By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Soon the orders piled up from a buzz club of Houston restaurants: Daily Review, The Houstonian and Tony's, then Cafe Annie, Quattro at Four Seasons and Trevísio. Weldon accumulated so many commitments, he worried about filling them.
His fears were justified, because Houston is a notoriously difficult place to farm. Weldon walks down a muddy road with his golden retriever to a clearing in the woods where five long plastic tarps serve as greenhouses. The micros grow inside on the same plastic trays that hold seedlings in plant nurseries. He worried the searing heat would make his micros bitter and fought against the humid climate's persistent fungi. But through it all, he rarely missed an order.
Chefs rave about micros' tenderness, texture and youthful grace. "It's not something you see in every restaurant," says chef Jon Buchanan, who uses microcilantro at Daily Review. "They're just really tender. They almost melt in your mouth. They are not stringy like regular cilantro sprigs."
Slight and spiky-headed Monica Pope, founder of Boulevard Bistrot and the culinary doyenne of Houston's local foods movement, says the micros show how local farmers can carve out profitable niches. She sips on chai at T'afia, her latest restaurant, which doubles on Saturdays as the Midtown Farmers' Market. "For all of us, we have learned the hard way you have to be diversified," she cautions, "but there are certain things people do or grow well, and I think they should focus on those a little more."
Most successful Houston farmers reap profits by selling things not available in grocery stores. "Lettuce lady" Camille Waters grows a spring mix with seed varieties she's collected on travels in Europe, then harvests and delivers it on the same day. Unlike the rock-hard grocery store tomatoes designed for trucking, Janice McIntosh's ten varieties of heirloom fruits -- such as Peach Gardens, Tangerines and Mortgage Lifters -- are juicy and sweet. And Joan Gundermann grows organic Asian vegetables such as bok choy and bitter melons, then educates shoppers at Pope's farmers' market about how to cook them.
"I never close my mind to growing anything," Gundermann says from her 90-acre farm in Wharton County. "The more I grow different products, the more it enhances my operation. If I grow the same old standard squash and green beans, that doesn't pay the bills. You have to get out and go into everybody's different cultures and work with everybody."
Given Houston's size, cultural diversity and profusion of top restaurants, it's a wonder that more savvy local farmers haven't plucked hoes from the old-timers' rusting sheds. Part of the problem has been competition from California, where successful niche farmers ship to restaurants nationwide. "To some degree California is at fault for the rest of the country going under," says Karrie Thomas of the Community Alliance With Family Farmers in Davis, California, "because we have managed to keep ourselves alive by driving other people out of business."
But Jim Jones, a hoary marketing veteran with the Texas Department of Agriculture Farmers Market Program, says California's dominance was never a given. Rather, much of the success of the state's organic and specialty growers was due to research into small-scale farming techniques and niche crop varieties, amply funded by the University of California.
Jones remembers visiting a farmers' market in San Jose. "I looked at the fruit, and they had a lot of exotic stuff, a lot of these ugly wrinkled old cucumbers, and that's what they had put money into: developing markets for small producers," he says. "I got all excited about that. I said, 'Is this the ugly fruit section?' They said, 'No, man, it's the moneymaking section.' "
Weldon and other local farmers say Texas A&M, on the other hand, is primarily interested in helping mammoth farmers boost production. Many local growers are mostly self-educated, he says. "There are not any books written about what we do."
Yet for small farmers with the guts and smarts to innovate on their own, the lack of state support for the profession is also a big advantage. With few people growing fresh, unique, local produce, they can exact high prices. But some growers are better at cultivating customers than others: Many successful local farmers won't just drone on about God, dirt and the weather anymore; they've joined the chatty but shrewd ranks of tractor hawkers, commodities traders and stockbrokers.
At 4 a.m. in the parking lot of Onion Creek cafe, there's no Model T traffic jam, or block of sidewalk snoozers. But by the modern hour of eight, Weldon is unloading ice chests and jars of homemade tomato chutney, and impatient customers hover. A woman clutching her cell phone and wallet in the same hand crowds the edge of the display table. She calls for the micros mix, but Weldon says it has all gone to feed a tennis tournament this week at the River Oaks Country Club. In place of his ten-species blend, he's offering small boxes of microbasil and microarugula.
Her eyes dart to the ice chests. "I've just told so many people about the microgreens," she says, snatching up four boxes for $2 each. "Now I'm going to quit telling them."