Will Austin shoppers support a downtown farmer's market
By Virginia B. Wood, Fri., May 2, 2003
When the new Austin Farmers' Market opens this weekend in Republic Square Park, the downtown block will once again be the site of commerce, community interaction, and celebration with music and food, in keeping with its established place in Austin's history. The block was one of the original public squares planned by Edwin Waller when he designed a plat for the new city in 1839, and for much of the next 160 years, it was an important gathering place for Austitines.
That first year, city lots were auctioned in the shade of a stand of oak trees on the southwest corner of the lot, earning them the name the "auction oaks." For more than 50 years (1870 to the late 1920s), the local Mexican-American community congregated there, holding public dances, fiestas, and annual Diez y Seis celebrations. Though there's no record of permanent structures on the block, anecdotal information suggests there was once a bandstand and food carts or kiosks. Due to the proximity of the Walker's AusTex Chili canning factory down the street from the 1920s through the 1950s, the area was also sometimes known as "Chili Square." The storied block then spent many years in parking-lot ignominy before being reclaimed as parkland in the 1970s. On Saturday, May 3, Republic Square Park becomes home to a weekly community-supported farmers' market, once again a vibrant part of city life.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the park will be abuzz with activity. Fourth Street will be closed between Guadalupe and San Antonio. Market volunteers, farmers, and food and craft vendors will set up portable tents and stalls along the edges of the park and on the parking lot just south of Fourth. A chef's demonstration area will materialize near the auction oaks, and sleepy local musicians will set up near the center of the park. At the stroke of 8am, Austinites will stroll among the booths, purchasing fresh produce, artisan food products, fresh-baked goods, and local crafts with a live musical soundtrack.
A city-centered farmers' market is the longtime project of the Sustainable Food Center, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to dealing with the issues surrounding food security, such as improving access to local, healthy, affordable food for Central Texans. The market opening is the culmination of more than two years of hard work by the SFC staff and board of directors. Creation of the market accomplishes several goals that dovetail nicely with SFC's overall mission statement: providing fresh, seasonal local produce for consumers plus the opportunity to reconnect with the source of their food; supporting area agricultural growth and enhancement of the economy by providing a market for growers and artisan food producers; delivering educational programs on food and nutrition for children and adults through chef demonstrations, tours, and tastings.
The Sustainable Food Center has done a thorough and admirable job of putting this project together. The two-year, pre-market initiative included "friend-raiser" programs featuring national farmers' market advocates such as Deborah Madison and Alice Waters and a city-funded $50,000 feasibility study which included numerous surveys of community leaders, potential customers, and participating growers. Once the surveys revealed enthusiasm for a Saturday morning market in the downtown area, a deal was struck with the city to locate the market in the centrally located Republic Square Park. The park offers good visibility, access to water and shade, and plenty of handy parking. The market there is a collaborative effort between the city of Austin, the Parks and Recreation Department, the Austin Parks Foundation, the Downtown Austin Alliance, the Austin Museum of Art, plus numerous businesses and individuals.
With a location secured, a fundraising campaign began to raise the projected $150,000 needed to operate the market during it's first season, May 3 through Nov. 22, 2003. As the market debuts, about half that money has been raised, according to SFC Project Director Suzanne Santos, who says, "We expect to be able to raise the rest of the money once the market is up and running, when people can actually see and experience what they're investing in."
Another bulwark of support solicited by organizers is the Austin culinary community. Early this year, letters went out to local restaurant chefs extending the invitation to become members of the market "Chefs' Circle." Potential members were asked to sign a contract agreeing to conduct at least one chef demonstration during the market season, to provide recipes for distribution on the market's Web site ( www.austinfarmersmarket.com) and at the market, to display the Chefs' Circle logo in their menus or other print materials, and to shop at the market in their recognizable chefs' whites. Chefs' Circle co-Chair Quincy Adams Erickson, of Amuse Bouche Catering, reported recently that she has signed paperwork for at least 30 chefs and received verbal responses from many others. In addition to providing education and entertainment at the market, the Chefs' Circle should help to strengthen the "farm to table" connection between local restaurants and area growers, which is good news for Austin diners.
There's no question that a city-centered farmers' market is a great idea and one that generates an overall positive response from just about anyone you ask. The more pertinent questions in Austin seem to be: Does the city need and can it support yet another farmers' market; are there enough area growers to fill it; and what will the impact be on the existing markets and farmstands? Quite naturally, the SFC board feels the answers to those questions are all positive, i.e., increased awareness of farmers' markets generated by the publicity for the new downtown facility will be good for everyone, encouraging growers to expand and providing a higher level of visibility to farmers' markets in general. Only the passage of time and a few growing seasons will provide the real answers. In our recent conversations with the independent small-business people who operate Austin's four best-known farmers' markets, we found more cautious optimism about their fates in the face of such well-funded, well-publicized, city-supported competition
The modern farmers' market era in Austin began in 1988 when Texas grocery-store chain scion C. Hill Rylander secured a multiyear lease on the abandoned Travis County wagon yard property at 6701 Burnet Rd. After some refurbishment, Rylander christened the facility the Austin-Travis County Farmers' Market. On the face of it, the wagon yard is a dream-come-true market location: plenty of off-street parking, covered sheds for stalls, public restrooms, access to water and electricity, several existing buildings for restaurants and shops, a high-traffic area. The market flourished in its early years, charging a $10 stall fee to more than 50 farmers a year. It was the original home of The Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Contest and was twice recognized as one of the 10 best markets in America, once by USA Today and again by Cooking Light magazine. However, a couple of bad drought seasons exacerbated the damage done by internal squabbles between members of the always-fractious Central Texas growers community and a drawn-out lawsuit between the Republican Rylander and the Democratic County Commissioners Court, spelling an end to the market's heyday.
Farmers who only sold what they grew in season complained that Rylander also rented space to farmers who supplemented their offerings with out-of-season goods shipped in from the Rio Grande Valley, California, or Florida. Certified organic growers grumbled about competing with farmers who practiced "conventional" agriculture, concerned that the average shopper wouldn't understand the necessary difference in the price of the produce. The constant bickering between the growers and the peddlers and the organics and the conventionals boiled over into the county lawsuit. Many organic growers pulled out of the market and it never really recovered its glory days. Once the lengthy lawsuit was settled in Rylander's favor, the market became known as Austin's Historic Farmers' Market and now hosts an annual chile-roasting festival in late summer and a giant pumpkin sale every fall. The facility is currently home to the Stone House Grill restaurant, BBQ World Headquarters, Hill Country Nursery & Landscaping, La Femme Culinaire commercial catering kitchen, and Primitives antiques. Rylander is enthusiastic about the upcoming season, reporting that he has five or six farmers signed up for the first weekend in May plus some new arts-and-crafts vendors to entice customers to the Burnet Road market. "We're here to stay," he told me this week, "and we'd like folks who haven't been out here in a while to come check us out again."
Tony Piccola was one of the area organic growers who left the Burnet Road market and set out on his own. Since 1990, Piccola and a small, determined band of six to eight organic growers have operated a farmers' market in South Austin. They've been located in the El Gallo restaurant parking lot at 2901 S. Congress since 1995, selling produce, plants, and occasional value-added products such as home-canned goods. "We've never offered any kind of carnival atmosphere, and we have a steady, solid base of about 40 people who shop with us week in and week out," he says, "and I don't expect to lose them," adding that more overall publicity about the value of farmers' markets might just help his business. Piccola's market is open every Saturday morning, year round, rain or shine. During some winter months, he's sometimes the only grower there, but due to his persistence, the little market has supported his family for more than 12 years.
When weekend farmers Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle saw the property at 3414 Lyons Rd. in the MLS listings in 1991, they recognized it as their dream come true. They purchased the historic Republic of Texas-era home and surrounding five acres, and the "old James Smith place" became the new Boggy Creek Farm. Their first organic crops were planted in September 1992, and their early sales were from a table in front of Wiggy's at the corner of Sixth and Blanco and a farmstand off Seventh on Robert T. Martinez. The farm became self-supporting within six months and a sales stand at the farm became a reality in 1994. "Our first sale at the farm was $35," recalls Sayle, "and the next week was $100. It's gotten steadily better from there." Each new year has brought the need for more investment in the farm's infrastructure, such as a salad-washing shed, walk-in cooler, display refrigerators, a covered outdoor-shopping area, scales, shopping baskets, and display tables. Butler and Sayle acknowledge they've had to learn every bit as much about marketing as they have about farming. As a result, Boggy Creek has an active Web site and e-mail newsletter ( www.boggycreekfarm.com). They can also boast a national profile, having appeared in several national and regional food magazines and on the Food Network. The Boggy Creek farmstand is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9am to 2pm, attracting a steady stream of young families, West Austin matrons, spry elders, and health-conscious shoppers to the serene oasis in the heart of East Austin.
Though Larry Butler knows many of his customers appreciate the whole Boggy Creek Farm shopping experience, chicken house, T-shirts, canned goods, organic produce, and all, he admits to being concerned about the timing of the new market's opening. "Our busiest season is May, June, and July, where we make money to save and live on the rest of the year. If we lose a big percentage of sales in those three months," he explains, "it could hurt us." Butler and Sayle hope the unique opportunity to shop at the farm where the produce is grown will keep Boggy Creek customers returning for years to come.
Californian Pamela Boyar got her start in the produce business selling fresh juice to movie stars and then promoting the organic produce of small Los Angeles-area growers to such celebrity restaurant chefs as Wolfgang Puck. She came to Austin in the early Nineties and worked for Whole Foods Market for several years. As an experienced liaison with local growers, she created weekday farmers' markets in the parking lots of Whole Foods local stores and events like What's Cooking in the Park tastings that paired local restaurant chefs with area growers. For the past seven years, she's operated the growers-only Westlake Farmers' Market (www.westlakefarmers market.com), at 4100 Westbank in the Westlake High School parking lot on Saturdays from 10am to 1pm, and more recently the Davenport farmers' market, on Wednesday afternoons in the Riverbend Church parking lot on the Capital of Texas Highway. Boyar's market is filled with an inviting balance of growers, food vendors, and craftspeople, and she often features live music. She's the one up at dawn on misty Saturdays putting out signs along Capital of Texas Highway and the one picking up trash off the smoldering asphalt when the market closes in the heat of the summer. Vendors pay $50 a year to join her market and a $15-25 booth fee that varies according to peak advertising months.
"I read somewhere the other day that it takes about seven years for a market to really jell. I can see that happening here, but the market still doesn't make enough money that I don't have to have another job," she admitted recently. The West Lake market celebrated its seventh anniversary last weekend and the loyal West Lake clientele turned out in force, purchasing breads from Great Harvest Bread Co. and produce from longtime favorites Willie McKemie, Cora Lamar, and the Rowlands of Hairston Creek Farm. They took home award-winning goat cheese from Pure Luck Organics in Dripping Springs, empanadas from Empanadas la Boca, and tomatoes from a hothouse grower near San Antonio. Boyar is well aware that many of her farmers have been recruited to sell downtown, and she's understandably concerned that the new market could drain her ranks. She's banking on strong sales, long-term relationships and her history of support for area growers to keep farmers coming back, and her convenient suburban location to keep area customers shopping close to home.
The Austin Farmers' Market will operate according to a well-researched set of rules and regulations. It will be a growers-only market, and even food vendors will be limited to selling products they've made themselves. A panel including area growers will oversee compliance with these rules to guard against peddling. Vendors will pay a $25 annual fee to join the market and $20 per week for booth space. Although the issue of organic vs. conventional farming is still likely to be a touchy one, the new market is open to both organic and conventional growers, which SFC Project Director Santos explains this way: "As much as we're about sustainability and advocate the use of organic practices, we're also about access, so we've included some conventional growers. Besides, I can preach the value of organics to farmers till I'm blue in the face, but changes are only likely to come when the farmer actually sees customers get excited about organic produce and vote with their dollars." In addition to recruiting farmers who sell at other local markets, SFC has also widened their net, inviting growers within a 150-mile radius of Austin to participate in the new market. They are well aware that sales will have to be good for a farmer to justify driving 100-plus miles in the middle of the night to arrive and set up at Republic Park before 8am on Saturday morning.
Suzanne Santos is a former market-gardener herself and knows only too well the challenges faced by area farmers. Uncontrollable variables such as weather, the economy, and consumer tastes make agriculture a dicey proposition in the best of situations. She, too, is concerned about the new market's impact on the ones that already exist and is adamant that she expects a win-win situation for everyone. "This weekend, we're distributing a program guide with all the information about the new market that also includes a listing of all the other markets in the area," she told me this week. "We encourage the citizens of Austin to find a place where they can support local growers by shopping in a farmers' market." Santos expects a chef, a band, some fired-up volunteers, 18 farmers, and 25 food and craft vendors to join her in historic Republic Square Park this Saturday morning. She'd like to see you there, too.