to keep up with the new demands.
The popularity of planting gardens and raising chickens is also increasing, with some neighbors heading straight to their backyards to find local food.
FROM FROZEN TO FRESHLY PICKED: A DIETARY RENAISSANCE
People are becoming conscious of what they eat, and if you become a student of local food, you learn that it’s not riddled with hormones and preservatives like the processed stuff you get at grocery stores,” says Brian Cummings, founder of eatgreendfw.com, an online resource for Dallasites who want to buy from North Texas farmers and ranchers.
“People are changing the way they think about food, and that’s changing the way they shop.”
In other words, if they’re not growing it themselves, consumers often want to buy it from local people who are. Thus the recent popularity of neighborhood markets, often dubbed “farmers markets”. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers markets throughout the country have grown from just 1,755 in 1994 to 5,274 in 2009. Most of that growth has been very recent: From 2008 to 2009, the increase was 13 percent. That’s significant because the last time the USDA charted farmers market growth, it was for the two-year period between 2006 and 2008, when the number grew by only 6.8 percent.
Cummings has tracked this trend locally, helping organize several farmers markets, including the White Rock Local Market, near Buckner and Northcliff.
“In addition to the food, people also like the social aspect of local markets,” Cummings says. “There’s a carnival-like aspect with all these things to take in. You get to know the people behind the food you’re buying. You get to know that great Mennonite family known for its great bread. That kind of connection means something to people.”
Ed Lowe, owner of Celebration Restaurant, instituted a weekly farmers market last summer in his parking lot on Lovers near Inwood. Lowe says his eatery serves food made mostly with local ingredients, so the weekly market was “a natural progression”.
It was a hit, Lowe says, until the city caught wind of what he was doing.
“A customer had complained that we had a dog on a patio, and I was not aware that we needed to have a permit to have a dog on a patio. So [city officials] came out to notify us of the complaint … on a Saturday. They came here on a Saturday, something that’s never happened in my 38 years of being in business.”
And because it was a Saturday, Celebration was holding its farmers market.
“At first, we didn’t think it would be a big deal because we’d contacted the city twice to tell them what we were doing, and they said we didn’t need any special permits because we’re already running a restaurant here.”
But it turned out to be a big deal. Officials told them they would have to start paying permit fees or shut down the entire operation.
“First off, they said we could only have a farmers market quarterly, and we were having them weekly. Then they said that they wanted us to start paying about $150, and we had just been charging the vendors $10. So that was the end of the market for us.”
Cummings says this is precisely the problem facing budding farmers markets throughout Dallas.
“One of the issues around farmers markets is that municipals really don’t know how to deal with them — Dallas, for example, doesn’t have a permitting process specifically for them,” he says.
Right now, the city offers temporary food vendor permits, which are valid for only two weeks and can be used only once every three months. The permits cost $190, plus $5 for every additional booth.
“Sure, that kind of permit is great if you’re working at a food festival or the State Fair because you’re making a killing,” Cummings says. “But it’s different for someone at a small farmers market. On a good day, these vendors make $200, maybe $300. If you’re asking them to pay that much, you do the math: It’s not proportional, and it doesn’t make sense.”
Sarah Perry, who runs the White Rock Local Market, says her vendors are happy if they can make $100 in a day.
And Bruce Bagelman, who owns Green Spot Market & Fuels, which sponsors the White Rock Local Market, says city officials should consider that local markets bolster budding entrepreneurs.
Pastry chef Katherine Clapner is one such success story. She started selling her unusual handmade chocolates at markets such as the White Rock Local, and her business gained enough steam that she opened a retail space, Dude, Sweet Chocolate, in the Bishop Arts District last year.
“It gives family-owned and small farms an outlet,” Perry says. “Most of them don’t grow enough to sell to a wholesaler.”
White Rock Local Market has its first meet of the season March 13, and Perry says it’s operating under the same guidelines as last year. The market applies for a special event permit and makes sure that all the vendors have the appropriate permits, such as certificates of inspection and state licenses.
Perry is planning to hold two local markets a month this year, as opposed to just once a month last year, because the market was so popular.
“The idea is to bring fresh and nutritious and locally grown food to our community and thereby strengthen our community,” she says. “A lot of people walk to our market and push strollers or ride their bikes. It creates a town-square type of feel.”
WILL SMALL FARMERS MARKETS BE ABLE TO SPROUT ROOTS IN DALLAS?
City officials are now reconsidering the way the city treats farmers markets. Assistant city manager Jack Ireland is heading a committee of farmers market stakeholders who are brainstorming possible ordinance changes, specifically to help out small vendors who want to sell regularly in our city.
That committee has its work cut out for it. City spokesman Frank Librio says the city must iron out a host of wrinkles before moving forward — zoning, enforcement of health codes and payment of sales tax, just to name a few.
“Some [of the markets] are not allowed based on the current zoning,” he says.
For example, sometimes zoning prohibits the outdoor sale of food.
“The group that’s charged to work on this is trying to come up with a permit process that allows them to override the zoning temporarily,” Librio says.
And the city wants to make sure that the markets are safe from a health standpoint. But by and large, “the city isn’t trying to control what happens at local markets,” Librio says. “The city fully supports the neighborhood farmers markets.”
Part of the regulatory initiative comes from a fear that the local markets could compete with the Downtown Farmers Market. The city owns and operates the nearly seven-decades-old market, and city officials set aside $6.6 million in 2006 bond dollars for infrastructure and improvements to the market.
It doesn’t appear that city will see a payback on its investment in the near future: The 2010 budget for the market includes $1.7 million in revenue, but $1.8 million in expenses.
Cummings says even though the Dallas-area grocery business is an extremely competitive industry, neighborhood markets don’t negatively impact the main Dallas market.
“Sure, we will have to spread those markets out so there’s not an oversaturation — after all, we have got to protect the granddaddy [downtown farmers market]. But given our cultural shift toward shopping local, I think there’s now room for multiple farmers markets to survive.”
According to a memo from city staff to the Transportation and Environment Committee, drafted guidelines on the table allow for no more than 10 neighborhood market locations per year, and they would have to be at least three miles apart from each other. The markets would be allowed to open up shop weekly for a six-hour period, with a limit of 24 occurrences per year. It would also be required that all of the produce sold be grown within 150 miles of the downtown farmers market.
Of course, all of these are just ideas at this point. After reviewing input from city staff and stakeholders, the city’s Transportation and Environment Committee will create a proposal to submit to city council. The hope is to have a policy in place by late spring.
Ultimately, neighbors having more options for local produce will be a win-win situation for both neighborhood markets and the downtown market, Cummings says, because it creates healthy competition.
“Like they say, rising tides lift all ships: The more farmers markets we have out there competing,” he says, “the better they’ll all get, which will ultimately improve the quality of life for all of us in Dallas.”
Shopping for local produce isn’t the only back-to-basics trend on the rise. Some neighbors may be just as likely to grow their produce as they are to buy it.
When A.L. Nickerson was a kid, almost every backyard had a vegetable garden, and nearly everyone kept chickens for eggs and poultry. His mother canned peaches from their peach tree, and they traded fruit with neighbors who had apple and fig trees.
“We had all kinds of vegetables all summer long,” says the Lake Highlands resident. “Every square inch had something edible. We’d have things coming up from early spring until the first freeze.”
That was life in the 1940s. With our nation in the midst of World War II, these backyard “victory gardens” were encouraged by the government as a way to make sure civilians and troops had enough to eat. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt planted her own victory garden on the White House lawn. Fast forward six decades, and vegetable gardening has returned the White House, courtesy of first lady Michelle Obama.
Nickerson now nurtures garden culture in Dallas as the founder of Lake Highlands Community Gardens and even teaches a class called “The Modern Victory Garden”.
White Rock-area resident Leslie Halleck tends a garden in her backyard, and since she has a chain-link fence, it offers her the chance to get to know her neighbors well. Farmers markets aren’t the only places where people should see their neighbors, Halleck says.
After all, there’s something about fellowship with one’s neighbors and certainty about one’s food that fosters a feeling of community and independence that many find comforting.
“When you start a garden, you’re outside all the time,” Halleck says. “It helps bring neighbors back together. It brings people back in touch with the earth, with their food and with their neighbors. And it feels good.”
KEEPING CRITTERS THAT AREN’T PETS
Raising backyard hens for fresh eggs is also becoming more common. For proof, simply pick up a copy of Backyard Poultry magazine or drop in at the next Dallas Backyard Poultry Meetup Group, which includes more than 120 members and meets monthly at North Haven Gardens.
“I totally take blame for the chicken thing here — that was all my doing,” jokes Halleck, the general manager at North Haven Gardens.
She began a push to sell backyard hens at the garden center last year, but much like the farmers markets, the plan hit a roadblock in terms of city regulations.
“It all came down to a zoning issue,” Halleck says. “When North Haven Gardens first opened, it was out in the country. But as the city expanded, it annexed this area, and we were zoned as residential.
“You can go sell live chickens in front of Walmart because it’s zoned for retail, but we weren’t.”
The city ultimately agreed to change North Haven Gardens’ certificate of occupancy, recognizing hens as garden-related accessories. And the law for homeowners remains the same: We can keep hens, but roosters are outlawed due to cockfighting.
Interest in backyard hens remains high, Halleck says, with 50 to 100 people showing up every time North Haven Gardens offers a workshop on how to care for the birds. Whether you’re growing your own veggies or buying them locally, whether you’re keeping your own hens or getting fresh eggs at a nearby farmers market, it all boils down to a better quality of life, Halleck says.
“It’s really about controlling your own food. There’s really no reason why us urban dwellers can’t do that. Just because we live in the city, that doesn’t mean we don’t have a right to that.”
The only issue she takes with the back-to-basics trend is the fact that anyone is calling it a “trend”.
“I’m always amused when people call this a trend, like it’s some new concept. People have always grown their own food, and there used to be chickens all over Dallas. It was a very common thing. It was only in recent decades as Dallas became more urban that the practice stopped. It’s certainly not a new thing for Dallas.
“I mean, after all, we are in Texas for Pete’s sake. This lifestyle is our roots.”
These farmers markets cropped up last spring and summer, and plan to open up shop again this year, if the city changes its regulations.
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12 vendors who sell produce, meat, locally made gourmet items and crafts
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16 vendors who sell “