Are the big five of Austin's busy farmers' markets competing or cooperating?
With much fanfare, the downtown Austin Farmers' Market opened at Republic Square park in May of 2003. Why did the market garner such publicity and visibility? It's not as if a farmers' market is a novel idea. The U.S. is chock-full of markets in virtually every community across the continent. Several markets are major draws for tourists. The Santa Monica and San Francisco (Alemany) markets are crawling with visitors who don't know shallots from shiitakes. It's not that Austin is new to the farmers' market game. On Saturdays, the Westlake Farmers Market has been a thriving mecca for exceptional locally produced food for seven years; the El Gallo parking lot is the site of the loyal patrons of the South Austin Farmers Market; Boggy Creek Farm sells the treasures from its East Austin farm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. While Austin's Historic Farmers' Market on Burnet sells more items from vendors than from local sellers, produce from the area has been available there for years. And depending on the time of year, impromptu markets conducted out of the backs of trucks can be found on area thoroughfares and highways.
Still, news of the opening of the market generated an enormous amount of interest from eager, anticipating shoppers and concerned proprietors of established markets. How does the landscape look as the market begins its second season? Has it lived up to its hype as a downtown mecca of fresh, local foods? Has it been a contributing factor to the livability of Downtown? Has it helped or hurt other markets?
The market is a project of the Sustainable Food Center, a nonprofit whose mission is "to create a food-secure community by improving access to local, healthy and affordable food for children and adults." The center has been in the business of providing healthy food to a population whose diet is inadequate in terms of nutrition. Projects have included the Sunshine Gardens and the education of area teachers in the creation and maintenance of school food gardens.
Typically, markets are for-profit (albeit meager, if at all) enterprises commenced by a farming collective or passionate foodie(s). As American cuisine came to be defined less in terms of canned cream of mushroom soup and more in terms of fresh, seasonal, and regional ingredients, consumers became educated and interested in the relationship between the farm and the dinner plate.
The influence of Alice Waters (of the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse) in this area cannot be overestimated. While millions of Americans were having their first introduction to the impossibly exotic romaine lettuce, Ms. Waters' passion for organic, locally produced food was resulting in direct relationships with local farmers. In a mutual exchange of ideas and foods, Bay area farmers were encouraged to plant a wider variety of neglected produce and diners were deliciously educated about the source of their superlative meal. Cooks and restaurateurs came to appreciate that a humble black-eyed pea that is locally and organically grown is far superior in taste to an out-of-season asparagus stalk that has traveled half the globe to arrive on your plate. Not to mention the economic impact that buying locally has on a community.
Waters' gospel spread, and restaurateurs as well as home cooks throughout the country began to look in their own back yards (often literally) to obtain food and vegetables of the highest quality. The demand has led to the revival or creation of small, organic farms, which had long been overshadowed by the super/corporate farm. Consequently, farmers' markets were formed to provide consumers with access to this food neglected by supermarkets who favor relationships with megasuppliers.
The downtown Farmers' Market was born less from a foodie sensibility than a political one. After the merger of the Sustainable Food Center and the Austin Community Gardens in 2001, the organization felt it had the capacity to carry the idea of a downtown market that would appeal to most of the citizens of Austin. The SFC partnered with the Austin Parks & Recreation Department, Austin Parks Foundation, Downtown Austin Alliance, and the Austin Museum of Art in the creation of the market. This level of cooperation and partnerships was made possible thanks to the nonprofit status of the center. The center had had single farm stands in East Austin going since '95, so there were some rudimentary relationships with area farmers. According to the research that the center conducted, a city the size of Austin could reasonably expect 10,000 people going to markets on Saturdays. Portland, Ore., has 10,000-15,000 shoppers at their well-established markets on Saturdays. Obviously, that number is much more than the existing markets could handle given their sizes. And more farmers who might not have considered direct sales began to express interest in a downtown market.
Understandably, the founders of established local markets and the farmers who participate in them may have felt some resentment about the broad level of support that the downtown market received. And predictably and understandably, growers and sellers were worried about the impact a downtown market would have on their operations. Still, as Westlake Farmers Market Pamela Boyar explains, "I generously offered and freely gave [downtown market organizers] advice. I support them with what they're doing. We're totally different. I've been with farmers for 25 years; it's my life's work."
Suzanne Santos, project director of the downtown market, explains that the creation of the market began with surveys to more than 500 agricultural interests in the Central Texas region. More than a hundred responses were returned, with about 65 indicating they would entertain the idea of participating in a farmers' market. The center's premarket work included talking to folks at Boggy Creek and other established markets, plus various farmers who were known to be serious about doing direct marketing.
"We approached Pamela at Westlake Farmers Market and said, 'You know, Pamela, we don't know when we're going to have this market. It's going to depend on when the farmers say that they can have it and also what the customers say that they will support by coming out,'" Santos recalls. "At the time, we had Wednesday or Saturday [considerations]. It ended up that Saturday was the choice by farmers and by consumers. That can be seen as setting up a duplicate of markets when there's already Saturday markets. But what we were seeing based on our research is this is a big town, and there are a lot of people."
Knowing that a farmers' market takes time to develop, modest attendance and vendor goals were set for the first year of operation. "We felt comfortable predicting there would be 1,500-2,000 people there on average, and that we would have at least 25 farmers show up and 25 other vendors." They ended up exceeding their goal with 37 growers; a handful were plant growers, but the rest had food of some sort (eggs, meat, cheese, etc.). Some made only spotty appearances, such as the blueberry grower who made three appearances during his short growing season. Attendance ran 1,100-1,200 weekly, a bit below projections.
According to surveys conducted of attendees to the market and a well-worn template to determine economic impact, 37% of market attendees stayed downtown after shopping the farmers' market and dropped more dough at other retailers in the area. Fifty-three percent indicated that they would not have come downtown at all on Saturday without the market's lure. Apparently, the city of Austin has come to the conclusion that the market is good for business: It will co-sponsor the market this year, which increases their ability to implement changes and improvements.
"We have a new setup: [The vendors are] in the street now," Santos says. "We have a new thing that we do called 'Taste the Place,' which is a different way for people to get connected to the food. What we do, we gather the produce from the farmers Wednesday, Thursday, Friday before the event, and it goes into somebody's kitchen. This Saturday [March 27, opening day] it went into Natural Epicurean's kitchen, and the students there prepared kale with ginger, some kind of special dressing for Lost Truffle's lettuce; Gundermann's [Farm] cabbage had some kind of seed oil. We had 300 samples of each one for people to taste. We have a little colored flag that says 'This is Gundermann's cabbage,' and they go find the flag that matches at the farmer's stand." The hours of the market have changed, too: It now opens one hour later than last year and operates from 9am until 1pm.
How did other local markets fare in the wake of the downtown market's opening? Westlake Farmers Market, for one, has experienced a big year. Their current home in the parking lot of Westlake High School barely contains the market (the week of March 20 had 22 farmers in attendance), and Boyar is on the lookout for a larger home. Part of the upsurge in attendance is in keeping with the growth curve of farmers' markets: Conventional wisdom dictates that it requires six years to develop a market, and Westlake is right on that target. But Boyar notes that "a lot of people come because of having been downtown."
In its second season, the downtown market has outlined specific goals that they hope to achieve in their sophomore year: averaging 1,500-2,000 visitors weekly; hosting an average of 51 weekly vendors (including 43 farmers, ranchers, and growers); $17,850 in voucher redemptions for low-income families during the summer WIC Farmers' Market Nutrition Program; and contribution of 2.5 tons of fresh vegetables for community soup kitchens.
"It's not like any other farmers' markets are competition," Santos says. "It's more the conglomerate agribusiness. Having Wal-Mart be the biggest food supplier in America: That's our competition. We're friendly competition. If you look at the big scope of things, we all have the same mission, whether it's South Austin Farmers Market or Boggy Creek: It's for people to support local agriculture and to help family farmers to stay in business."