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By Sean Pendergast
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By Richard Connelly
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By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
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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."
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
But as the two men slog among the farm's greenhouses, row crops and tomato patches, Weldon sounds reluctant. He echoes Meyer's complaints of 60 years ago: Selling at market takes time, and time is his scarcest commodity.
Taking refuge from the rain under a potting shed, he admits farming is still incredibly tough. That much is evident from the exposed ducts and beams of his house, which he hasn't had the time or money to drywall. His kitchen has been invaded by industrial sinks where his wife painstakingly separates seed pods from millions of arugula shoots. Both have worked 70-hour weeks for years.
Bundshow sounds sympathetic. "You don't see any family farms because it's hard work," says the former backyard farmer. "Damn hard work."
Yet he's suddenly at a loss for words when Weldon lowers his voice, leans against a littered potting table and confesses that his wife would like to sell the place today if they could.
If Weldon had grown up in a farming family, he might have stayed in the energy sector. Meyer's grandson has virtually swapped places with him: He works as a trader for Greenspoint Energy.
"The young farmers don't want to work that hard," says Meyer's friend Lawrence Pilkinton, produce retailer for 46 years at Canino's. "They want everything coming in and nothing coming out."
Pilkinton's eyes are the color of lima beans, and they spend much of their time these days staring at a security monitor to keep the greedy masses from shoplifting avocados. Sitting in an office recently next to a stack of banana boxes and sacks of chicken scratch, he considers farming life. "It's like blood," he says. "You've got to have it in your veins and your body. Because if you don't, you'd better get out."
He's thinking as he's talking, though, and he suddenly goes soft on the under-80 crowd. "You know, I think they're right," he adds. "It's too much work."
At the farmhouse Weldon looks antsy, staring out at the duck pond like he feels guilty for lounging on the couch instead of harvesting. His wife, Regina, walks in and asks if clipping the micro-red kale can wait. "You might want to cut it now," he says, "because I think the temperature is going to go up."
Thanks to the Weldons' diligence, profits have spiked. Regina quit her travel agent job last summer, and the farm now feeds the family. It will be paid for in just two more years. They're even talking about hiring more full-time employees so she can volunteer at their son's kindergarten.
"I think in a couple of years we could do $300,000 to $400,000 a year in sales," Weldon predicts. "But we are going to have to find new markets and exploit them. Because the microgreens thing may be around forever, but only a certain number of restaurants are going to use them."
Small farmers often find lucrative niches don't last. Like spring mix ten years ago, micros are already on their way toward the macro-economy. Whole Foods has begun offering the micros in a handful of stores. Weldon knows his freshly cut plantlets will always taste better, but he worries the restaurant trend will jump to another product if the midget mix becomes commonplace.
Just as in his brokerage days, Weldon's security is in his contacts. But it's also in his flexibility. As long as he remains a farmer, he knows he'll have to change his crops at a moment's notice.
At least nimbleness no longer means reseeding himself in a corporate cubicle three states away. He picks up his cell phone on the road back from Arkansas, where he was trying to learn how to grow new greens. "I would rather have that kind of challenge as a choice of lifestyle," he says, "versus working for some company and being the victim of somebody else's yearly review."
Independence can be worth more than the best Aeron chair, 401(k) and dental package. But after years of digging, Weldon is still coming to grips with his green prospects. "Man, I am due," he says. "I am due for some success."
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