How Dallas Killed Farmers Markets

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

As more produce vendors became a part of the market, quality declined. John remembers watching dealers peel the wilted leaves from older cabbages so they still looked fresh and then offering them at the same premium price. Dealers would claim to be farmers so they could get cheaper stall rentals. Some of the worst used shady tactics like false bottoms to make half-empty baskets of produce appear full.

John remembers a crop check she conducted on a farmer selling fresh corn. She drove all the way out to Forney to the address listed in the farmer's application only to find his mother's house. There was a small plot of ground where they casually grew a few plants. According to the city's rules at that time, that garden qualified the produce dealer as a farmer.

When the market administrator and other employees tried to rein in the worst abusers, dealers howled and headed to City Hall to lobby council members. Farmers, meanwhile, were too busy working their farms and didn't have time to play the politics that gradually began to shape the rules of the market. Slowly the produce dealers gained more and more control, and what billed itself as a farmers market became something akin to an open-air grocery store — and not a particularly good one.

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.

At the same time, the market administration was having an increasingly difficult time working with the city. In the early '80s, the market's management was moved from weights and measures under consumer affairs to convention and event services. Consumer affairs was a public service entity funded by the city budget. Convention and event services was intended to be self-sufficient and profitable. That change altered the tenor of the interactions between the farmers market and the city completely.

Now the market was to be a city attraction and requirements for special security and trash services were ladled on. Under the old regime, dealers and farmers were expected to vacate their stalls when they'd concluded business and take their trucks and their trash with them. The farmers took their unsold produce back to the farm to feed to livestock or compost. The dealers had to deal with their refuse on their own. But now the city required trash compactors to be installed, and the costs were levied on the market. Dealers began leaving their trucks in the lots overnight, making the streets harder to clean.

When Shed 3 was demolished a new shed was built to house the displaced farmers. The city thought the new Shed 2 should anchor their new vision of the market, and it was built right on top of the previously striped pavement that used to call to the sky above. It had to be enclosed so the space could attract restaurants, and it had to be heated and cooled too. More employees were hired to help with upkeep. Energy, personnel and other operating costs skyrocketed while business fell. Many of the farmers left. It's easy to understand why.

Imagine being a small, family farmer who works for months to grow tomatoes by the bushel, and then as you set up your display, a produce dealer with none of your operating costs and 10 times the product competes with you in a neighboring stall. Then imagine a drought wiping out your crop. Weather, of course, doesn't affect the produce dealers who can buy "fresh" product all the way from Chile if they need to. The dealers are capable of setting up massive tables of produce stacked high — an image that resonates with shoppers who are used to buying their food at grocery stores. But if the quality from the produce dealers is no better than that at the grocery store, the reputation of the farmer selling alongside the dealer still suffers, even though the farmer's tomatoes might be great.

The pressure was enough to convert some farmers to produce dealers. Sherry Thompson and her family have been selling at the Dallas Farmers Market for more than 50 years. When they lost an entire peach crop, they were forced to resell produce to supplement their income. When Thompson's parents died, she took over the farm with her husband. But then he passed away too, and Thompson doesn't have the resources to farm on her own any longer. "I go outside, sit on the tractor and fire it up now and then, just to keep it running," Thompson said. "I just don't have the heart for it anymore."


Governing by Numbers

While the Dallas Farmers Market added more produce dealers and the farmers began to decline, the term "farmers market" was gaining a very special meaning in other parts of the country. Farming and nutrition advocates were fed up with an increasingly homogenized food system that placed emphasis on availability and abundance at the expense of seasonality and quality. As large-scale operations grew and cold storage methods and globalization made a Noah's ark worth of produce available year-round, the personality of each vegetable and fruit faded.

Food fanatics joined the movement. These new consumers didn't want a tomato 365 days a year; they wanted a good one. They wanted to meet and interact with the farmer who was growing their food and watch the seasons shift on their tables.

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40 comments
sammycharles
sammycharles

Scott,

Thanks for the informative article. I lived in Houston for 10 years and it took forever to get a farmers market there in the 90s. Then I visited a few times and saw a few tiny markets there that were a semblance of a farmers market. Then when I would visit family in Dallas and go to the farmers market I thought , this sucks!!  There are no local farmers this is just a produce vendor market selling marginal produce which 100% isn't organic and no attitude about local items. Truly sad :-(.


Then when I visited a few years ago I went to 2 different markets in Dallas, one on Lovers Lane (really a sad lonely place) one in E Dallas, run by Sarah and thought well at least they have 1 local grower, maybe 2 but the rest was jams and all processed things, a vegan bakery (that was really bad), I appreciated the effort but it didn't really have the farmers market vibe like true ones in California or Seattle or N York or almost every where else that farmers market exist. 

The whole idea is to give farmers a direct outlet to consumers and vice versa.  Dallasites seem to be deprived of this because of the arcane attitude of the city officials and ignorance of their jobs. This city council seems to get mired in regulations and doesn't seem to want to manage the city's affair for the benefit of all it's citizens. But I won't get started on that rant. Why don't they just look at Austin and see how they do their market and copy it. Or Santa Monica or Seattle or ....  Oh wait that might be too cheap and easy. Hopefully this might change in the next decade.

Subnx,

Silly, weirdos, Krogers. Hmm I suspect diversity might be a bit threatening for you. I hope you don't travel much out of Texas, surely not the few hours to Austin or wait even to Deep Ellum in Dallas, Well you ..... I need to stop myself here. I am thankful I won't ever run into you at a farmers market.


And you think the food quality at Krogers is good?? I am falling out of chair laughing or cying. Seriously!!   There is a saying about the food in the US, it looks great on the outside but has no taste on the inside. What do you consider to be quality? One simple tool to measure quality is a refractometer. It gives you the brix level.  If you would test your quality food at Krogers I think you would find it all in the poor category. Or would you be a strong proponent for GMO foods?

Subnx
Subnx

Farmers markets are a silly form of commerce that can't compete with real grocery stores. Only weirdos shop there. The food is of lower quality than you can find at Kroger's where food is quality controlled.

dfmfriends10
dfmfriends10

Hey Scott: Congratulations on a tough story well told. Even I, who have been a DFM supporter for many years and an almost-full time volunteer for 5 yrs. didn't know the background on 'what went wrong'. Thank you for the hard work here. I wish you had written this story 2 yrs ago...When the people of Dallas could have opened their eyes to the city and the city council's mishandling and utter disregard for thier PUBLIC MARKET and its potential and clamored for preserving it.

However, you left out a big piece of the current story for the DFM. While so many have been turning their back on the historic landmark, the DFMFriends went to work and in June, 2012, with the support of the Market staff, completely funded and facilitated the on-site SNAP program. And, they secured a grant from the Texas Dept of Agriculture to further the availability of fresh, nutritious foods to our food insecure neighborhoods. With the Market being so close to the many zip codes in South and East Dallas where grocery stores are few and far between, it's a mystery why SNAP hadn't been utilized much earlier. It's a win-win--for the farmers and for the consumer who previously have not had access to locally grown foods.

Our 'Tasty and Affordable' campaign rolls out next week and is geared to reach those who, with little to no choice, shop at fast-food joints and convenience stores for their dinner. We are reaching out to more and more farmers to keep the DFM as one of the markets where they can bring their produce and  be part of the solution to Dallas' hunger problem. (and yes, there is one). The Friends are big fans of all the farmers markets in our area....just don't throw out this 'big baby' with the bathwater.



bplaney
bplaney

Some great historical reporting... I half expected to hear how the local grocery store operators might have lobbied City Hall to behave this way. Was there no such interference? after all, in terms of grocery chains, Dallas has a lot of competition and I can believe that from their point of view, a vibrant set of Farmers Markets would NOT be welcome.

kpierce1
kpierce1

Scott: A terrific recounting of a chronic problem wholly created by the city. I have covered the Dallas FM  for decades for local publications and written two Dallas Morning News op-ed pieces on the city's lame, ignorant and ham-fisted handling of the market. Your piece is a welcome expose of yet another facet of the problem. 

I don't' know a locavore fan who would not wish the DFM success (or cheer the opening of more Dallas markets). But so many of us have seen so much go wrong at DFM. Coppell brought everyone to the table BEFORE the development around the market went forward (and it was not an easy process). They got down to the micro-issues that make or break a market for vendors (because without the vendors, you have no market). Their farmers market has advocates inside and outside city government. 

The new Dallas group, in contrast, seems to be saying, "Give us a chance. We're going to work this out." I just can't muster a lot of optimism, but yes, I'll wait and see.

As for those tortured regulations that stymie neighborhood market development, here's a simple truth: There is not now nor ever has been, to my knowledge, a farmers market advocate in city government. I keep wondering why Mayor Rawlins, who has been such a strong community advocate, remains silent on the subject.

tcufrog
tcufrog

Yet another example of something that the suburbs and Fort Worth seem to get right but Dallas screws up.  The Cowtown Farmer's Market is popular for locally grown produce (no bananas from Chile there) and supported by the city.  Even though it's small I enjoy going to the Grand Prairie Farmer's Market.  The city does a good job of drawing people to the market by offering programming during each market.  The barriers to operating a booth are low enough that I once spotted an elderly woman who was selling figs she picked from the fig trees in her yard.  They were delicious and you definitely wouldn't have seen that at the Dallas Farmer's Market.

Dallas Farmers Market Stakeholders Association
Dallas Farmers Market Stakeholders Association

Don't give up on the Dallas Farmers Market. There are wonderful changes ahead and the DFM farmer's and local businesses need your support NOW more than ever. The FM neighborhood and community believes in the Farmer's Market potential and wants to see it succeed. Visit the Dallas Farmers Market this weekend.

Texas Local Search
Texas Local Search

There is a Farmers Market every Saturday in Rockwall beginning May 4th through the summer! :)

Dallasphotog
Dallasphotog

You can always count of the City of Dallas to f*ck a good thing up.

Rebecca Finnegan
Rebecca Finnegan

The Dallas Farmers market is/was full of people selling the same produce you get in the store. I went to the Collin County farmers market last Saturday and got yummy produce grown pesticide free by a sweet family from Nevada, honey from Anna, artisan bread baked in Dallas, pastured eggs from a local farm, butter and yogurt from Lucky Layla farms right here in Plano and organic herbs grown by a local woman. Go Plano!

Elizabeth Gutierrez Fong
Elizabeth Gutierrez Fong

i think the idea of a market that the dallas city council has is like central market on lovers ln, lol.

Crystal Means
Crystal Means

I loved the Farmer's Market downtown...I just read an article, I forget where, that said they were revamping it, not closing it for good...the only other one close to me is in Plano but its relatively small and not the best selection. ..so, why is no one trying to fix the issue?

Efriam A. Garza
Efriam A. Garza

People here think Farmers Markets are run by liberals....

Ana Santellana
Ana Santellana

I learned about Farmers Markets while living in Houston a few years ago and absolutely loved it. Had me cooking more & it was pretty cool when the person selling you produce/meat/etc. could tell you about the product in-depth. When I moved back to Dallas I went to the Farmers Market and instantly left. Dirty, smelly, & pretty scary. I definitely wish we had a thriving market...especially since they're trying to revive downtown & get more people outdoors!

Efriam A. Garza
Efriam A. Garza

Anyone remember the way chicken used to taste? Ever notice how different food looks in other countries?

Annette Krausse
Annette Krausse

It's just as difficult to get food truck parks around here!

Efriam A. Garza
Efriam A. Garza

This has to be fixed before we die from eating GMO's....

Dan Berjac
Dan Berjac

I am from Seattle and a recemt transplant to Dallas. It has been sad that it is not easy to find local texas produce. Many urban cities have neighborhood farmers markets. Hopefully we can help Dallas catch up to tasty healthy susutainable living.

edensgardener
edensgardener

Nice recap of the DFM and how it went south. I remember when the WRLM first fired up, before the rules got crazy. They ran on opposite weekends of our (now) 6 year old running neighborhood all ranchers and farmer's clean foods market in Balch Springs (Eden's)  - less than 15 mins away from downtown Dallas/Lakewood. We also share(d) farmers and ranchers who were tired of the politics and mis-informed customers at the downtown market - which was no longer representative of a real farmers market experience; although, many customers didn't know any different. I remember scouring reviews of the downtown market hearing rave reviews of the wide selection from "farmers". DFM has done a lot to try to make things right for farmers/ranchers who've been nudged out, but I still hear a lot of negative feedback from them. It will be interesting to hear how the new group handles things downtown. A mostly hands- off approach (once reasonable safety issues are addressed). Do legislators think farmers are dumb or irresponsible or what? Maybe they just think we're rich and can afford thousands in annual fees..... The new market up on Plano had to jump through ridiculous hoops to get opened, too.  It's silly when you think back not too long ago when people traded food openly - and few ever got sick like we have with mega food distribution systems.

I do thoroughly screen our farmers for growing techniques, etc., but don't require them to jump through tons of paperwork or hoops to set up here - once we have determined they qualify to sell to our customers. (We have many folks who rely on knowing that all of our vendors are "clean" growers for medical reasons, as well as ethical ones.) We have always had a very friendly and laid back market on a small farm where folks get to know who grows/raises the food and you'll not find pineapples - but you'd be surprised how many sometimes call and ask....  we do our best to educate customers as well as take care of their local market needs. We encourage relationships between our chefs, farmers and the buying public.

Educating consumers, as Houser/Provost, Dodds, Harris, McCallister, Salum, Hobbs, Luscher, Quinones, Tesar, Natera and so many other local chefs try to do with their changing seasonal menus, is key to helping local small farmers survive - and in turn the small markets that give them an outlet - and, then in turn, the local economies that get a boost. If more regular cooking folks would also tailor their home menus around what is available from their local markets first, then fill in with their "gotta have" items, everyone wins.

It is difficult to find enough help to cover all of the popping up markets as they mostly fall at the same day/time. But by supporting local growers directly through markets, CSA subscriptions and patronizing your local farm to table chefs, you're supporting and helping a small farmer/producer capture 100% of their efforts by being able to sell their products at retail. We thank you all for your support of local ag!


rincru
rincru

Sarah Perry has done more for generating a micro-economy for East Dallas than any other person I can think of.  By starting White Rock Local Market, she has allowed many small businesses to grow and thrive.  Small Market Vendors also generate City and County Sales Tax (as well as State Sales  and Federal income tax), we start small in our homes and move to paying rent in commercial space, we pay living wages to employees, and buy supplies and services from other local businesses.  We are true economic catalysts for the City, and when the market rules were being made and we asked to be heard by City Staff we were treated like lepers.  Many small market vendors are transitioning from layoffs, disabling illness, or stints as stay at home Moms.  The last few years there were few jobs and there certainly was no credit to be had from financial institutions.  Having your own small business, which is local, organic and self-started takes a lot of nerve and determined work...I certainly didn't appreciate a response I had talking to a certain City staff member which equated to, "let them eat cake".

ebailey75057
ebailey75057

Dallas's lose is the suburb's gain.

A major city without a respectable farmer's market? 

Your crooked council's ineptness in action.

We use a local co-op to purchase local farmer's produce. Good Eats! 

sherilenoir
sherilenoir

Dallas city government taking something simple and happy, overbloating it with unnecessary regulations and shady sales practices to make a quick buck? say it ain't so. *falling over from non surprise*

Blake Wilson
Blake Wilson

It should read "How Dallas City Hall Killed Farmers Markets". Another government is the problem scenario.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@sammycharles If you haven't checked out Sarah Perry's market as of late you should. I was just there today, and it seems to constantly grow.

kpierce1
kpierce1

@bplaney I don't think so. In my 30+ years of reporting about farmers markets, that has never come up in connection with Dallas. It has been a factor in a few outlying suburbs.

ghkyluhhje
ghkyluhhje

@tcufrog Bahaha! That was funny. I've never heard of that place-which probably means it's not significant.

Vndallas
Vndallas

@tcufrog 

Oh sweetie, but the Cowtown Farmers Market is in Fort Worth....so nobody cares.

MikeDunlap
MikeDunlap

@Dallas Farmers Market Stakeholders Association 

The market has long been a car exhaust infested dump that the Stakeholders Association has done nothing to change, god forbid parking space be reduced in their sheds.

scott.reitz
scott.reitz moderator

@Texas Local Search The more the better.

DFMBusinessOwner
DFMBusinessOwner

Crystal, The Dallas Farmers Market is NOT closing.  The Dallas Farmers Market is being Privatized.  It will be fixed up, improved and made better. The City of Dallas will no longer manage the farmers market which will remove a lot of the rules, ordinances and regulations that have made it so difficult for the farmer's. 

MikeDunlap
MikeDunlap

@ebailey75057 

Crooked council aside, I highly doubt anyone in Dallas wishes he lived in Lewisville.

ghkyluhhje
ghkyluhhje

@MikeDunlap "god forbid parking space be reduced in their sheds"-yeah, because it's not like anyone in Dallas drives cars. They all drive camels. Or donkeys. You probably drive an ass.

DFMBusinessOwner
DFMBusinessOwner

Mike, you need to familiarize yourself with the changes underway at the Dallas Farmers Market. The parking you mention in the shed's is all going away.  Both Shed 1 and Shed 2 will be expanded, re-finished and open for pedestrian traffic only.  Focusing back on local farmers and local businesses - rid of the city regulations that have made it so difficult. As for the Farmers Market Stakeholder's, without their neighborhood advocacy and community involvement the Dallas Farmers Market would have been closed and area further crippled. Would you rather have this section of  Downtown completely boarded up, vacant and overrun with the homeless?  Is that your idea of a solution? 

ebailey75057
ebailey75057

Mr. Dunlap,

So sorry you feel that one of our beloved metroplex burbs is beneath your current social status.  I'm sure the city of Lewisville and its residents  appreciate and respect your opinion.  However,  would you please remind us what your point was regarding the topic and subject matter contained in the article instead of commenting on where people might or might not reside in the metroplex and your apparently inherit prejudices against where they have decided to domicile?     

Lewisville1is1trash
Lewisville1is1trash

@ebailey75057 I'll be happy to respond a, even if it is a few months late.  Lewisville is the anus of the Metroplex; the "local co-op," there is pathetic, and full of the same vegetables from the same wholesalers that plague the DFM. Don't post a comment comparing your glorious city's co-op to that of Dallas' market, and not expect some backlash. Lewisville has what is, probably, the worst source of fresh fruits and veggies in DFW.  Hell, the market at White Rock annihilates your precious co-op, at it serves a NEIGHBORHOOD. Anyways, enjoy your run-down, deserted strip malls and the death-rattle of a pseudo-wealthy suburb that almost was... in the 90's.

 
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