Longform

How Dallas Killed Farmers Markets

On the surface, Sarah Perry seems like an unlikely advocate. She has a quiet, almost passive demeanor and no interest in whipping up conspiracy theories even though the city of Dallas has given her a good reason to have some. All she wants to do is run a simple farmers market, but City Hall has made that very hard. In fact, it was once illegal.

Perry was born in Dallas and spent 10 years in New York City before returning in 1998. During her time in Manhattan, shopping at the Saturday farmers market in her West Village neighborhood was just a matter of course. In the heart of one of the densest urban environments in the country, she could meet face to face with scores of farmers who traveled to Union Square to sell fresh produce and meats. "They had a program called Green Market," Perry said, "which nurtures and teaches small farmers to make it possible for them to succeed and come and sell at the market."

When she came back to Texas, the city-owned Farmers Market was less than ideal. It was too far away, for one. Why should she drive downtown from her home in East Dallas just to go to a farmers market? Where were the neighborhood markets? Besides, something wasn't quite right about the market downtown. Some vendors sold products whose quality was, to put it nicely, dubious. Cottony tomatoes for sale in mid-March weren't exactly seasonal. And the market was dirty, filled with cars and pigeons, and difficult to navigate.

So she set out to create her own.

Perry scouted locations in East Dallas, eventually happening on the Green Spot, a health-focused convenience store on Buckner Boulevard that peddled organic frozen yogurt, direct trade coffee and fresh juice. A natural soda fountain replaced Super Big Gulps, and a small restaurant cooked up cage-free eggs and meats from animals raised humanely and not pumped full of antibiotics or growth hormones. Bruce Bagelman, who founded the Green Spot, was thrilled to host Perry's vision.

Perry contacted various vendors including Lisa Lucido, whose family made fresh pasta and sold it at the Dallas Farmers Market. She picked a date and went down to City Hall and got a special events permit. "It was pretty small the first time," Perry admitted, but she still considers her effort a huge success. "It was funny because everyone in the neighborhood had to have fresh pasta all of the sudden."

On the other side of Dallas, in the parking lot of Celebration Restaurant on Lovers Lane, Leah Ferraro was starting up her own market. Because Celebration was already licensed as a full-service restaurant, Ferraro went to the city's health department to see what she needed to conduct her outdoor market. She said she was told she didn't need a permit and would be fine as long as she offered hand-washing sinks and kept the grounds clean. The Celebration Market was a big success too. Residents who lived far from the city center were starved for a local, neighborhood market.

Then someone upset about a dog on the restaurant's patio called the health department, which prompted a rare weekend visit from an inspector who asked to see a permit for the event. Ferraro tried to explain that they'd run their plans by the health department and was told they were fine. The inspector disagreed. In September 2009, two city employees visited the market and politely told Ferraro that while everything seemed very nice, and they'd like to shop there too, she was going to have to get a permit. "Just go down to City Hall and you can open right back up," they told her. It didn't work that way.

City employees told Ferraro there was no such thing as farmers market permit, so if she wanted to hold a market she'd have to petition City Council to come up with one. She was also told she couldn't operate the market at all and was forced to close the remainder of the season. "And then of course the rumors started to fly," Ferraro said. Did you hear that the Celebration Restaurant was shut down by the health department?

What was bad for Celebration was good for Sarah Perry. Her market was growing quickly, and it took on some of the displaced farmers and vendors. Customers had come to depend on her Saturday market not just for local and naturally grown produce, but also as a place to congregate. Every other Saturday, her special event converted the Green Spot parking lot into a bustling town square. The permitting process had begun to grow tedious, though.

Special events permits were expensive and restrictive. They required police presence and trash services if events reached a certain size and required individual vendors to get additional permits if they wanted to sell grilled meats or other prepared dishes — what the city called potentially hazardous foods. That individual permit costs $250 and expires after 10 days, requiring farmers and vendors who wanted to participate in Perry's market to get a new permit every other week. Many vendors considered themselves lucky to take home $100 in sales from a single event. Even worse, the rules were applied inconsistently depending on which city employee was handling Perry's event. "The price would change every time I would make a phone call," she said.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz