July 31, 2008

Homegrown Markets

By The Eagle, Bryan, Texas

Jul. 31--Eagle photo/Stuart Villanueva Robert Forsthoff grows tomatoes along with other vegetables on his land near Kurten to sell at the Independent Growers Market. Buy a print

Coming straight out of Santa Fe, N.M. -- a city where it's hard not to find locally grown, organic produce -- restaurateur Nathan Barkman said he was a little surprised by the local selection.

Despite being located in "Aggieland," pickings were slim for the Republic Steakhouse co-owner.

"Here we are near Texas A&M University, in the middle of the agriculture center for the country, and basically my chef and me are driving our pick-up trucks out to Conroe and Brenham," Barkman said.

But in the time the restaurant has been open -- nearly a year and a half -- Barkman said local offerings have improved some.

Last year, Brazos Valley-grown fruits and vegetables had a statewide economic impact of $8.2 million, according to statistics collected by Texas AgriLife Extension Service researchers.

That number pales greatly in comparison to the area's top five exports -- beef, broilers, hay, cotton and nursery plants -- which re-circulate in the economy to create an impact of just more than $1 billion.

Still, Marco Palma, assistant professor and economist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, said demand for locally grown produce will continue to increase. In turn, he said, supplies of those products will soon follow.

Palma is finalizing a report on consumer trends in response to direct advertising as they relate to farmers markets.

"You have consumers now who are willing to pay a little more for products they perceive to be different, or produced in such a way that isn't harmful," Palma said.

Amid news reports of tainted spinach and tomatoes, consumers are beginning to eye locally grown produce even more, Palma said.

That's good news for farmers looking to sell directly to consumers, regardless of whether they are doing so through the various farmers markets, community supported agriculture formats or so-called "pick-your-own" farms.

"These days the farmer not only has to be good at growing their own products. Many of these people have been doing this for generations and generations," he said. "Now they also have to become marketers."

When the average farmer stands only to make a 9-cent margin on a $3 box of cereal sold in the grocery store, Palma said it makes sense for them to try to capture a larger profit by selling direct.

Brazos Valley farmers are capturing those margins in a number of ways.

Farmers markets

Farmers markets, one of the most widely known direct grower-to-consumer formats, have been in the immediate Bryan-College Station area for almost 30 years.

The area is served by two markets -- the Brazos Valley Farmers' Market Association and the Independent Growers Market.

The Brazos Valley Farmers' Market Association, the larger of the two, sets up from 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the Brazos County Health Department and 4-7 p.m. Wednesdays at College Station Central Park. It's been in existence since around 1980.

"Our market's grown in the number of people producing, but these producers are mostly small-scale producers," said Patrick Gendron, president of the farmers market association. "It's hard to make a living farming. It's a gamble every season."

For most involved with the market, farming is a second job -- a shift from the market's participation in the past, said Gendron, a Bryan lawyer. However, one or two of the market's farmers still are full-time growers.

Lawrence DeZavala has farmed about 15 acres in Easterly, a small community in Robertson County, for more than 30 years. Each year his farm, Sand Pit Enterprises, boasts grapes, blueberries and blackberries.

An amateur wine maker, 82-year-old DeZavala said he started his farm so he could make wine out of his home. Since then, he and his wife Rachel have sold their fruit to retailers and directly to consumers through the farmers market.

"I think the farmers market is an outstanding enterprise that is available to folks to move their excess produce if they don't have a source," he said. "Some farms around here have contracts with H-E-B, but the market really fills a need. It gives folks an opportunity to get first-class products into their homes at a reasonable price."

DeZavala declined to discuss his specific revenue from the market, saying he started his farm because he enjoys the work.

One recent boon to the Brazos Valley Farmers Market Association market has been WIC vouchers. The Brazos Valley Community Action Agency for the first time ever issued five $2 vouchers for the market to each of its 4,300 clients in February, WIC Director Kay Jarrett said.

The federally funded WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program provides nutrition education and vouchers for healthy foods to low-income families.

Jarrett said the local farmers market was one of a few statewide that met the size requirements to participate in the WIC voucher program. Participants in the market had to apply and undergo training on how to accept the WIC vouchers.

"We feel like this is such a good program for everybody involved," Jarrett said. "It benefits the WIC participants because they are learning what fresh fruits and vegetables are available in our area, and the farmers are great about telling them how to cook them."

WIC participants will be able to redeem the vouchers through the end of September for any fresh fruit or vegetable sold at the markets.

Gendron said WIC client redemption of the vouchers has been somewhat low so far, but he expects the numbers to pick up. Jarrett said she did not have redemption numbers available.

Meanwhile, the Independent Growers Market -- a group that grows to include two or three farmers during the regular growing season -- is convening 7-11 a.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Sons of Hermann Lodge parking lot, at 1104 West William Joel Bryan Parkway in Bryan.

The market is comprised of full-time farmers, like organizer Robert Forsthoff, a Kurten-area farmer who grows vegetables on three quarters of an acre and Josie Milberger, who raises vegetables on an acre in the same area.

"I love what I grow," said Forsthoff, who has run cattle and farmed on his property for nearly a decade. "I can't buy in the store what I can raise. To me, it's all the difference in the world."

Though Forsthoff said he only pulls in a third or less of his income from the farmers market, he said he enjoys gardening. The farmer said he is trying to start an orchard.


Community-Supported Agriculture, farms that allow consumers to assume a portion of the financial risk of their operations, now also dot the Brazos Valley landscape -- though they are still relatively few in number.

"From an economic standpoint, farming is the riskiest thing to invest in from the perspective of agriculture," said Brad Stufflebeam, owner of the seven-year-old Home Sweet Farm in Brenham. "By working together with our community through the CSA program, we're assured that economically, we can survive year by year."

In return for their financial "share," clients of a CSA get a portion of a farm's production on a regular basis. However that portion -- and whether they are able to receive it -- is linked to the farm's ability to produce a crop.

"The weather's been getting so much more extreme that it's putting agriculture at a greater risk," Stufflebeam said. "We've actually done very well this year, considering the drought."

To help minimize risk to consumers, the Stufflebeams plant a wide variety of crops each year.

But Stufflebeam said he would like to minimize risk further by forming a regional CSA involving multiple farmers.

Vicki Miller of Long Bean Farm in Bryan, a member of the farmers market, said she is starting a CSA for the first time in the fall, accepting only 15 to 20 families.

"The profit margin for a CSA is so much better than it is for a farmers market," she said. "I can go to a farmers market and sell my vegetables. After I've picked them the night before, I may or may not have good attendance at the farmers market."

With the CSA format, she will have customers who have prepaid for her produce, so she knows she will be paid for her work.

Though Stufflebeam said he has been re-investing profits back into his farm, he expects Home Sweet Farm will be profitable in a few years.

The CSA farm operates on 12 acres in Brenham and has recently expanded, leasing 110 acres at another Brenham location. The farm periodically hosts market days, in which it allows other farmers and Texas food producers to come to Brenham and sell a variety of products.

Stufflebeam said several Central Texas farms are able to gross between $25,000 and $28,000 an acre under a CSA format.


A handful of farmers who sell at the area's farmers markets also operate pick-your-own farms.

Pick-your-owns allow customers, often on a limited basis, to pick their own fruits or vegetables, usually paying a lower per-pound cost for the privilege.

The format lets farmers save on labor and fuel costs.

DeZavala said he periodically allows customers to come on site to pick berries in his orchard, to the extent that he hasn't participated in the farmers markets in recent weeks.

"Still, some customers want us to pick the berries for them, and that's an extra charge," DeZavala said. "We have to limit that."


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