Micro Management

Van Weldon ekes out a living by farming tiny plants

Selling at the farmers' market--relocated first to a pier over on the bayou, and then to the existing spot on Airline -- soon got tougher. Middlemen began to monopolize most tables inside, and Meyer didn't have time to hawk mustard greens and potatoes all morning anyway. "You can't be down there trying to sell it," he says, "and trying to raise it and gather it here. You've got to be in one place or the other."

But as with most local farmers, Meyer's ties to the market stayed strong. Vendors sold his produce there. And the market held a popular annual local produce fair every year for decades. Meyer points to the trophies on his shelves and pulls out a box of faded ribbons he won for squash, cantaloupe and corn. The date on the newest ribbon (a first prize) reads 1977.

Around that time the produce fair haltingly ended. It was torn up by the same controversy that had begun driving local farmers to extinction. Truckers carted in fruits and vegetables from the Rio Grande Valley in gleaming 18-wheelers and fronted as local growers. The real local farmers protested, to no avail. Long after the fair died, the trucks kept coming.

The Midtown Farmers' Market
Daniel Kramer
The Midtown Farmers' Market
Chef Monica Pope, a longtime advocate of locally 
grown produce, says farmers can succeed by 
specializing in what they grow well.
Daniel Kramer
Chef Monica Pope, a longtime advocate of locally grown produce, says farmers can succeed by specializing in what they grow well.

Go to the Airline farmers' market now, and nary a vendor can say where their veggies come from. And at the slash rate prices (18 yellow squash for a buck!), nobody cares. "It comes from Mexico, I think," says an old woman in Spanish, eyeing her stall's spread of cactus leaves, carrots and tomatoes. "I think almost all of it, but I'm not sure."

Intrastate and international competition, much of it from colossal industrial farms, exacted heavy blows on bantam local growers like Meyer. Standing at the edge of his field, he points a wrinkled hand to a fresh row of onions. "Heck, it takes a day and a half to pick $50 worth," he says. "It's not worth the labor. I could go out on the road and pick up cans and beat that."

Meyer wouldn't have to walk far to find them. He could hike out to his old potato patch near Interstate 45, which was consumed by three lanes of traffic in a road-widening project. Or he could troll the neighboring farms, now apartment complexes with names like Northbrook and Cypress Station. The developers still eye his land greedily; just last month, another one knocked on his door.

In the mid-1980s, agricultural extension agents tried to revive local farming around Houston by limiting farmers' markets to local growers. But the markets never lasted more than three years. Markets at West Oaks Mall, Westwood Mall and JB's Entertainment Center near the University of Houston all failed after farmers tired of the long drive through the city's congealing traffic.

Even some country markets have faltered. Weldon recently backed out of a market in a Wal-Mart parking lot near the retirement communities of Livingston after customers kept telling him he needed everyday low prices.

But unlike most of Meyer's contemporaries, Weldon has grasped how the rules of engagement at the hip new Houston Farmers' Market are different. After he discovered microgreens, he started selling them there last year for a dollar an ounce. The price would make shoppers of the city's old-time markets moan in their graves. But Weldon would forgive them for that. Clearly, anyone who died a few years back never tasted the peppery bite of elfin arugula, or the toothsome crunch of cute little pea tendrils.

Lettuce changes with the fashions, it seems. When Elvis ruled the airwaves, the must-have was a quarter of iceberg with a greasy dollop of "bleu" cheese dressing, preferably served at a Tupperware party. Jump forward to the era of acid-washed jeans and jelly bracelets, and it was the splattered leaves of romaine that were favored by material-girl palates. The go-go 1990s introduced the ready-to-eat $7.99-a-pound mesclun and spring mixes, which fell to $3.99 a pound by the end of the decade, once the concept hit Kroger and the economy wilted.

Now the plate tectonics of culture have shifted again. Behold the hegemony of things teeny and small: nanotechnology, tiny cell-phone camcorders and itsy-bitsy Mini Coopers. As far as Weldon is concerned, it's a perfect decade for microgreens.

Microgreens were first "discovered" nine years ago by a restaurateur who makes great steaks. Chicago chef Charlie Trotter sent his sous chef, Gerimo Tellez, to the Chef's Garden farm near Lake Erie to find new ingredients. Tellez saw a flat of broccoli seedlings and asked if he could buy them before they matured. The farm was soon growing a mix of dozens of baby plants and shipping them via express mail to top chefs around the country.

The micros range from herbs such as basil and fennel to oddities like amaranth and chrysanthemum flowers. Most plants are allowed only two to four leaves before they're cut. Some are sweet like corn shoots, while others such as baby celery pack an unexpected spicy wallop. A few years ago, several Houston chefs were paying top dollar for Ohio and California Lilliputians.

Weldon decided he could grow micros for Houston chefs more cheaply. He seeded several trays with arugula, red mustard, mizuna and radish, harvested them, and delivered them to Randy Evans, executive chef at Brennan's of Houston. "You could just tell that they were just cut," Evans says. "I was buying stuff out of California that had been on a truck and had some age on it. Especially with herbs, you want a fresh-out-of-the-ground taste."

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