Jul 17, 2015

Identifying the Serpent

Shopping in Switzerland
In my last blog post, I talked about farmers markets--specifically farmers markets as we know them in Texas, visiting the bucolic ideal that we were introduced to when we began selling at markets. We discussed the downward spiral of farmers turning to more value-added products, markets turning to more products produced far from any farm, and customers turning away from markets, leading farmers to have to be more flexible in what they produce, hence the value-added products. Which is the chicken and which is the egg in this scenario?

Here at Swede Farm we have noticed an overall decline in market sales for the past two years. This decline holds true for markets in Houston and in Austin, large markets and small, weekend markets or week day markets. When we speak to other farmers and market vendors, they report a similar trend in market sales. One conjectured that it was due to the proliferation of farmers markets in the city, noting that it was with the expansion of markets that their income dropped an average of 30%. Market managers note that the cities being served should be able to handle an abundance of markets. They point to the population of Austin and Houston, they note the demographics; well educated consumers with disposable income, and conclude that Texas cities should see thriving markets in all areas, on all days of the week. Ironically, these same market managers comment that their markets are down--and they point to the growing number of markets as the reason for why the numbers are down.

The truth is, though, that most of these markets are small, falter early on and rarely thrive past the first two years.

The truth is, that these vendors are in multiple markets. Each time a market opens, the farmer or prepared food vendor stretches to be in the new market as well as their old markets. If sales are down at one market due to the opening of a new market, the decrease of sales at the established market should be made up by sales at the new market--yet this is not happening.

Markets are not failing everywhere, our travels have confirmed this fact. Over the past two years, we have been able to visit markets in multiple cities in the United States, from New York City to San Francisco and others scattered between the two. We have shopped in markets in England, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Spain. We have seen thriving farmers markets of all sizes and in varying kinds of neighborhoods. There are a few key factors that we have noted that seem to differentiate Texas markets from the thriving East and West coast markets. We believe that these differences create a challenge that Texas markets must address in order to not only survive but also thrive.

While there have obviously been farmers markets in American from the earliest days of the nation, the modern farmers market movement is fairly young. The proliferation of farmers markets across the country can be traced in large part to the growing awareness of a need for sustainable local food systems. Consumer awareness was captured by books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006) and films such as "Food, Inc", directed by Robert Kenner. This joint awareness of the importance of local foods and the pitfalls of factory farming were a boon for farmers who were looking for another way of doing business. The growing local food movement inspired many to leave their corporate jobs in order to be a part of the new movement. Some of these adherents gained the courage to begin their own sustainable farms, while others committed themselves to organizations such as Sustainable Food Center and GrowNYC that seek to establish new and functional food infrastructures. Consumers, informed of the impact of "factory farms"and desirous of supporting local businesses sought other ways of shopping, searching out farmers markets, shopping directly at farms and becoming involved in a CSA program. As new farmers markets emerge and (hopefully) grow, the supporting organizations travel to places such as New York City and San Francisco in order to "see how it's done". Unfortunately, while these vaunted market systems are inspiring, they provide a model that may not be one that can be replicated in Texas.

Buying from friend Lynn of Lynnhaven Farm in Brooklyn
San Francisco and New York City have several natural characteristics that change the dynamic of DFW area*, and these areas are growing rapidly. What does this mean for the local food movement?  In order to buy farmland, would-be farmers must go further and further away from the city centers. Most markets, inspired by early pioneers in the local food movement, adhere to a 150 mile rule, meaning that farmers must be located within a 150 mile radius of the city in order to sell at the market. As farmers must move further and further away from city limits, the "crop" of farmers from which a market may draw their vendors necessarily grows smaller and smaller. Less farmers=weak markets. One alternative to this challenge may be increasing numbers of urban farms. There are cities in Texas that are exceptions to the monolithic struggling market system, cities such as Austin. How does Austin get around the challenges faced by Houston and Dallas? Austin is not as sprawling as Houston or Dallas, with less than 300 square miles Austin is literally less than half the size of her neighbors to the North and Southeast. This means that there is more potential farmland within the required 150 miles radius available to would-be farmers who want to vend at Austin markets. Austin also utilizes more urban farms. This may not be long-lived, however, as urban farms, find themselves increasingly under attack. As the neighborhoods surrounding them become more gentrified, urban farmers face being zoned out of existence, or taxed out of existence, as the value of surrounding neighborhoods skyrockets.
their local farmers markets. Both cities (and others with highly touted farmers markets such as Portland, OR and Seattle, WA) have metropolitan areas with land areas ranging from 84 square miles (Seattle) to 302 square miles (NYC). Houston and the Dallas/Forth Worth metropolitan areas begin at a hair under 600 square miles for Houston and over 600 square miles for the

Market in Leipzig, Germany
The second major difference in these cities with thriving market systems dovetails with the size of the cities, and this is the availability of mass public transportation. Populations that are more likely using trains and buses to get from work, to home, to shopping are also more likely to be buying smaller amounts of food, They are less likely to be engaging in mass shopping excursions for the simple reason that the average trip to a big-box grocery store will yield more food than can be easily carted home via the subway or even via a bicycle. Markets that run each day of the week and in different parts of the town will be more likely to see business when one is grabbing a few quick items on the way home. More sprawling cities, such as Houston or Dallas, will see commuters driving personal vehicles long distances. Stuck on freeways for hours, it would appear that they are less likely to adopt a 'guerilla' method of grocery shopping, relying instead on occasions during which they may stock up in bulk--not exactly a farmers market friendly method of shopping. Even cities with notoriously arduous commutes, such as NYC, that nevertheless manage to maintain a thriving farmers market scene, draw large amounts of shoppers from those who live within the city itself. These are shoppers that utilize the markets to get truly exceptional items in smaller amounts that can be found by means of a small deviation in their routine, made possible due to extensive public transportation systems that allow them to access perhaps smaller but stable markets in different parts of the city. This is not dissimilar from what we observed in European markets, where the farmers markets are used to bring the high quality items to shoppers accustomed to a two-tiered method of shopping. (This we will discuss in our next blog post.)

If the challenges facing farmers markets in the larger cities such as Houston and Dallas are apparently immutable issues such as sprawling cities and lack of acceptance of public transportation leading to different shopping habits, is there any hope to be found for farmers markets? Does this necessarily mean that farmers markets are doomed to be sub-par in our larger cities?

We do not believe this to be the case--provided the systems set up to support local farms and farmers markets recognizes the differences between Houston and New York City. Addressing the challenges faced by our larger cities will require the courage to admit that Houston is not NYC, nor is it San Francisco. Markets will succeed when we embrace a Texas-style ingenuity and flexibility to get the job done. Standards need to change, expectations need to change, rules and regulations need to change. In addition to the issues hobbling our markets, we have competition drawing away our educated consumers who desire to support the markets. We need a two pronged approach to solving the problem. First we need to recognize the strengths of the competition and adapt to better compete and secondly we need to reassess what will make a successful TEXAS farmers market system.

This is what we will be discussing with the next blog post. As always, please chime in with your perspectives and solutions. We need to implement changes that will make the situation better for everyone.

*Size of cities based on information found at this site.

Jun 15, 2015

Looking for Eden

The scene is as close to pastoral as one can hope find in the midst of a large city, tables groaning under fresh produce and baskets piled high with fruit while fresh cheese and eggs are carefully placed in large handwoven baskets--a treasure to be carried home and lovingly prepared. This is what we see every morning from our tent at the farmers markets. In that careful moment between daybreak and blistering Texas heat, customers stroll from one farmer to another. They move, list in hand, from "their meat guy" to "their egg person" to "the milk people". Their shoes still bear the trace of the dew gathered as they walked through the park to reach the market, their voices are hushed as they shop. These early shoppers shared with the farmers the hushed expectancy of a time dedicated to food and to valuing the farmers whose labors bring the food to market.

There is something incredibly rejuvenating about a farmers markets. We sell at markets and it is deeply satisfying on a visceral, even spiritual, level, to be able to pass along the tangible result of our efforts. To hold in our hands the proof of our labors is a privilege. To be able to hand this to someone who values the care and sacrifice that went into the creation of that food is a blessing. We are, we know, supremely blessed, to be able to share life-giving sustenance to others.

At the end of market, we gather our food for the week. We have shared our riches with others, we gather from others bounty that will feed our children for the coming week. We have held back some cheese for our friends and they have reserved honey for us. Sometimes there is little left. We may wish that we had been able to grab some of the lime basil before it flew off our fellow farmer's tables, but we rejoice with them that they sold out. There is often a festive feel to the end of market. We have crossed a finish line in bringing our product from the field to the creamery to the market; we are gain the precious burden of bringing the fruits of our friend's labors home to feed our own children. It is a symbiotic relationship from every angle. Farmers need the city customers, farmers need each other, farmers need the organizations that run the markets, who in turn need the farmers to fill the market and the customers who value the market. Given the realities of 21st century living this is about a perfect situation as one could possibly find, a return to Eden within the confines of some of the largest cities in the world.

Lately, though, we wonder if there may not be a serpent in this garden, or at least a root-rot that may be eating away at the markets.

To be honest, there have been murmurings of discontent with our market models for some time, now. As far back as the March/April 2009 issue of Mother Jones, an article titled "Foodie, Beware" warned that a subtle shift was taking place in the markets. Farmers were turning to value-added products, then leaving markets altogether, for wholesale opportunities such as selling to restaurants, stores and delivery services. A shift was taking place, from markets filled with farmers to markets filled with prepared foods and loosely food-based crafts so that the shopper could fill those capacious baskets with dried flowers and spice rubs while they eat fresh breakfast tacos and sip good coffee. The customer may not complain, after all, these are the kinds of purchases that give that extra flavor and joy to life--but are these still properly to be called farmers markets? How many farmers does it take to allow a market to retain the title "farmers market"? What of the farmers? They talk quietly among themselves about declining sales. The "real" customers are not shopping in the numbers that they once were, they have been replaced by those who visit once, perhaps from out of town, or by those who come for the weekend routine of fresh pastry and coffee and to listen to the band and do a little people watching. These customers do not make up the bulk of what the farmers had grown accustomed to seeing, but customers are customers, right?

Unfortunately, no. These customers do not buy like the customers that we had grown used to at markets. Farmers, anxious to make ends meet adapt to the customers that do come to the markets. We have seen peach orchards turn to selling primarily dried fruit and preserves. One family did not even plant their usual market garden this year, as their focus has become handcrafted soaps and skincare products. In both cases the reason was simple--there are not enough customers to buy the fresh fruit and vegetables, leaving the farmers scrambling to develop products that will remain shelf-stable and bring a consistent income. The dedicated shoppers who come for the pure farmers market fare leave disappointed when they are unable to get the abundance of seasonal produce, many of them leaving the market system and turning to the organic fare in the grocery stores, leaving less customers to buy the kale, carrots and cantaloupe, and the downward spiral continues.

Where did this spiral begin? Can it be stopped? Is it perhaps time to acknowledge that the return to the market system that supports local, sustainable farming has failed? We have some thoughts that we would like to share from our years of selling at market and our observations of markets that we have visited across the country and even internationally. These will be shared in tomorrow's blog, in the meanwhile, we would appreciate any comments that readers may have regarding the current situation of farmer's markets in the United States in general, Texas in specific.

Until tomorrow~                

May 28, 2015

Life Journeys

Everyone at some point in their life has experienced a life journey. These journeys are unique in that we know where we begin, we know where we hope to end. We may even know what we believe will be the route that we will take. The other aspect that we know when we begin these journeys is that they seem like they will be interminable. We look ahead and the destination is so far ahead that we almost cannot bring ourselves to take in the entire journey at one glance, it is simply too daunting. Given the overwhelming nature of the journey, we opt to take it one section at a time.

What are these journeys that almost all of us undertake? One may be parenthood. The baby is born and we are warned that we must consciously try to embrace each day, because they fly, oh! so! fast! and some day we will miss these times.

Instead, sleep deprived, we live in a world where every night takes forever. We wonder if the thankless days of spit up and dirty diapers will ever come to an end. Just when we despair, we are rewarded with that first milk-drunk smile from our wobbly-headed baby and we know that we can carry on. We have learned a lesson, though, that the days stretch on with little to differentiate them from another, so we look for that milestone and we live from milestone to milestone. The first smile becomes sitting up, becomes crawling, becomes walking, preschool, junior high, high school, then college. At that point, we have learned to endure the days, months, years of sameness by leapfrogging from one experience to another, losing the days between. The time comes when we stand at the end and look back and wonder where did the time go? How did we come to be here, kissing that wobbly-headed baby goodbye and turning back to an empty room? Wasn't it just yesterday that they were born?

This is by no means the only such journey that we undertake. We have marriage, school and running a business or working at a job. What each of these journeys have in common is the experience of feeling as if progress comes incredibly slowly while we are in the midst of it, only to look back and see two things, simultaneously. First, we see the personal growth and change that occurred through the trek.  Secondly, once we have arrived at our destination, we notice that the trip seems to have just begun.

We are pretty familiar with these kinds of journey at our home. We have raised five of our twelve children to adulthood--yet those baby pictures seem as though they were taken just yesterday! We homeschooled each of these children and are close to graduating our sixth 100% homeschooled student--yet we remember the challenges of phonics and learning place value. We have been married for thirty years, next month--yet I still seem to feel our hands trembling as we slid those rings on each other's fingers as if it happened this morning. We have been busy building a farm and it many days it seems as though the grinding nature of farming has stretched each day into a week, each month into a year, so that the process has taken an incredibly long time--yet it seems as if it was just yesterday that we walked the land unsure as to where we should build the first barn.

This most recent life journey of our family, particularly our family farm, really took us by surprise and hit us hard. We had been deep in the living day by day aspect of the journey, changing course as needed, but never doubting that the trek would take us to where we had planned to go. This all changed, when suddenly we were forced to look up and we realized that the steps had taken us from our charted course until we were not even certain that we could see our destination. It was as if we were lost in the fog and not even sure that we would be able to make it back to our original path! All we knew was that we had given our hearts and our hands to laboring to build something special and now we faced seeing it all slip away.

It didn't, of course. We learned that some in whom we had placed our trust were not worthy of that trust--but we also learned that there were many others who believed in us and supported us. We learned that while we will never be the same, we have learned that we are far stronger than we ever imagined. We learned that the bitterness at looking back at the journey can swept away by the hesitant joy of looking forward to a new beginning. Mostly we have learned that life cannot be lived by simply struggling to get through the journey, but that the journey is best lived by seizing life and joy with both hands and not letting go, regardless of how dark the storm clouds may seem.