Down on the farm

The Farmer's Market is finally turning a profit, and the city has plans to make it even better. So why isn't everyone happy?

Even the city--enjoying profits from the Farmers Market for the first time in years--couldn't endure the thought of patrons buying blossoming marigolds and Mad Dog 20/20 in the same shopping excursion. "I wasn't about to allow a liquor store in the market," Perales says. "We will allow the sale of alcoholic beverages, but at the same time, I've been with the city now 15 years, and I know how sensitive people are about alcohol sales. I'm not about to walk up before council and say, 'Here's a rope. Hang me.'"

The city's decision is expected to be made final during an August city council meeting.

But whatever the city does with Shed Two, the bottom line is that some longtime tenants will be displaced. And there isn't necessarily a comparable place for them to relocate at the market. The threat of a liquor store in Shed Two may be gone, but a perception remains among the vendors that the city couldn't care less about their fates. Since tenants like Miklis operate on such a thin margin, these are anxious times. Shed Two tenants fear they'll be dealt out of the market and won't even know it till they read about it in the paper.

Inside Shed Two is a lot of empty space.
Inside Shed Two is a lot of empty space.
Market Director Gilbert Perales is reluctant to fill the empty space of Shed Two with more furniture.
Market Director Gilbert Perales is reluctant to fill the empty space of Shed Two with more furniture.

If, for argument's sake, Jansen had gotten the contract for Shed Two, which he would have leased from the city for about $16,000 a month, he would have had absolute say as to which vendors and products went there. Although Caliper Flowers is in the parking lot, it's still considered part of Shed Two. Miklis figures he would have been history.

His flowers are safe for the time being, but Miklis knows his future remains in jeopardy as the city makes another attempt to find a developer for Shed Two. Sooner or later, Perales says, the city will find a tenant who'll pay the minimum $16,000 and transform the Dallas Farmers Market into a Seattle or Kansas City or San Antonio. The Shed Two tenants, most of whom are furniture vendors, will be pushed out. And since the market is essentially full, they'll be displaced for good.

The Farmers Market tenants have no muscle in the form of co-ops or unions. Stroll through the sheds, and you'll discover another power deficit: Some of the tenants don't speak English. It's a dawn-till-dusk, every-man-for-himself way of life, though a certain camaraderie does exist; the tenants and workers talk and hang out, but have never formed a group to deal with the city. Up until now, there's been no need. Produce sellers' rents have remained stable, unlike those in Shed Two, where rents will increase 10 percent in October, with another 10 percent hike in April.

The United States Department of Agriculture in 1996 estimated that more than one million consumers visit various farmers markets around the country each week. On any decent Saturday in the summer, New York City's Union Square Greenmarket draws more than 100,000 customers. In 1974, the USDA counted fewer than 100 farmers markets in the nation. There are now an estimated 2,400. Another fun fact: The average supermarket carrot travels 2,000 miles from field to table. USDA surveys figure that most farmers market produce travels less than 50 miles to market, making it the freshest available to retail consumers. More than 20,000 farmers nationwide use farmers markets to sell their goods, and every state in the union except Nevada and Hawaii has at least one.

The Dallas Farmers Market, in fact, is one of the oldest and largest in the country. The current market was established in 1941, but a farmers market of sorts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area dates back to the late 1800s. The market, a true Dallas gem, draws about two million customers a year. Before dawn, farmers sell wholesale to small regional farm stands and businesses; when the sun rises, they open their sheds to city customers, selling all things Texas and beyond. The peaches and tomatoes--which far surpass the often tasteless fare found in local supermarkets--are the market's hallmarks, but the watermelons and oranges, many of which are grown in East and South Texas, aren't too shabby either. You can also find every kind of pepper under the sun and a considerable range of exotic fruits.

In the early 1900s, farmers came daily to Pearl and Cadiz streets to sell fresh produce to wholesale distributors. But with the city's rapid growth and the increasing use of automobiles, traffic jams resulted and city residents complained. Rather than barring the produce market, the city built a farmers market shed in 1941, just south of downtown at 1010 S. Pearl St. They added three more sheds in 1946, 1954 (though this one was torn down in 1993 to make room for the expansion of Central Expressway), and 1982, plus a fourth in 1994. More than 50 farmers sell fresh produce daily, and a lot of those are third- and fourth-generation people who have grown up inside the sheds of the Dallas Farmers Market.

Shed One, consisting mostly of produce farmers, brings in a steady flow of revenue for the city. These are salt-of-the-earth folks who work the land themselves and sell their farm-fresh products directly to the consumer. J.T. and Carolyn Lemley have been tomato farmers for the last 20 years. And for all that time, they've held shop at the Farmers Market. Their tomatoes are grown in Canton, about 60 miles east of Dallas. They tend 40 acres, and though the work is hard, they say it is also rewarding.

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