How Dallas Killed Farmers Markets

Dallas leads the nation in over-regulating farmers markets ­— which is why we have so few of them.

Meanwhile the Dallas Farmers Market continued to get worse after decades of mismanagement, and poorly planned revitalization efforts only added to the problems. The city mandated improvements including trash service, security and other services that grew the infrastructure like a massive fruit tree as the money to water it was drying up. Revenues from a farmers market are seasonal, but the market had to be maintained year-round. The fee structure in place was inadequate, and the code that governed the market was out of date.

In 2006, voters approved $6 million in bond sales for repairs to the Dallas Farmers Market and then the city forgot to spend it. Paint peeled from the older sheds as customer spending declined. A newly built Shed 2 was partially filled with mismatched businesses and hardly finished storefronts, while ugly, exposed insulation hinted at the energy bills that sucked up the market's finances. The city was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, enough to infuriate City Manager Mary Suhm. She pushed the city to wash its hands clean of the mess with a new privatization effort that was championed by neighborhood advocates. Even that effort turned into a multi-year ordeal that was mired by arguments.

It wasn't always like this. Historic accounts and news articles tell of a lavish public market of four large sheds filled with hundreds of local "dirt" farmers who grew what they sold. So many cars parked under the sheds that some people worried about carbon monoxide. The market was a city treasure. But now it was a social blight draining money.

Sarah Perry courts prospective members at the White Rock Local Market. Dues will help sponsor a nearby community garden.
Mark Graham
Sarah Perry courts prospective members at the White Rock Local Market. Dues will help sponsor a nearby community garden.
Neighborhood markets turn once-vacant parking lots into bustling town squares.
Mark Graham
Neighborhood markets turn once-vacant parking lots into bustling town squares.

What's worse is the city seemed determined to drag smaller, independent farmers markets down into failure with them. Just as these neighborhood markets started to sprout, the city choked them with an herbicide of onerous regulations that made running a market cost-prohibitive. When they finally finished a new ordinance governing neighborhood markets, they filled the document with unnecessary restrictions that illuminated how clueless City Hall was about how to manage farmers markets. Meanwhile, the downtown Dallas Farmers Market went from being the best in Texas to one of the worst in the country.

A Downtown Oasis Dries Up

Tony John was an accounting clerk when she first reported to work at the Dallas Farmers Market in 1981. Her duties included assigning vendors their stalls, helping enforce market rules and collecting and recording rental fees. At the end of the day she'd take stacks of cash, sometimes as much as $60,000, down to City Hall for deposit — a sizable sum considering the small fees the city charged farmers to participate in the market. But back then a farmer would show up early in the morning and sell out of produce in just a few hours, and some stalls turned two and three vendors each day.

John recalls sitting in her office, which had an open storm door, when a moving truck pulling into a stall caught her eye. The truck's wooden sideboards were red and it was filled so high with fresh green peppers she wondered how they kept from tumbling into the street. Above the truck the newly painted yellow shed roof captured the sun like a giant summer squash, and above that the cloudless sky was bright blue. "It was the most gorgeous rainbow," John said.

As John learned the ropes, the city was just wrapping up construction of Shed 4 and held a big ceremony with a ribbon cutting. The newest shed was painted a bright, springtime green. Shed 2 was painted vibrant orange and Shed 3 was red. The colors mimicked the shades lapped on barns, John Deere tractors and other farm equipment.

The pavement just outside the stalls was painted in alternating red and white bands. Seen from above from a plane flying into Love Field, the colors, muddled with the footsteps of thousands of shoppers, looked like a freshly plowed field. The market was painted as if Edward Hopper held the brush. "And the aromas," John added. "There is nothing more wonderful to smell than a real farmers market."

But according to the ordinance that governed the space, the Dallas Farmers Market was a municipal produce market, not a traditional farmers market — a distinction that allowed produce vendors to participate right alongside farmers. These dealers, who might never have turned a spadeful of dirt, bought products from big wholesale vendors, which allowed the market to offer pineapples, avocados and other products that weren't in season or otherwise available. For the most part, at first, those vendors had the same pride in their goods as the farmers, and the quality of all the products was high. But a few bad pieces of fruit, as John put it, were slowly spoiling the barrel.

In the decades before John arrived, the market was fertile ground for entrepreneurs. It was one of the few places any person could set up a business for just a few hundred dollars. Former Councilman Al Lipscomb put his weight behind the market, which he saw as a means for people in his South Dallas district to pull themselves up out of poverty. It was a platform for his politicking.

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