By Kitty Crider
Call it the pull of just-picked peaches, juicy, homegrown tomatoes, or blackberries as big as your thumb. Such jewels of early summer have attracted flocks of food-lovers to farmers markets for generations, but these days, you can skip the drive to the country; some of the most exciting markets are in the city.
Take the Austin metro area, for example. Two urban farmers’ markets—Sunset Valley Farmers Market and Austin Farmers Market—flourish here, not only in summer, but year round. At both markets, fresh produce coexists with prepared foods (bento boxes to hummus), pies, soy candles, and feather earrings, not to mention ATMs. In true Austin style, both also offer live music, and nearly every weekend feature a special event—from a green chile fest to an “Iron Chef” cook-off between top Austin chefs.
While other Texas cities (notably Dallas and Houston) also have urban markets, these Austin-area markets have achieved national reputations. Sunset Valley Farmers Market, southwest of town, was ranked No. 5 by Eating Well magazine last summer, and the centrally located Austin Farmers’ Market made Greenlight digital magazine’s Top 10 last fall. They’re among heady company: The lists also include such premier markets as the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, and Santa Fe Farmers Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico. No other Texas markets made the cut.
For Kristi Hibler and her seven-year-old daughter, Amity, a weekly visit to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market is part of their Saturday routine. First, they stop at the Living Arts Bakery booth for a mixed-berry or Mexican-chocolate scone, and then they shop for a week’s supply of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
“We buy most of our food here,” says Hibler, a middle-school science teacher who likes the fact that consuming locally grown food reduces her ecological footprint. She also likes knowing where her food comes from. “I’ve been buying eggs and cheese from the same people for years,” she says. Tommye von Roeder and her husband, Carroll, have been going to this market every Saturday morning, rain or shine, for a decade. Early in the day, when the selection is best, they buy their eggs, basil, tomatoes, mushrooms, greens, and other produce from growers they know by name. Then they kick back with cups of iced coffee and listen to the tunes of local guitarist Jimmy Joe Natoli, who has a weekly gig here. The music is a key attraction for them. “Coming here is relaxing,” says von Roeder.
Sellers also cherish the Sunset Valley venue. “I love this market—the quality of the products, the number of vendors, the number of people drawn here. I think it can match California markets point for point,” says Austin native and former West Coast resident “Aunt Nita” Garcia, who owns Aunt Nita’s Home-style Foods in Leander.
Garcia sells jumbleberry crunch pies, packed with a mixture of berries, as well as coconut-almond-buttermilk pies, relishes, quiches, and a table full of other goods. She says when she began selling here years ago, she brought 10 bunches of beets she had grown. Didn’t sell a one. So she took them home, made 10 jars of pickled beets, came back the next week, and sold them all. Today, she makes a half-dozen different pickles, as well as salad dressings, casseroles, spreads, and dips, using her own produce and that of other local growers when she can.
About 80 percent of Sunset Valley’s products are grown organically or sustainably. Availability of specific items varies with the season, although several farmers have added hydroponics or greenhouses to their operations to provide tasty tomatoes even in January.
“Having homegrown tomatoes is a key to a year-round market,” says Pamela Boyar, who founded the market in 1997. Back then, it had only a dozen vendors at the peak of the season; today, there are more than 100 growers/vendors, and the market is located in the 17-acre parking lot of the Tony Burger Center, a sports arena about five miles south of downtown Austin. Boyar estimates that 160,000 people visited in 2007.
Boyar telecommutes from Hawaii now, but her partners—Salila Travers and Jim Moore—work hard to make the market more than a row of produce booths and pickup trucks. About once a month, they hold a festival, usually with a food theme (strawberry, pep-per, tomato, herb, pumpkin, blackberry, or melon, for example) and often offer kids’ activities. One Saturday last summer, pony rides were the order of the day, and by 9 a.m., there was already a line of eager kids. With the aromas of kettle corn and fresh-roasted peanuts, the market took on fair-like qualities.
And, like going to a fair or a festival, a visit to the Sunset Valley Farmers Market is not to be rushed. For one thing, there are hundreds, sometimes thousands of shoppers—both residents and tourists—a diversified lot in jeans, shorts, exercise gear, and saris. You’ll also want to take your time and savor all the sights, sounds, and tastes you won’t find at your local grocery store.
At the downtown Austin Farmers Market, in Republic Square, Saturday-morning shoppers include young singles, retired couples, parents with babies, software experts, financiers, writers, politicians, vegetarians, meat-lovers, film producers, and architects. They’re often on foot, having walked or run over from nearby lofts or the city’s popular hike-and-bike trail. They may even be carrying a fold-up scooter or pushing a stroller. They chat with the vendors and with each other, sharing food tips or opinions on politics, sports, or music. They mosey along, taking in a demo from one of Austin’s leading chefs or a lecture on organic gardening. Some eat breakfast at the market, buy groceries for the next week, pick up artisan breads or flowers for a party, or get local root beer on tap—even a pink drink made from prickly pear cactus.
A project of the local nonprofit Sustainable Food Center, the Austin Farmers’ Market features some 55 vendors, with 86 percent of the participating farmers and ranchers offering organic or sustainable products. According to Market Director Suzanne Santos, this venue attracted about 63,000 people last year. It also spawned a Wednesday-evening market in Triangle Park, a new development on Guadalupe Street. The sister market was an immediate hit, drawing 25,000 people in just 34 weeks. The atmosphere at the new venue is especially sociable: Parents take their children to play in the splash fountain, pick up empanadas or perhaps a fresh-roasted chicken, breads, peaches, and drinks, and then sit on the grass and listen to the music of various artists while the kids scamper around. “Sometimes people linger until dark and we’ve packed up the trailers,” says Santos.
Chefs and amateur cooks attuned to the eat-local movement love this midweek market, because it gives them a good source of fresh local products between Saturdays. And like the Saturday market, it offers more than produce. Fresh chicken, duck, pheasant, and rabbit abound, as well as frozen beef, pork, and bison, much of it natural or grass-fed.
Farmers like the midweek market, too, because they can sell in a pretty, grassy park in yet another area of the city. On Saturdays, most do not have the staff to be at more than one location.
All of these urban farmers’ markets offer local products that fall into the boutique category—artisan breads, mozzarella marinated with pesto, pasta salads, and spinach-feta spreads. These foods are a party or picnic waiting to happen. Shoppers, many of them non-cooks or microwave-literate only, snap them up. And that sums up the story of the modern-day farmers markets in the Lone Star capital: There’s something fresh and local for everyone.
All of Austin’s year-round produce markets offer free admission.
The Sunset Valley Farmers Market takes place about 5 miles south of downtown Austin in the parking lot of the Tony Burger Center, at 3200 Jones Rd. (on the eastbound access road of US 290 West between Brodie Ln. and Westgate Blvd.) in Sunset Valley. Opens Sat. 9-1. Call 512/443-0143; www.sunsetvalleyfarmersmarket.org.
The Saturday Austin Farmers Market takes place downtown at Republic Square, at 4th and Guadalupe streets. Opens 9 to 1. Free parking on the street and in the state parking garage at 3rd and San Antonio streets. Call 512/236-0074; www.austinfarmersmarket.org.
The Wednesday Austin Farmers Market takes place at Triangle Park, at 46th and Guadalupe streets. Opens 4 p.m.-8 p.m. (spring/summer hours). Free parking in the parking garage across the street.
The Sustainable Food Center will host “Farm to Plate,” a wine-and-food-tasting, at the Triangle Park market on May 7, from 5 p.m.-8 p.m. For tickets and details, visit www.sustainablefoodcenter.org.
A reusable shopping bag, for convenience and environmental responsibility.
A cooler for perishables if the weather is warm
More money than you think you’ll need, or an ATM card, for all the tasty temptations.
From the May 2008 issue.