By Chris Lane
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In 1982, Van Weldon, a young salesman adept at buying rounds and selling tractors in Abilene bars, dropped out of business school and set out to dig up some money. In those days in West Texas, plowing corn rows grew a few dollars, but digging deeper often uncorked a black geyser. Weldon knew oil acquaintances who regularly vacationed in Las Vegas one weekend, then Santa Fe or Palm Springs the next. "Here I was, making $22,000 a year," he recalls, "and I was thinking, 'I'd like to do that, too.' "
Weldon's oil business was short-lived. Crude prices tanked, so he followed the signs for Rolex watches and high-end hairspray to Dallas and became a stockbroker. Dallas led to New York, where by 1988, he was a player in the finance capital, delivering orders for energy futures to the pit on Wall Street. He controlled a half-million dollars in commodities within four years. To mark his success he bought a Saab 900 convertible with cash.
Then the trade winds shifted, and Weldon's career began to drift. The firm lost millions and laid him off. He briefly restyled himself in boom-time Houston as an energy broker for another corporate giant, Kidder Peabody. But after a fellow employee falsified nearly a billion in trades, the firm collapsed. Weldon's frayed luggage might have carried him elsewhere. "But if the company went under again, I still would have been in that same box," he says. "So I thought it was time to create my own business, and either succeed or fail."
Weldon was living at the time with his wife on 45 acres of exurban piney woods and lily-pad bogs near Cleveland, Texas. He decided to put down roots. A former high school football player, still brawny in his early forties, he liquidated his 401(k) and gassed up his tractor. It was by no means a romantic decision. "I wasn't doing it to get back to Mother Nature," he says. "I mean, that's great, but this was about making money."
Most Houston-area farmers would have said it was the stupidest moneymaking scheme imaginable. But by the late 1990s, not many of them were still around to tell him that. "They're all pushing up daisies now," says Awalt Meyer, an 87-year-old farmer who has watched the land along FM 1960 sprout Mattress Giants and Taco Bells. Meyer discourages farming: "You have to have a weak mind and a strong back," he tells aspiring growers, "because you must not have enough sense to do anything else."
Farmer Weldon quickly learned how little sense he'd had. He labored from dawn to dusk, through infernal heat and tropical gales, plowing his savings into Wood Duck Farms and harvesting cut flowers that started to seem less than pretty. His wife, Regina, worked as a travel agent to support him. Taking a vacation was unthinkable.
But sometimes, opportunity shoots up around town faster than crabgrass. Weldon learned how to grow a whimsical salad mix last year composed of dozens of varieties of baby plants. Microgreens, as they are known, have become the biggest little craze in Houston's top restaurants since veal parmigiana. They look like a salad Thumbelina would eat, or the leafy vegetable version of Nerds. And they're one small example of how local farmers such as Weldon are learning to use this city's pumped-out, paved-over dirt to outsmart agricultural Goliaths the world over.
Ask any Houstonian neo-hippie balancing groceries on the handlebars of his bicycle what will revive local farming, and he'll probably point to the Inner Loop's bloom of new farmers' markets. Although two years ago the city lacked a single market limited to local growers, it will soon sport three: The Houston Farmers' Market in the Heights and the Midtown Farmers' Market are already open, and the ambitious Bayou City Farmers' Market will debut this fall in River Oaks. Nationwide, such markets have grown in number by 80 percent over the past decade -- part of a new cultural green revolution tuned into eating fresher, higher-quality, locally grown foods.
But advocates of the trend, such as organic and family farm groups, aren't so sure farmers' markets alone can revive local farms and the agricultural greenbelts once common around major American cities. If Houston's history is any guide, they probably won't.
Sitting in an armchair surrounded by decades of produce trophies, Meyer recalls selling at the farmers' market when it was still the only outlet in town. In the early 1930s he helped his father load bags of potatoes into his Model T: eight in the back and one on each fender to keep the front wheels on the ground. So many growers flocked to downtown that the Meyers arrived at night and slept on the sidewalk to mark a prime spot. When the market opened at 4 a.m., farmers ringed the block around old City Hall and stretched down both sides of Preston Street all the way to the bayou.
Ten years later, Meyer married Marie Doberschotz, whose grandfather had carved out from wilderness in 1904 what is now the couple's farm. She remembers harvesting so much corn in one day that she didn't have any skin left on her hands. Her husband would often start picking crops in the dark of morning by tractor light. "You would work till you couldn't go no more," he says. "You'd be out of energy."