Fresh, Natural and Local: The Growth of Austin’s Farmer’s Markets

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Article and Photos by Brent King

Sun, Soil, and Seeds. Add some water, and the garden sprouts with life. For many Austinites, the backyard garden is more than a food-source, more than stress relief, more than a hobby. It’s a movement away from the artificially preserved world of giant food manufacturers and a step back to the natural life of yesterday. It’s sustainable living in its purest form. But as big as some backyard gardens might be, we can all use another resource to help add healthy, locally grown variety to our daily diet. One of the farmers’ markets that dot the Austin landscape might just be the answer.

Brightly colored tents, warm aromas, and the tinkling of laughter combine with live music to create an atmosphere of small-town camaraderie that has long been the staple of healthy living in Texas. Farmers display their fruits and vegetables in woven baskets and home-canned jars. The man in overalls behind the table is the one who picked the fruit or pulled the vegetables from the ground the day before. The rancher over there watched and cared for the animals that are his livelihood and tomorrow’s dinner, and the mother and daughter behind that table created each and everyone of the cupcakes on display in their booth. It’s the clown in the corner painting the faces of giggling children and the green caboose selling hot, organic food to patrons under the canopy of the cafe tent.  The natural, seasonal rotation of the produce offered ensures that what you buy is at its most nutritional ripeness. It’s Mother Nature’s menu offered by those who know her best. Rain or shine, the vendors are there, and Austin is buying.

In 1975 the Austin YMCA began Austin Community Gardens—a humble beginning to what has become a citywide movement toward sustainable living. It wasn’t until 2001 that the non-profit Sustainable Food Center (SFC) merged with Austin Community Gardens that farmers’ markets really gained a foothold in the city. Nearly 10 years and numerous awards and records later, SFC runs three of the city’s largest farmers’ markets—SFC Farmers’ Market at Sunset Valley, located at 3200 Jones Road at the Tony Burger Center, The SFC Farmers’ Market at the Triangle, and SFC Farmers’ Market downtown in Republic Square Park. Both the Market at Sunset Valley and the downtown market offer a huge variety of locally grown produce and homemade goods. The market at the triangle is smaller but has the unique advantage of being the only market open on Wednesday evenings.

Another aspect of the SFC’s Farmer’s Markets that makes them unique in Austin is that they have implemented a coupon program for families enrolled in the Woman, Infant, and Child (WIC)’s Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Designed to assist lower-income families that have a difficult time affording healthy, organic, fresh fruits and vegetables, it’s a wonderful alternative to buying over-processed, nutritionally deficient foods at the ubiquitous mega-mart.

Barton Creek’s Farmers’ Market turns 13 years old this year. Once known as the Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market, they have received numerous accolades and were named Austin’s best Farmers’ Market by The Austin Chronicle’s Readers’ Poll in 2007, 2008, and again in 2010. The number of vendors here is the largest in Austin, and although the setting is on concrete, they do a good job of making it feel like a big, all natural, party. Barton Creek Farmers’ Market is located in the back parking lot of Barton Creek Mall, open Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. until 1:00 p.m.

Cedar Park Farms To Market is a relative newcomer to the sustainable living scene. They threw open the doors last March with the vision of providing farmers, ranchers, artists, and craft-makers the opportunity to market their products directly to the consumer while at the same time providing seasonal, organic, nutritious food for the community. The market offers a large selection of produce, crafts, live music, and an abundance of smiles. Newly relocated in the back parking lot of the Lake Line Mall, Cedar Park Farms To Market is a growing, thriving, down-to-earth shopping experience every Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.

Between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays, HOPE Farmers’ Market opens its doors to a shade-dappled lot on Waller Street tucked nicely between Fourth and Fifth. Its courtyard of booths, picnic tables, chairs, benches and swings provide not only a place to sip watermelon tea, buy farm-fresh eggs, meat, or produce, and savor warm tamales, but also a place to sit back and enjoy the sounds of live music.

Andi Scull, an inspiring woman dedicated to helping the planet and its people, started HOPE Farmer’s Market as the American project of the HOPE (Helping Other People Everywhere) Campaign, a non-profit organization committed to helping as many people in as many places as possible. Along with her team of professionals, Andi has created a nurturing environment for both customers and vendors. Live music is provided by Antropos Arts, an organization that promotes equal opportunity in music education by pairing top professional musicians with students from low-income Title 1 schools. They offer free lessons, workshops, master classes and, like at HOPE Farmers’ Market, performance opportunities for at-risk middle and high school students.

Several things make HOPE Farmer’s Market unlike any other in Austin. For one, HOPE is the only one on Austin’s East Side. Also, it is the only market open on Sundays and the only market with a building dedicated to displaying local artists’ wares. Located on a lot owned by gallery owner Reggie Thomas, the long, airy building is more museum than store housing several exhibits from local artists.

HOPE Farmers’ Market is celebrating their first birthday on October 22nd. Partnering with Charity Bash and A Glimmer of Hope Foundation, they are donating that day to Charity Water, an organization dedicated to bring clean water to a billion people across the planet.

More than just bushels of fruits and vegetables, Austin’s Farmer’s Markets offer organic gardening tips, interactive cooking classes, and nutritional education. They give local artisans a venue to display and sell their work. They give musicians an audience, and they give all of us the chance to participate in cultivating a thriving local food system. Austin’s Farmer’s Markets are a community-building, ecologically responsible alternative to the chain stores. Visiting one is a chance to step back into how life used to be, where farmers and ranchers talked about the weather and the quantity of the crops. Where a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade and slice of pie were simply a reason to sit back and look at the clouds. If that’s not enough then remember this: Wandering through a farmers’ market is just pure, honest fun.

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