Micro Management

Van Weldon ekes out a living by farming tiny plants

The salad junkies are restless. Some go so far as to chide Weldon for not giving them their fix. "Your blend is fabulous," one woman says with a hint of desperation. "I'm, like, addicted to it now. You've got me hooked. It's not good when you don't have it."

When the crowd thins and a few basils and arugulas remain, Weldon shows how he catches customers. A young blond in a red miniskirt hands him a loaf of bread (which he's selling retail from Kraftsmen Bakery). Instead of taking her money, he sprinkles two stoneware bowls with samples. She tries them and mmmm's in approval. "I want to get the basil one," she says, turning aside to whisper to her mother: "even though I have basil."

Weldon's salesman past makes a big difference at the market. "Some vendors just sit there," he says. "I think you need to be a marketer. You need to be inviting."

At the Houston Farmers' Market, held Saturday 
mornings in the Onion Creek parking lot, microgreens 
sell fast.
At the Houston Farmers' Market, held Saturday mornings in the Onion Creek parking lot, microgreens sell fast.
Urban Harvest's Jim Bundshaw, shown here at the 
group's model garden.
Urban Harvest's Jim Bundshaw, shown here at the group's model garden.

His success at the farmers' market is so renowned that other local growers have begun visiting him there to ask how they can get in on the action. A gray, stubbly-faced acquaintance who gave his name only as Lee, approached him during the Saturday market to ask how he could sign up to sell his farm's okra, purple peas and tomatoes. "Lee, this really isn't a good time," Weldon said, busy filling orders. "Can you give me a call later?"

Small growers are turning to farmers' markets, neighborhood food co-ops and restaurants because they are virtually the only outlets still open to them. A handful of Houston growers sells to Canino's and Central Market, which court locals for their fresher produce. But most national chains won't buy much from small farmers anymore. Even Austin-based, hippy-dippy Whole Foods cut off most of its contracts in Houston, making the transition to California growers a few years after its 1992 IPO, local farmers say.

Given the trends toward consolidation, Weldon decided it was time to broker a strategic merger. Last month he unveiled a three-month partnership between the Houston Farmers' Market and top local restaurants, a program of cooking demonstrations dubbed Twelve Weeks, Twelve Chefs. Gerard Brach, chef and owner at Chez Nous, kicked off the first show with a tray of crisp wontons topped with herbed goat cheese, edible flowers, spring mix and, of course, microgreens.

To the average farmer, trying to neatly assemble personalities such as Brach, Buchanan and Bryan Caswell of Bank might seem like herding cats. But Weldon is a seasoned networker. As an energy broker, he spent hours on the phone chatting up buyers at Chevron, Exxon and Mobil. The difference these days is simply in the commodity. "You have to know how to pick up the phone and differentiate yourself from the typical salesman," he says. "I call and not only sell my product, I want to go in the side door and get to know the guy."

Some people would say it's strange to see an energy broker bridging our culture's lost connections between farmers, cooks and the land. Brach, who grew up in France, is just glad somebody is doing it. "We are so spoiled in this country because we live large," he says, standing under a tree by Weldon's micros table. "If we want asparagus, we want asparagus. We don't care what season it is."

Weldon plans to address the problem of seasons in a typically American fashion: He will use homemade technology to grow microgreens year-round. A wood-burning water heater will warm the roots of the microgreens with heated steel pipes. He may even expand the system to grow spring mix in January. True, much of his property looks less like a quaint farm than a haphazard laboratory, but as one might expect in Houston, profits trump visuals.

For farmers' market shoppers, this might be the greatest paradox of Weldon's microgreens: The cute, hometown plantlets come out of jumbo tarps and a controlled climate that scarcely resembles our own. "I don't want you to come here expecting to see a picture-book farm," Weldon says over the phone to an intending visitor. "This is kind of a work in progress."

Plowing some more cuteness into the farm is high on Weldon's agenda. His wife hopes to transform the property's tattered 1912 church, now occupied by a bat and the Weldons' cat, Princess, into a restaurant. It could be a brilliant way to sell more produce at a premium. But it might also reflect a hard reality: Farmer Weldon is mighty tired of farming.

On a rainy morning last month, the ground at Wood Duck Farms has melted into a sticky pâte. Jim Bundshow's new Beetle, resembling a fallen lemon, splatters to a stop near the Weldons' farmhouse-cum-microgreens processing plant. Freshly hired by Urban Harvest to organize the Bayou City Farmers' Market in River Oaks, Bundshow is on the prowl for interested farmers, and Weldon would be a top prize.

The Bayou City market dangles alluring fruit for local growers. It aspires to rival the large farmers' markets in Austin, where 75 farmers and vendors draw shoppers from across town. The new ritzy venue at Richmond and Kirby could handle the crowds. By contrast, amassing a citywide following in the cramped parking lot of the 15-vendor Houston Farmers' Market is unlikely for growers such as Weldon.

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