Sunday, August 20, 2017

Milestones and Musings

I just want to say that yesterday’s market was really cool for me, in a lot of ways. 

One friend, a now retired entrepreneur, apologizing for not being able to make it, said 10 years was nothing to sneeze at.  Another friend, a customer and also a small business owner, gave me a high five with a genuine “right on!”.  Someone in a thread on line remarked that I’ve been at this longer than many of my peers. An accomplishment of which I wish I had more company.

It always feels nice to hear these things from others who know what it’s like to start a business, from the ground up, and work with the tenacity it takes to make it successful. 

Aside, however, from the kudos, were the subtle things done or said by others who may not have realized how much their actions, too, meant to me. 

The cancer survivor customer who credited me in a way I’d never think to take credit for; who also brought her neighbor on his first trip here, who has been on a mission to better care for himself through better eating habits – he’d lost 90 lbs over the past few years - says he'll be back and already ordered the salmon we were talking about.

The once curious youngster who helped season after season to plant, weed, pick, wash and sell produce, returning as an all grown up and out on her own now young lady – super excited to learn I had yard eggs for sale, in addition to the produce she picked out - that I had a hard time charging her for, after all those Saturday mornings of help. 

The veteran farmer who, after working herself all day in the heat, drove yet another hour and a half the night before my market, to be sure I had some extra produce for the event. (and if you missed out on getting some of that delicious sweetcorn or those sweet potatoes and tomatoes… sorry for you. But there is still some breakfast sausage left in the freezer for next market!)

The vendors who fill my out of the blue orders, even though I’m one of the most inconsistent customers they probably have on their list, with a smile and well wishes for a successful day. 

And another veteran farmer who drove over an hour and half, one way, not to bring produce to sell, but just to get off his farm and bring me some extra fall plant starts he'd grown, that I needed to jump start the spotty germination I had on some of my stuff. 

The volunteer who faithfully shows up each week, sometimes twice – even just to blow up balloons for kids, help our harpist get set up, make sure the gate is open at 9, and give impromptu mini-demonstrations of his solar dehydrator to whoever shows any interest or curiosity – giving me more time to answer farming and produce specific questions. 

And the couple - one or the other, nearly without fail shows up each market day- to bring us the wonderful and unique ambiance of harp music. Allowing children, of all ages, opportunity not only to hear harp music, but get to try their own hand at it, and encouraging them in their curiosity.

All of these things, and others I’ve not detailed out as well, each on their own makes a part of what I do both more successful and better. But to have them all come together on the same day, to help assure a successful anniversary market day event, was really awesome. 

A bit overwhelming even – but in a good, happy tears, way. I wish everyone could feel so cared about, so appreciated, so respected. I wonder if they genuinely did, how different a place the world could be. 

I’m lucky to have so many kind, caring, outgoing and genuinely nice people in my circle. It helps me to be a nicer person, I’m sure. 

They say you are the company you keep, and I think that’s very true. I’m glad and grateful for the company that keeps me, in return. 

Here’s to the next milestone!


Eat Your Food - Naturally!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

It Takes A Village - 10 Years and Counting

So this week was declared as National Farmers Market Week. I’m guessing it was done so by someone who lives and shops in a climate where the harvest is in its peak right now. You know, up in the Northeast. That someone does not live in N. Texas, I would bet, where the peak summer season is winding down. I know several farmers who are kind of in-between harvests right now, their crops having already peaked with tomatoes, melons and other summer fare, and are gearing up at home for late summer and early fall crops. It’s like a 2nd spring season. With triple digits. 

This weekend also holds another meaning, special to me. This is the 10 year anniversary of when I started Market Day. As I noted yesterday in a Facebook post, it was on August 11th, 2007 that I gathered up a few peers from TOFGA, put up a canopy and a sign in the back of a truck out in the front yard of the old gray farmhouse and called it Market Day.
I made sure to notify area media, and now retired DMN writer, Kim Piercewho was always eager to cover local food stories, came, unbeknown to any of us, and checked things out. She went home and tried her JUHA Ranch Porgo sausage, (which sadly they have stopped making). In the paper’s daily food column she wrote favorably about it, and the newest little market in town. The next month, cars were lined up, from the gate down the driveway and out in front of the house! Everyone who came to sell, sold out before 11am. What had I started? (I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find a link to that first article. If you can find it, please send it my way!) Since then, the market has been featured by other local writers as well and we were off to the races, as they say.

Well, let me back things up a bit for you; for those who may not know, and explain how it all started….

Like a country song…

See, I lost my truck. Yep. I was hoofing it, borrowing a friend’s vehicle or catching a ride, whenever I needed to get to Dallas, the only place around with a selection of organic foods. The organic garden center I owned, and that I had recently relocated, was a bit ahead of its time down here in Balch Springs and was struggling. Plus, our city proudly opened a Home Depot and a Wal Mart – aka small business killer – and I just could not compete. The sales I had enjoyed up in northeast Dallas on Skillman at Forest Lane, were not to be replicated here. In addition to the shop, landscape jobs, and a few speaking gigs, I took part time consulting and admin work wherever I could find it. But to no avail, I wasn’t making enough to cover both my mortgage and a hefty truck payment. Funny how the bank doesn’t take eggs or commercial seasonal color flower bed change out service as payment, either. 

So, at any rate, being more or less stuck here, I became aware, first hand, of how limited the food choices were in this area. Pre-Star bus service, pre-DART rail 4 miles away, if you didn’t have wheels – you walked or rode your horse. And the one my brother left here when he moved, isn’t broke. Now as funny of a home video as that might make, I chose to walk. Getting tossed from a beautiful mare is not on my bucket list. And I wasn’t up for riding my vintage 10-speed all the way to Lower Greenville where the closest Whole Foods was at the time.

Officially, anything south of me, and a few neighborhoods to my north was considered a USDA food desertAll of the area north of me, in my opinion, may as well have been one, too. There wasn’t any organic produce, much less, fresh locally grown organic produce, at either of the grocery stores in our town. I was still drinking pasteurized milk at the time and occasionally, I could find organic milk. But that was about the extent of “organic” around here. I was working so much I didn’t have time to properly tend much of a garden. I was pretty frustrated that access to Real Food, Grown with Integrity didn't exist.

Then, I had an idea! 

What if, once a month, I invited some of the folks I had recently met at the TOFGA conference where I’d recently spoken, to sell some of their grass fed meat products, organic produce and farm fresh yard eggs – right here?!  I would even offer to take pre-orders. I concluded that it might also draw more people to my garden shop, which was struggling to say the least, and bring in additional much needed cash flow.

So, that’s what I did. And, as they say, the rest is history. So, partly out of my own desire for easier access, and partly a food justice awakening, I began what is today still called Market Day.

The Model

I’d visited the downtown market a few years prior and didn’t care for what I saw. Car exhaust fume filled sheds, crowded sidewalks full of out of state/country?, and certainly out of area produce. Plus, the fact that it didn’t seem to host many actual farmers, didn’t sit well with me. I’d been told stories by some farmers I’d met elsewhere of how they felt pushed out from the once sterling downtown market, by rock-bottom prices on inferior and imported 
produce brought in by brokers. They couldn’t make any money.

I knew I wanted my market to be different. I wanted farmers to be able to get a fair price for the efforts and fruit of their hard work, while at the same time, customers could shake the hand that fed them, and know they were getting the real deal. After all, they could just go to the grocery store if they didn’t care who grew their food or what they 

So, Market Day was launched with the premise that I would not allow wholesale vendors to come and resell produce from warehouse’s 2nds and surplus, nor produce grown with conventional pesticides sprayed on them in over synthetically fertilized, sterile land. We certainly have enough nutrient deficient food available as it is. If I didn’t know you through TOFGA, or you weren’t sent to me by someone I did know, I’d have to come see your farm, have a good sit-down conversation with you about your growing practices and make you understood why it was so important not to bring compromised produce to Market Day.

See, for one thing, I found out shortly after opening, that there is a nearby community of folks who live with various serious auto-immune, chemically sensitive and other various environmental illnesses. Many of these people, I was told, must daily keep track of how much conventional food, versus organic food, they consume. For some, a miscalculation was a matter of a trip to the hospital! And, many weeks, they'd send the healthiest of themselves, out to shop for the rest of their community, here at my market.

Plus, at that time, conventional produce was dirt cheap in the supermarkets. So why would people make a special trip to a farmers market if they couldn’t find something better? I wanted my market to represent the best produce money could buy locally, and a unique environment in which to buy it. After all, I had chickens and horses roaming the property. Thanks to my brother. It doesn't get much more unique than that!


So here we are 10 years later, countless vendors have come through my gates and fed hundreds of families who have come from all over the metroplex. Many, both vendor and customer, passing several other markets on their way here because this one had the reputation of being faithful to its claim of no conventional produce or food 
brokers being allowed. 

The exception I would make to re-sell, was only for small farmers without sufficient staff, who needed to be present at the more mature farmer’s markets, but also wanted to help feed this community and support my new, growing market.

They would sometimes drop off some of their produce for me to showcase – with their farm name credited. Doing this took a lot of coordination. One farmer and I would meet up off the side of the freeway at dawn on Saturdays to exchange boxes of produce and a check on his way to Coppell’s farmer’s market. Those were some early mornings! Many of the farmers are an hour or more outside of the area. I’m lucky to be in so close to you all here. And I’d like to think, that you think you’re lucky to have this farm so close to you.

Eden’s, even though it was one of only 3 other independent markets, didn’t have the traffic of Coppell, already an established city market, nor the capital backing had by a few of the new upstart markets in Dallas. Plus, honestly, once the Dallas Morning News pulled the plug on NeighborsGo, I lost what was one of the best ways to communicate with my neighbors. So it was not easy to keep getting the word out. Facebook had not yet become popular.

Alas, here we are, 10 years later - still kicking!  
And now, also farming full time!

In order to help fill the gap of produce for the market, which was seriously lacking due to the shortage of organic farmers in the area, I decided to break ground and put my horticultural knowledge to work growing food, instead of ornamentals. That’s how the CSA farm came to be. You can find out more about and join the CSA. The CSA supports the farm’s budget, which pays the bills around here, and grows food for the market as well as members.

Now it is true that the market ebbs and flows with both vendors and customers. It’s hard to keep a happy balance for both. And I can’t fault someone for not driving past the newly renovated and overhauled downtown market these days. (But, buyer still beware – not all who sell produce, also grow it. And certainly, they don’t all grow with natural methods. Many are small, conventional farmers. ASK!)

And I understand producers all need to pay their bills and take care of their families. Markets in more densely populated areas are bound to have higher traffic and sales. So my vendor participation has struggled recently, as well. Plus, sadly, some previous producers, ranchers and farmers are either no longer in business, for various reasons, some having retired, or have chosen to focus on markets closer to their farms. Competition is fierce for small vegetable farmers struggling to compete with these new “meal in a box delivery services”. And it seems just about every supermarket now carries a full supply of “local” produce. One has to ask though; local to where?

Many pop up markets I’m seeing are capitalized by high vendor fees, or with state and federal grant monies that a privately held market like mine isn’t eligible to receive. Along with these nice lump sum funds, comes a paid staff to spread out the work of acquiring new vendors, vetting farms, generating special activities and just general help running the event each week. Wow, wouldn’t that be nice?  (By the way, if you’d like to volunteer here at your favorite local, home town farmer’s market, contact me here. I have a lot of great ideas but could use the help to implement them.) I’m not complaining, just explaining why this market hasn’t grown more over the years.

I’m still independently owned, and, currently, you could say, operate it independent of any help, too. But that’s ok. I do what I can do. I want the focus to remain on produce. I love meeting new people each season and appreciate the loyal returning customers, too. I consider it an honor to grow food for families that have come to trust me. I only wish I could grow even more so they'd not have to supplement with mainstream groceries at all. But, that's a different dream. 

I’ve kept my prices as low as I can, by using sustainable farming practices including renewable energy when possible, and keeping my overhead as low as I can.  Three years ago, I started accepting SNAP so no one would be excluded. But this is not a bargain basement clearinghouse for old, overstock produce that has been sitting in a warehouse.
This is freshly hand-picked, truly locally grown and nutrient dense produce that you’ll not find at any supermarket, or at many non-farmers farmer’s markets. (One giveaway of a broker market, is tropical produce alongside perfect looking tomatoes – in February – in North Texas.) Look for the table that doesn't seem to replicate the produce section at your supermarket. Most of the time, all of that stuff doesn't grow at the same time in the dirt here in the DFW area. Even with season extending high tunnels and hoop houses, we don't grow watermelons in the winter, or produce cauliflower in August. 

Small farmers are trying to compete with large, corporate owned farms and brokers by experimenting with hybrid seed designed to grow in different climate conditions, (not the same as GMO), but these seeds are often much costlier. And from my experience, many consumers are not willing to pay the higher prices for what they see as a simple vegetable. 
My friend Beverly from Cold Springs Farm in Weatherford probably grows a wider selection of items than I've ever known possible. But she, too, grows in green houses and high tunnels. This infrastructure comes with expenses though, and that demands a bigger market or higher price tags. 

I still invite other organic farmers and small value added producers, even the weekend warriors with a bumper crop, to arrange to bring or set up and sell here on any Market Day weekend. Lately, though, it’s harder again to find those available to do so. There are more markets in DFW now than ever before. And yet, still, many lack actual farmers. Some of the rural farms are having success setting up farm stands at their farms, opening up shops, and getting bigger or more automated so they can grow and sell just a few crops, in larger quantities, at a much lower price, to wholesale buyers. This is good news for indie grocers and canners, but not good for you, the consumer.  

I've hosted three bakers, several meat and egg producers, countless small farmers and even more than one local coffee roaster over the ten years I've been here. In some cases it served as a launching pad for them as they moved up and on to greener pastures and larger markets after getting a start here. But small producers of value added items like jelly and jam, pickles and bread, need a special permit and licensed kitchens from which to sell their goods to me to re-sell out of my shop, if they're not going to hire someone to be here selling in their place. Those things take time and cost them a lot of money. Meat needs accessible freezer and cheeses refrigerator space. Produce needs to be fresh and coordinating to pick up and drop off isn't easy. Plus I need to be capitalized like a grocery store to stock shelves.

I only have so much talent and time to spend in the kitchen, although I do make pickles now and then and bake bread when I have time and it's cool out. But mostly, I stay focused on growing produce and selling our local honey from the farm. Bees take time to make that golden magic elixir. The Texas Honeybee Guild takes pride in raising their bees in natural and humane ways, always careful to harvest no more than what will leave a safe, ample supply over the winter for the colony. 


You all have rallied around the market on several occasions and for this I’m very grateful. 

From the very first chef who bought my produce and gave me advice on how to do so, to all of the producers, vendors, customers and local chefs who will take what I can spare today, I have a great deal of gratitude. I could not have figured it all out and executed all that I have entirely on my own.

I've hosted intimate private dinners, long table dinners for 100+ guests, multiple gardening, healthy eating and even yoga classes as well as a multi-community garden Le Tour de Farms Barn Aid fundraiser event for Cafe Momentum which at one time raised their own gardens as part of their program.

I’ve feared losing the whole place more than once, but have managed to survive, thanks often to outright gestures of financial kindness and my faithful and gracious CSA members who understand they are helping share in the riskiness of farming. We even bought a front end loader for the farm with everyone's help, allowing me to make more compost and have one of my most productive years to date!

It’s a labor of love for sure, and what I live for each day, even when things don't go right. These days as I read about the rampant rising health crisis, and I watch those I care about struggling in battles with health issues, it makes me more determined than ever not to give up.

I keep planting each season, because I get those calls from people who are just starting or coming out of cancer treatment, who have had a child prescribed to eat organic food to help with a health or behavior issue and from those who just want to eat fresher, better tasting, non-conventionally grown food from nearby.

You all are what inspires me to keep on keeping on! That, and honestly, I don’t know how I could handle going back to the corporate world and flying a desk after all of these years. I might lose my mind without my chickens and cats, dogs and horses and Smoke my Icelandic ewe to make me laugh every day. Or my little Frog Pond to look out at whenever I need a break.

I mean look at that face! 

Thank you, past and present DFW farmers, volunteers, bee keepers, producers, bloggers, authors, harpists who bring that special ambiance to Market Day, in spite sometimes of our Zumba neighbors, and to friends and family. My heartfelt thanks to all of you, for all of your support these past 10 years.
I am finding new ways to reach more of my immediate community, before they “need” to eat what I grow. I also hope to encourage a few people to volunteer on a regular basis so we can grow into a market that can afford a paid staff, and remain sustainable, without having to gouge vendors on their fees.
I intend to grow as much as I can on the two acres of this old homestead, and continue to learn to better utilize the remaining 12 for the future. I am learning to engage even more with other farmers, sharing ideas and techniques that should enable me to grow more, both in terms of yield and varieties. It’s always a learning experience. Every day.

I am planning a special celebration this coming Saturday to recognize our 10th anniversary. I’ll have balloons and organic treats for the kids, big and little alike, and hopefully, even though it is a bit of a lull in harvest time, a taste of some farm goodies from here and a few other farmers I know.  So, come see me Saturday, August 19th, from 9-12. A free farm tour and CSA orientation will follow at the close of market at noon. Let’s hope it’s not a typical triple digit August afternoon!

And plans are in the works, in my head anyway, to host a small, community based long(ish) table dinner here this fall to connect my neighbors to the farm in a more tangible way. Volunteers from chefs to servers, tables and chairs to you name it, will be needed. PM me here

Till we meet again -

Eat Your Food - Naturally!