Why We Need to Save the Farmers Market

Because if Dallas is a real foodie town, we need a place where chefs and shoppers can buy and eat local.

J.T. Lemley hurt his back when he fell off a horse back in the day, so he limps slightly while making the rounds in his overalls at the elfin world of plants, gadgets, and natural marvels that comprise the 70 acres he farms. He and wife Carolyn have been tending this farm for 15 years on the rich East Texas soil a few minutes outside Canton. Fifteen hothouses are so brimful of tomatoes, peppers, squash, herbs, roses, hibiscus, petunias, and almost any kind of growing green thing you can think of that the discarded pots, planters, and pallets used to tend them lie in a heap waiting to be recycled. “You never throw anything away,” J.T., 59, says, bespeaking the classic economics of the small farm, a dawn-to-dusk working life he entered in 1980 after a construction career. We’re in one of the hothouses, between thick, snake-like rows of vines, far too tall to stake up. He plucks a yellow cherry-sized tomato and hands it to me. “Just wipe it on your pants and you can eat it.” I do. The sensory burst of earth and sweetness is almost sad. It’s been a long time since I savored it.

IN THE DELL: It may look like California, but the Lemleys work the earth 60 miles outside  of Dallas. photography by Dave Shafer

And there’s the problem of urban sustenance. Those who want the flavor and nutrition that come from fresh, local foods either have given up and obediently prowl the grocery aisles, or, for the persistent souls, have found their way to 11 acres on the south side of downtown hoping for relief at the historic Dallas Farmers Market. More than likely, they’ve left with a mixed bag of produce and feelings. Even with farmers like the Lemleys selling their tomatoes and peaches and peas in Shed No. 1, the “yellow” shed (the color of the roof), the pickings for seekers of natural and local foods have become slim. All four of the market’s industrial-sized sheds, which might sell anything from produce to Mexican ceramic door handles, managed to attract only 1.2 million visitors last year, compared to 2.5 million in the ’70s and ’80s. Farmers have disappeared, too, down to 169 registrants in 2006, only about nine of whom keep stalls year-round. Far from the foodie jewel it once was, the market, which is owned by the city, is now thought of as irrelevant at best, unpleasant and dirty at worst—“shabby,” the Dallas Morning News said last year.

J.T. is eager to show me the rest of his spread, so we borrow Carolyn’s converted electric golf cart. It’s parked next to the small sales hut and flower beds and across a dirt lane from a lot full of well-worn tractors (an ’87 John Deere; a much older International Harvester), plows, and hauling trailers. He offers me a Gatorade (“It keeps us going”) as we head out to inspect fresh-plowed rows of field tomatoes carefully lined with drip-irrigation hoses from a deep underground well. The farm isn’t organic, but it is oriented to natural (and economic) sustainability. Between the tomato rows, tractor-width strips of ground accommodate wild mustard plants that help leach toxins from the soil. Pervasive clumps of clover put back nitrogen.

NEW DIRECTIONS: The Dallas Farmers Market wants to make itself more hospitable to real farmers like Mary Hutchins. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

In the peach orchard, which will produce from June through August, J.T. stops to thin some “doubles,” tiny new peaches that for reasons he doesn’t quite know emerge as unusable twins. Some of the trees around us are badly scraped or busted up—deer antlers. “Over there’s a feeder I use to try to keep them from coming into the orchard,” he says. “But it doesn’t work.” Sometimes a deer will just destroy a tree. I ask what he does then, and I expect him to make a joke about grabbing a rifle. But he says what a farmer would say: “We just plant another one.”

The Lemleys have been selling at the Dallas market for 20 years and do about half their business there. They rent six stalls. They’re open March through November, but busiest in the summer season, when Carolyn comes into town almost every day to help her sales clerks. “We have from now until October to make our living. If we don’t make enough, we have to quit,” she says.

Half the stalls in Shed No. 1, which is supposed to be the “farmer’s shed,” are vacant most of the time. But in Shed No. 3, the “red” shed, directly opposite, the stalls are full and the sidewalks jammed with customers, especially on busy weekends. Most of them have zero idea that the rows of pineapples, oranges, cantaloupes, herbs, and even tomatoes being proffered at this “farmers market” have a far different provenance. The vendors are not farmers at all, but rather “dealers,” actually re-sellers of products. Instead of harvesting within the regional area (previously a 150-mile limit) that the Farmers Market uses to define “local,” dealers buy their stock from the commercial produce warehouses that ring the market, truck it in themselves, or buy overnight from farmers or commercial wholesale trucks that can and do bring goods from anywhere in the world. If you purchase a tomato from a farmer, you get what you came for. From a dealer, you could just as easily shop at Tom Thumb or Whole Foods or Central Market. Your link to a farmer is the cargo terminal at American Airlines. People stopped going to the Dallas Farmers Market because it wasn’t one.

That’s the bad news. The good is that the city wants the farmers back and is undertaking an ambitious plan to woo them. It wants to turn the entire Farmers Market area, bounded by Marilla, Harwood, South Central Expressway, and I-30, into a people-friendly food district that ultimately will be part of a truly imaginative downtown re-sculpting. It will be connected along Harwood Street as part of a larger plan that links the Arts District, moves through Main Street Garden Park, into the Farmers Market, and across I-30 to City Heritage Park—accessible by an urban trolley line. At least that’s the theory. If you’ve lived in Dallas awhile, you know theories can stray and dreams can die.


Farm to Market
Until the post-War ’50s, Texas was rural and agrarian. Dallas may have evolved into a financial and marketing center, but it was at heart agricultural, and the young 19th-century city greatly benefited from its location in a fertile prairie. Farmers began to market their goods in town around the 1860s, increasing their efforts in the latter part of the century. In 1913, after a new City Hall was built, the ad hoc market settled in its present location. The first of the four trading sheds—the basic structural units of the market—took form during the 1930s, and the Dallas Farmers Market was formally established in 1941. Periodic additions and changes continued. The last big evolutions were in 1991 and 1994. In the former, Pearl Street traffic was re-routed around the market to build a pedestrian esplanade starting at Marilla Street. In 1994, administrative offices were built, as was the controversial Shed No. 2, a drafty, semi-enclosed space now 85 percent occupied by Mexican import vendors—and destined for big changes starting this summer.

PEOPLE FRIENDLY: Farmer John Lumpkins hopes the Farmers Market stays around for his grandson, Dillon Thomas. (BELOW) Alysa Graham, 16, minds the stall for Graham’s Produce. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

They’re overdue. Even with its ambitions, Dallas is far behind national trends, which saw U.S. farmers markets vault to 4,385 in 2006 (based on USDA figures) from the 1,755 registered in 1994. Among the best—or those after which the Dallas market might pattern itself—are famous venues such as Pike Place Market in Seattle, the Los Angeles Farmers Market, Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, and Freshfarm Markets, a consortium in Washington, D.C., whose director, Ann Harvey Yonkers, spoke last February at the Dallas market to a heavyweight roundtable of about 200 chefs, foodies, and farmers. Hosted by the city and sponsored by influential food groups such as Les Dames d’Escoffier, Slow Foods International, and the American Institute of Wine and Food, the event marked the latest, and most powerful, round of interest.

“There’s a real opportunity for us to create a market for this century rather than the last,” says Dallas City Councilmember Angela Hunt, who sits on the Council’s Economic Development Committee and whose District 14 includes the Farmers Market. It will, she says, be “one that has a real focus on organic and on quality and on the farmers. I think they’re going to help make it survive and be strong. I think the Council sees that and thinks there’s a real opportunity ahead of us.”

The “strategic plan” for all the changes in a market that brings in about $1.4 million in revenues annually could cost more than $20 million in full array, if funded in yet-to-be proposed bond elections. But the momentum already has been seeded as parts of two recent bond packages—$3.2 million in 2003, and $6.6 million in 2006. The 2003 money is committed to what will be the most visible early change at the market (construction starting this month, finishing March 2008): the conversion of Shed No. 2 from an import warehouse to a diverse space of 61 specialty and artisan vendors of natural, organic, and farmstead products from cheeses to breads.

The 2006 dollars are mostly aimed at overdue infrastructure repairs, such as burying utilities, fixing sewers, installing hand-washing and produce-washing stations and other health-related improvements, and extending the brick esplanade along Pearl Street to Canton. The other $11 millionish of the projected, unfunded cost of revamping the market to become the core of an urban food district would include more shed renovations, a deck park over I-30 linking to Dallas Heritage Village, a pedestrian corridor on Harwood Street, and a 500-space parking garage where little-used shed No. 4 now stands. Also under consideration is a possible partnership in a mixed retail building in the now-vacant lot just across Marilla Street—all surrounded by more than 500 new condos and town houses similar to those in Camden Farmers Market.

Some have wondered how such a tourist-oriented district meshes with the impending homeless shelter and assistance center between the market and City Hall. Hunt doesn’t see the two projects clashing, and says that in addition to enhanced police protection in the market itself, the city will “take a very resolute policy against soliciting, panhandling, all that.”

Perhaps the most radical of all strategies for the market is for the city to “privatize” it, to retain the land (for tax revenues) but turn over management either to a nonprofit organization yet to be determined or a mix of nonprofit and private interests. The city, which supports the idea, broached the subject in its 2006 strategic report. No one seems to oppose it. Dallas Farmers Market Friends, founded in 1991 to advocate and promote the market, says privatization is the best route for small farmers and sustainable agriculture in this area. “Incorporating separately as a nonprofit will not only make it more responsive to emerging community interest in food, but will make it more entrepreneurial and enable it to attract private as well as public dollars to sustain it,” says Friends president Stacy Caldwell.

One of the best takes on the evolution is from one of the market’s most steadfast defenders. Shreveport-reared Ida Papert discovered it in 1953, not long after moving to Dallas with her husband Sam, and shaped her cooking around it. Meanwhile, her penchant for civic volunteerism led to important connections, including a stint chairing the campaign of former Mayor Starke Taylor, serving as chair of women’s events at the Byron Nelson in 1979, and also working for Bush 41. She was a natural to found the Farmers Market Friends, holding the first meeting with five other people in the basement of the nearby Scottish Rite building.

TOMATO ROW: Weekend crowds flock to Shed No. 1 in search of fresh produce and better meals. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

“Mama” Ida still visits the market at least once a week, though “not as much as 15 years ago, because there were more farmers around. They got mad at the market and they just refused to keep coming, but with this new thrust and the ideas coming about now, I think we will see a return of the farmers.” She generally likes the city’s plan, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of the very namesake of the market. “This quadrant of the city has been ignored and ignored for years, ever since I’ve lived here,” she says. “We need to make it accessible, make it affordable, and promote it.”

She visits markets around the country—most recently in California and Maine, where she saw that the draw for the farmers was in focusing on their needs. She knows the consequences of ignoring friends. “The whole history of the farming industry has changed,” she says. “We know that. I understand why we don’t have them anymore. That doesn’t mean I like it.”

Among the Farmers
Farmers have supper, not dinner, and it might be at 5, or even earlier. Today it’s about 4, on the second floor of the market’s headquarters next to Shed No. 1, but that’s fine with the 40 or so farmers who have come in late March to hear about the city’s plans. Some are in jeans or overalls and muddy boots fresh from their fields; others have spruced up for town, but all look sculpted directly from the salt of the earth. They don’t mind filling up their plates with catered barbecue and trimmings, none of which, perhaps symbolically, is from the market itself, the big sheds outside all but empty of customers in the late afternoon.

Point man for the city is Frank Poe, who oversees the market as part of his job as director of the city’s department of Convention and Event Services. Poe is saying things like, “Pearl Street [site of the esplanade] is where the city and farm culture come together. That’s what the Farmers Market is.” The idea of the changes, he says, echoing his political boss, Hunt, is to go forward, not back to a previous century. He acknowledges that the strategic plan involves “changing the culture and perceptions of a number of our vendors.” But it’s obvious the farmers have other things on their minds today. Like what happened?

Almost immediately, talk turns to the dominance of the despised dealers. The farmers say their concerns should be addressed first in any master plan. Poe agrees, but says it will take some time to get the dealers completely out of Shed No. 1 and over to Shed No. 3. Long pent-up complaints bubble up for the next three hours, remarkably civil, though, as attendees wander occasionally to the cooking class kitchen in the back of the room for pie and iced tea. But the barrage continues.

The farmers want better signs to differentiate them from the dealers. They say, rightly, that the current decals—which were to be replaced in June—for “Produce Dealer” (red), “Farmer” (green), and “Farmer Merchant” (blue) are utterly confusing. Nor do the farmers want dealers to sell seasonal items in competition; i.e., they don’t want anyone to sell Florida tomatoes alongside North Texas tomatoes during the summer. And they want better rates on the stalls: for some reason it has cost more to rent a stall in advance ($21 a day) than on the spot ($10).

TRUE FRIEND: Ida Papert (left) has shopped at and supported the Dallas Farmers Market since the ’50s.Vendors in Shed No. 3  (below) sell off-season produce from anywhere in the world. photography by Elizabeth Lavin

They want the whole place cleaned up, the ugly assortment of trucks and trailers behind No. 3 especially to be moved away. They want dedicated health inspectors. They want help at the nightly wholesale market, where they are often muscled out of good spots by big commercial wholesalers, who, it is alleged, dump less-desirable produce to be sold by unscrupulous dealers. Van Zandt County farmer Jim Lambert says it’s “become a junk clearinghouse.” Emory farmer Carroll Faires, who’s come with his wife Linda, thinks Shed No. 3 is little more than a “junkyard.” Poe and his lieutenant, economic coordinator De McCombs, chronicle each complaint and suggestion and pretty much promise to accommodate all. “We want you back at the market,” Poe says more than once, and promises more marketing, including annual, monthly, and even weekly special events (such as festivals and cooking classes) to draw in customers.

Still, decades of deep suspicion about the Dallas market linger among the farmers. An informal show of hands indicates only about half plan to work the market this summer, many preferring what they say are the more profitable sites in Tyler, Coppell, Canton—some of the 94 certified farmers markets in Texas. David Claiborne, a grower from Jacksonville, stands up near the end of the three-hour session. “A lot of prayers and hard work is involved in this process,” he says, his voice quivering. “We want to see it turned into dollars. These sheds have to be a sacred place, if you will.” To do that, he says, the dealers have to be thrown out. “They don’t have the blood, sweat, and tears involved.” He might have been talking about ejecting moneychangers from the temple.

Poe, in dark blue sport coat and olive slacks, city boy among the country folk, can only nod. “There’s nothing simple at the Dallas Farmers Market,” he says.

Chef, Farm, City
Weekends are the best times at the market, which is open daily from 7 am to 6 pm. Early birds in shorts and jeans and straw hats peck through the hanging baskets and gardenia pots in the garden and floral spaces in front of Shed No. 2. General shoppers—the kind the city wants to attract—pick through the wrought iron and rough pine furniture inside. The Mawker coffee shop offers a hint of the forthcoming food court. Texas Supernatural Meats, offering products from natural and organic farms like Rehoboth Ranch, Windy Farms, and Truth Hill Farm, is a prototype for the artisanal local food stalls.

Outside, visitors from across the city pick their way along the esplanade among the sprouting of eclectic tabletop vendors who might be selling music CDs or pure honey from Round Rock. In Shed No. 1, the heavy summer season hasn’t completely kicked in, but the Lemleys’ stalls are open, as are those of another long-time favorite, Bettye’s Tomatoes and Peaches.

I buy some tomatoes I know are local and some green beans, oranges, and peanuts I know can’t possibly be. I just enjoy the setting. Walking back to my car, I see the downtown skyline only five minutes to the north. Maybe all this is “sacred.” A link of the spirit between the city and the country, between what we are and from whence we came, intimations that we are not mutants of some ineffable city-producing assembly line.

I don’t wonder that some of the best chefs in Dallas take the time to connect with the market. I wonder that they all don’t. When Celebration, the city’s first home-style restaurant moving beyond the meat ’n’ three dinner concept, opened in 1971, owner Ed Lowe knew that you couldn’t really serve family style without family farms. “For the first two or three years, I made at least two trips a week to the Farmers Market to buy everything I could,” he says. “I knew every farmer, I knew all their kids, I knew everything they grew and when they grew it. That was kind of our roots, how we started. And then we got away from it. And then last year we got with the program.” Now, says Lowe, his staff frequents the overnight wholesale market, making sure to buy from the local farmers and not the commercial dealers. The small farmers can’t handle all his needs anymore, but he takes as much from them as they can deliver. Throughout the summer, diners at Celebration can check out the menu board for the name of the farmer who provided the day’s specials of locally produced squash or green beans or watermelon.

Liz Baron, past president of Les Dames and co-owner of Blue Mesa Grill restaurants, is a strong backer of the market, as part of a larger goal “to try and source sustainable local food and get it to local restaurant tables and where consumers can buy it.” But because of the high volume at her five locations, she has been forced to take most supplies from big firms such as Sysco. Additionally, she says, the nature of seasonal farming can make it difficult for a local-minded restaurant whose customers “have become accustomed to having everything all the time.”

Baron, who, like Lowe, attended the farmers meeting, recently began providing locally produced menu items, advertised as such, with a slightly higher price for some: commercial chicken is 93 cents a pound, while local naturally raised chicken gets $1.69. Will customers pay for the difference? She doesn’t know yet.

Sharon Hage, the acclaimed chef and owner at York Street restaurant in East Dallas, bases her entire culinary strategy on fresh, seasonal food. Her customers have come to expect it. “They know there’s no tomatoes on the menu here in the winter,” she says. “The menu changes every day here for that reason.” Like Baron and some other chefs in Dallas, Hage uses a food forager, the ubiquitous Tom Spicer, to find what she needs from the local farmers. She also has direct arrangements with some farmers for chicken, eggs, and duck eggs and hopes to expand that to produce. “I am always very concerned to know how things are raised—always. It’s part of building the relationship and knowing who you’re dealing with and knowing how they are farming and how they are raising.”

Hage says she “would like to see the Farmers Market go back to being a farmers market.” But implicit in the direct relationships she, Lowe, and others seek with the local farms is a potential threat to the role of the market as a centralized sales and distribution hub. Just as Whole Foods and Central Market contract with small farms for seasonal foods, so can the chefs. Add to that the emergence of Internet sites, such as the one launched by the Friends to connect commercial buyers and sellers without any middleman, and it might be possible to bypass a hard market site altogether.

That’s why the Dallas plan envisions making the farmers’ sales part of a larger shopping and tourism experience. Build it and the people will come, and they will find the farmers, and buy from them, and realize why the direct, sensory experience of seeing and handling the food we eat will never become obsolete. Farmers markets are burgeoning across the country, not disappearing. Which doesn’t mean they can’t, as Dallas has come very close to learning.

Tasting the Dirt
I can’t get away from the Lemley farm without the onions. J.T. has already given me a plastic sack full of red, irregularly shaped hothouse tomatoes—no corporate farm perfection—and Carolyn has steered me to a shelf full of salsas, jellies, and jams bottled with the Lemley brand, but I can tell he wants me to try the sweet Yellow Granex, a hybrid similar to the Vidalia. (“Some day they’ll be called ‘Lemleys.’”) We hop into his small pickup truck, the radio tuned to a country station, and drive a mile or so to one of his onion fields, separated from his main farm by a crazy quilt of other farms, all of which seem to be owned by some branch of the family.

At the field, he gets out to pull back the barbed-wire gate leading up to the 8-acre patch. Unlike the verdant peach orchard and tomato fields, this plot, though surrounded by trees, is baking in the sun. We walk up a row. The bulbs are just beginning to mature. He pulls up a dozen or so and gives them to me. They’re on the floorboard of my Explorer with the other bounty as I head back to Dallas on I-20. It’s aromatic.

At home and ravenous well after the lunch hour, I spread the tomatoes and onions on the counter, thinking I will have a quick sample. Soon the sink is coated with the fresh brown soil of the onion fields and I’m cutting off the green shoots and popping the young bulbs into my mouth. I rinse the tomatoes, slice them in half, sprinkle with Kosher salt and devour them, just as Carolyn had said I would, with the juice dripping down my hand. Add some fresh corn, green beans, mashed potatoes, strawberries, and homemade biscuits and this would have been the summer meal my maternal grandparents served on the gray-speckled Formica table in their kitchen from their self-sufficient garden on the coastal plain near Ingleside. It is what Texas tastes like.

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