Down on the farm
Stan Miklis farm -- and its future, it seems -- lies somewhere between Fate and Poetry. Halfway between these two tiny burgs, in Royse City, Miklis owns and harvests his 100-acre stretch of land. In this farm-rich area, cattle and horses graze and lazily canter amidst prairie grass, juxtaposed nicely with crops stretching upward toward a hot Texas sun.
Miklis' farm, however, is virtually animal-free, save for a pond full of largemouth bass; his once-stray dog named Little Dump, short for Dumpling; and a curious (and copious) flock of pink plastic flamingoes. This particular farm is the one responsible for the area's sweet smell, cloaking the surrounding fields with the effervescent aroma of fresh flowers.
The old dirt road leading to Miklis' modest, rather peculiar three-toned farmhouse is rough, and the weather is often turbulent in this enclave of East Texas, but this is still some of the prettiest countryside between Lake Tawakoni and Dallas.
Not everything is rolling fields and pretty blossoms for Miklis these days, however. At 6 a.m. one day in June, right about the time many farmers were beginning their daily mowing and harvesting routines, Miklis sat atop a wrought-iron picnic table and stared blankly at the now-vacant trellises that should have been teeming with colorful perennials and annuals. The smell was still there, but the color wasn't. Miklis, dressed for labor in a black cotton shirt with the sleeves and collar ripped off, a pair of faded blue jeans, and leather workboots, looked clear through his weathered pick-up truck and the BMW Z3 parked next to it, sporting an odd "Stan 79" license plate that complemented his even odder, mostly purple farmhouse.
"It's over," he said dejectedly. "I'm out. It's over."
Miklis was reacting to an article in that day's Dallas Morning News. Splashed across the front of the Metropolitan page was the headline "City cultivates plans for Farmers Market. Developer is sought to add coffee shops, cafes." While the city's bold plans for the market are good news for the new crop of young, professional downtown loft dwellers, who have nowhere to shop for groceries, as far as Miklis is concerned, the city might as well have firebombed his small flower shop in the parking lot of Shed Two.
Caliper Flowers, so named because Caliper means substance and sounds like Excalibur--Miklis is a medieval buff--has occupied this corner of the Dallas Farmers Market for the last seven years. Miklis makes a modest living from his flowers, enough to support himself, his 15-year-old son, and his ex-wife. But as any farmer is quick to point out, the actual pursuit of harvesting crops, raising animals, and cultivating flowers, coupled with the discipline of waking up every morning at cock's crow and hauling a payload from rural Texas some 30-odd miles to downtown Dallas by the morning light, is not the easiest way to make a buck. Miklis doesn't punch out at the end of the day; he continually monitors weather, soil conditions, competitors, prices. It is these factors that drive the ups and downs in a farmer's life.
Because of the downs, Miklis lost his marriage. Now he fears he'll lose his shop, his livelihood.
Shed Two, situated at the center of the Farmers Market, is now the "International Market Place." It has walls and doors, unlike sheds One and Three, and giant ceiling fans to stir the otherwise stale air. The main commerce here is furniture, exotic pieces from parts of the world that Ethan Allen hasn't conquered yet. China, India, Mexico, and much more: huge, unpainted armoires that are sold new but have that turn-of-the-century look, along with mirrors encased in hand-painted, pressed tin. The stuff is often unique, and it's also a real bargain.
The city's vision for the market definitely isn't celebrated here. What initially raised hackles among these tenants was the threat of a takeover by Dallas businessman Joe Jansen. Right now, the city owns and operates the entire market, including Shed Two, leasing space to the vendors and farmers. Jansen was dealing with city and market officials to revamp the large, half-empty Shed Two, creating within it a world market in the image of the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle, host to some nine million visitors a year.
But Jansen is not just any old businessman with a plan for profit--at least not in the eyes of anyone with a stake in the Farmers Market. Jansen is the owner of Dallas' Goody Goody liquor-store chain. And considering the fact that Dallas' Champs-Elysées for winos is but a couple of blocks south, people were understandably concerned that the market might turn into a mall for drunks and drifters.
Jansen and the city assured everyone that just because he owned seven liquor stores, that didn't necessarily mean he planned to open up a Goody Goody in Shed Two. Even so, the mere threat sent people reeling. For his part, Miklis, who serves as the information clearinghouse for many tenants, cried bloody murder. He and some other Shed Two tenants believed they'd been betrayed by the city.
Then, after the rumor mill--and the city's spin machine, assuring folks that everything was really OK--had run at high pitch for weeks, the whole thing was abruptly struck dead. City Convention and Event Services Director Wilhemina Boyd killed the proposal, and market head Gilbert Perales readily agreed with her when they realized--just as Miklis had warned--that Jansen was, in fact, planning to build a liquor store. (Jansen did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
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.
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.
"I was listening to a country radio station one Sunday afternoon, and they asked Tim McGraw what the toughest job he ever did was," Carolyn Lemley says. "And you know what he said? Picking tomatoes."
J.T. and Carolyn were high-school sweethearts. Now they've been married 32 years. There have been plenty of hardships along the way; 20 years of farming is bound to beget a few off years. But their work never stops. When it's 105 degrees in the summertime, they still work their stall. The fans surrounding them manage to produce a breeze, although in July and August it feels more like a blow-dryer aimed at your face. Seasoned Farmers Market veterans, the Lemleys at one point sold produce out of Shed Two, back when it was used for that purpose. Their opinion represents a cross-section of farmers at the market: They don't necessarily care what happens with Shed Two, so long as their $18/day stall (with discounts in the off-season) isn't interfered with.
Their main concern: "I think people that come down here should buy from the farmers," Lemley says. "A lot of people go to the dealers. The customers should try to support East Texas farmers. People that come down here this time of year should be looking for farm-fresh produce."
Miklis and the furniture and jewelry vendors in Shed Two definitely have more at stake, and several of them complain that there's poor communication between the city and tenants. Right now, with 16 vendors leasing 43 of 93 stalls, paying an average of $237.50/month per stall, Shed Two brings in roughly $10,000 a month for the city.
Why is Shed Two only half-full? The answer is that the market is slowly phasing out its type of tenants, particularly the furniture dealers. "I can't afford to have more furniture," Perales says. "What we're looking for is people who will be willing to sell some type of food products. We can fill the whole place up with furniture and make the money, but the way I see it, you don't come to a farmers market prepared to dish out thousands of dollars for a cabinet." Perales adds that the city isn't satisfied with the amount of money Shed Two is pulling in. Shed One consistently makes $350,000 a year.
"I cannot sell anything but produce and vegetables in sheds One, Three, and Four," Perales says. "I cannot. I can't sell flowers or anything else. I have to provide something different in Shed Two. I'm not about to fill the whole thing up with furniture."
Whoever takes over the city's heavily peddled Shed Two will have to sink a great deal of money into it, installing a climate-control system so meats and dairy won't go bad in the heat. Right now, according to Perales, Shed Two is essentially cheap warehousing. He wants to make it the center of attention so that the Farmers Market doubles its number of yearly patrons.
Change was inevitable for the Farmers Market after the release of a critical city audit in April 1999. For years, the market operated on a do-what-you-want policy concerning vendors. The consequences of laissez-faire management were laid out in the audit, which, in several places, employed harsh words. In summary, the report said that the Farmers Market was ambling along without a coherent marketing plan; it was essentially a loose configuration of farmers paying rent. Advertising and marketing were poor.
Concerning Shed Two, the report read: "Shed Two is a fully enclosed, 26,000-square-foot facility with restrooms and 62 potential retail stalls. Currently, the west half of the shed is used for special-event rentals. There are 30 stalls at the east end that are used for stall rentals as the International Market Place; however, only 21 stalls are being rented by 14 vendors. Dallas Farmers Market has not undertaken efforts to optimize the potential of the DFM Shed Two."
Since then, much has changed at the market. The same year the report came out, the market finally operated in the black after years of losses. The city attributes this change to good management, Wilhemina Boyd says--perhaps a bit self-servingly, since she and Perales came on board two years ago.
Both management and vendors make compelling points about the future of the hulking Shed Two and its contents. There's no simple way for the two sides to live in harmony, since both have completely different opinions of what would make the market great.
Natividad Ramirez, owner of Rios Imports, and James Barfoot, owner of the Lost Empire Trading Company, stand to lose the most if Shed Two is leased to a new bidder. Barfoot believes that, as a group, the Shed Two vendors have not been included in the bidding process. He and the International Marketplace Association, a group consisting of all 16 Shed Two vendors, say they'd like a chance to bid on the shed, all but guaranteeing that they could raise the $16,000-a-month minimum required by the city.
"We would like to invite John Loza [the city council member representing the area] to discuss our situation," Barfoot says. "Basically, I don't want to come across as a victim. I don't think that's the case. I think we have an unusual situation here that merits attention. We are a diverse group of merchants that offer the public something that is not contrived or formulaic. If you look at it, this is the way markets used to be, when people took the time to get to know the people they do business with. I really feel like furniture is an integral part of any market that has existed in any city square in the past."
Loza, for his part, supports the idea of having some sort of a cafe and international marketplace for various foods in the shed, but also sympathizes with the vendors who have suffered along with the city during many years of red ink.
"It sounds to me like they're not looking for a third way on this," he says. "And I don't think there's necessarily a conflict between the two to where we can't come up with a solution that satisfies both sides. Certainly, we shouldn't run over the people that have been willing to stick it out under the current existing conditions."
Ramirez reiterates that something could possibly be done to accommodate the city and the Shed Two vendors, but he says he can't get a foot in the door. He claims that Perales is simply unapproachable and that when he went to Perales' office to discuss things, he was turned away by the city official's assistant.
"I went directly to his office twice, a month ago and then two weeks ago, and I talked to Ernie Williams and requested a meeting regarding vendors from the IMP [International Marketplace Association]," Ramirez says. "His words were, 'Not until we know what's going to happen.' That scares me. To me, I understood that as total disrespect. They are doing all they can to get rid of us."
Which may be true. And, Perales says, possibly a necessity. All one needs to do is take a look around downtown. Residential construction is under way all over, reflecting a national trend seen in cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, and now Dallas. Suburban municipalities welcome the urban facelifts as a way of curtailing sprawl, and downtown businesses jockey for positions with the closest proximity to new downtown growth. Right now in Dallas, however, there is not enough infrastructure to support downtown growth. The people living in the upscale Adam Hats lofts in Deep Ellum, for instance, have no place to shop for groceries. Perales says his vision of Shed Two would accommodate these new downtown dwellers--that, and the market's location off Interstate 30, could make it easy for downtown residents and commuters to do their shopping after work, jump on the freeway, and bounce.
"I don't want two totally different customers to come in to the market," Perales said. "I don't want furniture people and food people. I want you to be able to come in here and buy vegetables. You don't go into a mall and find half the place taken up by a used-car dealership. You don't go buy clothes and a Ford. And I know that it might sound harsh, especially for those people that are there, but we have to be realistic. If we're going to make it work, this is the only way that it's going to work. Some people will have to be displaced."
Stan Miklis stands inside his shed in Royse City, where he mixes soil and pots his seedlings. There is a large mound of dirt--enough to fill four or five wheelbarrows--and some aging farm equipment. Across the way from the shed is a huge greenhouse. The threshold has a placard that was handwritten in wet cement some 15 years ago. The writing is scratchy but clear: "Anticipate Success. Stan, Kathy and Baby Cody October 14, 1985."
If someone would have predicted his plight some 15 years ago, he says, he would have stuck with his somnolent corporate job, where he wore a tie and punched the clock. He says that if he's forced off his little piece of parking lot outside Shed Two, he's hanging up his hoe. Calling it quits.
The yards of flower flats are empty because Miklis is anticipating the worst. He doesn't want to invest time and money in growing a crop, then have nowhere to sell it. In fact, the sweet smell of his greenhouse may outlast his business. If his flower shop doesn't find a place in the city's new plan for the market, he'll sell his farm and property and leave Dallas.
"If I'm forced to leave, I no longer want to contribute to the Dallas Farmers Market," he says. "I don't want to contribute my flair and my education to people that cheated me."
He retreats to the confines of his strange purple house, decorated with gazing balls, pink flamingoes, and hanging plants. For how much longer, he doesn't know.
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