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Farmers Shocked (And Kinda Happy) to Hear City's Considering Privatizing Farmers Market

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Last night we told you that City Manager Mary Suhm's considering letting someone else manage Dallas Farmers Market. And, well, news of the market going private, just maybe, is news to the farmers.

"Are you serious?" said J.T. Lemley when we asked him how he felt about the idea. Lemley's a 34-year vet of the market, and the Canton icon's tomatoes and peaches are, for some, the only reason worth visiting Dallas Farmers Market

"I didn't know anything about it," said Don Baugh, sitting next to a load of watermelons fresh from his farm out in Canton. Baugh, who's been selling out of the downtown market for 15 years, says he isn't happy with the idea of private interests coming in. But, he said, "Something does need to be done."

He's referring to the $10 fee folks pay when they show up at the last minute to sell out of a stall. Farmers who reserve their slots pay $25. Baugh and Lemley -- who were the only actual farmers on premises when we visited this afternoon -- also take issue with the distributors who truck in produce from far and wide and occupy slots reserved for actual farmers. They share a common complaint that comes up whenever you talk to actual farmers out there: Much of what's for sale at the Dallas Farmers Market comes from Oklahoma, California, God knows where.

In Shed 2 -- where, $3 million and two years later, there are finally signs of life, even if they are cluttered and haphazard -- vendors are thrilled at the prospect. So much so they don't want go on the record (it's very East Berlin in there). One vendor gave a pretty bleak account of his experience up until now. He says he lost hope that things could change for the better: "I don't believe that could happen" is his response to Suhm's look-see at privatizing the market.

Another said the city has employed "scare tactics" in the past, referring to demands those selling packaged goods move indoors and threats that anyone could be kicked out Shed 2 for any reason -- even if they used their own money to build out a space. Regarding proposals for new management, said one Shed 2 vendor, "I am for anything that will make the market better."

Lemley's been at the market since 1976 and hasn't missed a season since. He's not terribly fond of the idea of the market going private, if only because he's gotten used to how the city operates the market. Which isn't perfect -- not by a long shot -- but at least "the city's always run it trying to help the farmer sell their produce," he says.

"I'm on a first-name basis with thousands of customers who depend on us every week for what they want, and I don't see it staying the same if they sell this thing out to the highest bidder," he says.

Then again, he says, the market's far from perfect. Matter of fact, Lemley tells Unfair Park, just the other day Al Rojas, the interim director of Convention & Event Services (which, for some reason, controls the market), was asking Lemley for his opinion about Dallas Farmers Market. Lemley says he told Rojas that, sure, the city's awfully good about collecting its checks, but there nobody's out there enforcing quality control. (Rojas was unavailable for comment, since the city's taking a furlough day.)

"What's actually in the baskets people buy is what I am concerned with," he says. "Why we have such a good business here is they always know it's going to be good. If it's not, it's an accident, and we'll make it good. And, unfortunately, not everyone's that way. There's been a bad reputation along the way. Some of the dealers are dealing from the bottom of the bucket."

Then there's the issue of: What's really local? "My customers bring it up regularly," he says. And: "There aren't as many farmers down there are there used to be. Then again, the work's pretty hard, and it's a pretty big gamble."

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