Every day the world is becoming more industrialized and commercial. But that hasn’t stopped some Houstonians from enjoying a taste of the old ways on Saturday mornings.
Urban Harvest’s Bayou City Farmers Market, located in the back parking lot at 300 Richmond, is nearing its fourth year of providing Houstonians locally grown produce, meats and other items. Since its inception the number of growers has increased from about eight to more than 40, says Jacquie Miller, the market manager. “People would look around and go, ‘That’s it?'” Miller says of the early days. “But we’ve grown quite a bit in a short time. And it keeps money in the local community.”
On any given Saturday 30 producers come from farms up to 150 miles away. The distance may seem a bit far to be considered local, but Miller says they already have trouble finding enough growers to accommodate the increasing demand for markets. “People are always saying we need a market in The Woodlands, or somewhere else,” Miller says. “The problem has been the supply of farmers more than the demand for more markets.”
Market goods include produce, chicken, micro-greens, cage-free eggs, coffee, breads and desserts — all with an emphasis on freshness. “I don’t want to be selling something next week that I picked yesterday,” says Van Weldon, a farmer in San Jacinto County. “You want to make sure the customer gets the freshest product.” Weldon says if he has greens left over at the end of the day he may look to sell the remainder at a nearby restaurant. His farm caters mainly to high-end eateries in Dallas and Houston; other growers sell to produce companies or grocery stores. But, Miller says, the market can shed light on the farming business and bring more customer traffic.
The market also includes a Gardeners’ Corner, where harvests of any size are sold. “It’s a co-op area for small producers and backyard farmers,” Miller says. “Maybe someone’s got a lemon tree in their yard. They’ll be here just for that in the winter.”
Part of the market’s draw is the relationship between the buyer and producer. The displays are run by the people cultivating the goods. If a customer has a question or comment, the farmer is right there and readily available. “I get to see firsthand and get gratification from selling a quality product,” Weldon says. “And if you have problems with your product you hear that too.”
Such as price increases. Weldon charged $5 for his baby lettuce mix last year, but bumped it to $6 in reaction to the rising cost of diesel fuel. And he’s not alone. “We spend $500 a week on gasoline,” says Henry Bryan, a chicken grower in Hempstead. “I’m not raising chicken to make money. I’m raising chicken to be around my family.”
Bryan got into the poultry business after selling a multinational conglomerate he ran for 20 years. He recently sold the final half of the company’s stock, marking the end of an 18-month exit strategy. “I traveled 250 days out of the year and had five children I never saw growing up. As a father that starts to wear on you,” Bryan says. “So I needed a readjustment of my priorities.”
Bryan Farm initially sold 20 “broilers” to Chef Chris Shepherd of Houston restaurant Catalan. Within three weeks orders totaled 300 birds a week. The chickens are raised as “pastured poultry,” a concept Bryan adapted after reading a book on the subject. The birds are moved to a different spot every day, with the grass grown via non-chemical fertilizer. “There’s nobody around to teach these things anymore, frankly,” Bryan says. “Everything is geared towards ‘grow it big, grow it fast and package it so it looks like it’s of the highest quality.’ But it’s not.”
But just as with Weldon and others, the quality does come at a price. Bryan says the average chicken costs $1.20 to raise to maturity; his cost is $8. “Some things are more expensive [than at a grocery store] and others aren’t,” says Jemma Irish, a market shopper. “But you’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples. The organic eggs at the grocery store are a lighter yellow. You can tell you’re getting a lesser product.”
Irish says she avoids the grocery store as much as possible when shopping for herself, three children and a husband. She’s arranged a four-person shopping rotation with some friends, and says as a result her family never gets sick. “It’s definitely harder but it’s worth it,” Irish says. “It’s something I do just like brushing my teeth. I don’t want to put chemicals and pesticides inside my family’s bodies.”
While shopping, producers can also swap stories, goods and tips with fellow attendees. “One of my favorite things about Saturday mornings is that people just hang out. It’s a very diverse crowd,” Miller says. “You can talk to vendors or see friends you haven’t seen in a long time. We don’t have town squares anymore, so this [fills that void] and is a different way to shop. It’s just a better way to do it.”
The Bayou City Farmers Market is open every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon. Urban Harvest previously offered a Wednesday afternoon market, but it was cancelled earlier this year after failing to garner enough traffic. But the failure of the mid-week market does not close the door on further expansion, Miller says. The hope is to have markets spring up all over the city. “That’s the world we’re trying to get to,” she says. “We used to have markets all around Houston. This is one part of having a local food system again. That will come on its own and it doesn’t need us.”
Bayou City Farmers Market
Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
3000 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77002