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Local food movement grows in Central Texas, converting more 'locavores'

Sunday, July 20, 2008

By J.B. Smith

Tribune-Herald staff writer

The Waco Farmers Market seems like a friendly enough place: a few humble tents in a parking lot by the county coliseum, tables crowded with baskets of peppers, peaches and purple-hull peas.

But beware: Locavores are on the prowl.

Clutching canvas tote bags, they scope out their prey: melons still wet with dew, tomatoes with blood-red flesh, honey scented with cotton or mesquite flowers.

A locavore, for those unacquainted with the New Oxford Dictionary’s 2007 new word of the year, is someone who tries to eat locally, usually for environmental or nutritional reasons.

Their ranks are growing, as part of a nationwide “local food movement” that seeks nothing less than to revolutionize the way food is grown, sold and eaten. Locavores want to know who grew their food and how it was grown. And they want to minimize the miles between farm and fork to cut down on fuel and carbon emissions.

“It is a major movement,” said Texas A&M agricultural economist Marco Palma. “We are in the process of moving away from the traditional model of growing everything in one area and moving it everywhere in the U.S.”

Palma noted that the number of farmers markets nationwide increased 150 percent between 1994 and 2006, from 1,755 to 4,385. Even Wal-Mart is getting in on the action, with a recent announcement that it would vastly expand its local food offerings.

“It’s a movement that’s here to stay,” Palma said. “It’s growing fast, and it’s only going to continue to grow.”

Farmers market shopper Beth McCarty, a recent convert to the local food movement, describes her aims simply.

“What I’m looking to do is eat in season as much as possible,” she said. “I don’t want as many pesticides, and I want to help local farmers. I’m willing to spend a little more for that. I think it’s worth it.”

Such food isn’t always easy to find in Waco, said McCarty, 28, a Parkdale Elementary School teacher. She became interested in local food through a best-selling book on the subject, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

“I went to the grocery store last night and told (employees) I was interested in local food,” she said. “They just looked at me and said, ‘You want what?’ ”

The movement may not be as visible in Waco as in big cities such as New York City, where shopping farmers markets for rare greens and heirloom tomatoes is a competitive sport.

The Waco Farmers Market remains a relatively small, seasonal three-day-a-week operation in the parking lot of the Heart O’ Texas Fair Complex on Bosque Boulevard.

But there are other signs that the Waco area is catching the locavore bug:

* Each week, 60 subscribers to World Hunger Relief International’s “community supported agriculture” program pick up bundles of seasonal, naturally grown vegetables from points around Waco. The waiting list is 30 names deep.

* Downtown business leaders are in discussions about creating a new outlet for local products, perhaps as part of a “Bridge Street Market District” located on the east side of the Brazos.

* Several new direct-to-consumer farms have sprung up in the area in recent years, selling everything from raw milk to farm-raised eggs to cheese to vegetables to wine.

* Some of the local cheeses are featured at a new cheese shop in downtown Lorena. The Homestead Heritage religious community near Gholson also sells cheese made from local milk, along with other homegrown products.

Chris McGowan, urban planner for the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, has been encouraging business leaders to see local food as a retail frontier.

A self-professed foodie who tries to buy locally, McGowan said a local food market could boost downtown’s appeal to tourists and townsfolk alike.

“I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I know we have a tremendous opportunity to leverage and take advantage of the local food movement,” he said. “It’s not just about produce, but artisan-made food items, cheese, grass-fed beef and free-range chicken and cage-free eggs. This could draw people in and do great things for our community.”

Some downtown business leaders are talking about the possibility of a permanent, all-weather farmers market with sheds and stalls.

Not willing to wait for that dream, a new group calling itself the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition is planning to start selling produce once a week this fall near the east end of the Suspension Bridge. High school students will grow the produce on an adjacent 1-acre site and sell the vegetables, with help from World Hunger Relief.

“There’s definitely an interest in people wanting to find products from the area, and more of an emphasis on quality vegetables with a lot of nutrients,” said Matt Hess, education director for the nonprofit ministry, which promotes sustainable agriculture worldwide. “Production is way behind where the demand is.”

Central Texas pioneers

It’s not a stampede yet, but some pioneering Central Texas producers are beginning to see potential in thinking local.

They are turning their backs on mainstream agriculture, which over the last half-century has become increasingly giant-sized and centralized in the pursuit of efficiency.

Last November, longtime dairyman James Nors of Abbott sold his last tank of milk to Dairy Farmers of America, the giant milk-buying cooperative.

Now the family farm is selling about 300 gallon jugs a week of unpasteurized milk directly to customers. His customers come from as far away as Austin and Dallas and drive down a bumpy gravel road to his farm to pay $7 a gallon for raw milk, which they consider more wholesome than pasteurized milk.

Nors also advertises that his cows are grass-fed, which appeals to customers who believe feeding grain to cattle is unhealthy.

“I just feed them grass, molasses and hay,” he said. “I haven’t fed grain since October. God made cows to eat grass, not grain.”

To sell milk raw, Nors had to get a special license, and he can sell it only on the farm. The Food and Drug Administration cautions against raw milk because the pasteurization process kills pathogens such as E. coli, listeria and salmonella.

He also sells milk to Homestead Heritage for cheese-making and is planning to start making his own cheese soon. He also sells grass-fed beef from his herd.

Nors said he’s doing better selling milk to customers retail than taking the market price.

Over the last 30 years, the dairy industry has shifted dramatically away from small producers and toward feedlot-type dairies that can take advantage of economies of scale.

“You either have to be big or you have to have a niche,” Nors said. “It’s a losing battle to be small and to be with a co-op like DFA. There’s not going to be any little dairies before long.”

That niche has saved the Nors Dairy. Nors grew up dairying in Abbott, and started his own in the 1980s. He and his wife, Cathy, raised two sons and a daughter on the farm.

“We made a living,” he said. “But by the mid-90s, I was about to go bankrupt.”

To make ends meet, he took a job at M&M-Mars in Waco, where he still works. Cathy works at L-3 in Waco.

A few years ago, Nors was about to cut his losses and turn his farm over to beef cattle. But he heard about the raw milk trend and decided to give it a shot. Now the Nors’ two adult sons work city jobs but come to help milk on weekends, and the family dairy remains intact.

James Nors said the key to his business is to provide customer service and to go the extra mile to prevent contamination of his milk.

“We could become certified organic, but our customers aren’t interested in organic,” he said. “Organic is kind of a racket anyway. Most of my customers are home-schooling housewives. They’ll come down here, and I’ll spend an hour with them explaining what we do. They want to know who I am. They want to look me in the eye and know I’m not lying to them.”

Wal-Mart takes notice

The local movement has caught the eye of supermarket giants. Wal-Mart boasts that it will sell $400 million worth of produce this year from farmers near its stores, and that figure is projected to increase. Buying near stores not only meets consumer demands but saves about $1.4 million a year in fuel costs, Wal-Mart estimates.

But some local-food enthusiasts prefer to buy through more direct channels, such as farmers markets or on-farm stores, where they can establish confidence in the grower.

“If I know the farmer, knows how he treats his employees and treats his livestock, I’m willing to pay a little more,” said Hess of World Hunger Relief.

Some restaurants are also wanting to know more about the provenance of their ingredients. The Green Room Grille, an upscale restaurant on Austin Avenue, recently switched from a beef supplier in California to one in Yoakum, Texas.

“If we want to see them cutting meat, we can drive down there,” said owner Davin Hightower. “We were able to develop a better relationship with the farmer. “

Hightower said he would buy more local products if he knew there was a dependable supplier.

“If we could develop a relationship and knew we could come down and buy fresh herbs, that would be worth it,” he said.

McGowan, the Waco chamber official, said that as the production and retail opportunities for local food grow, Waco will become more attractive to young professionals.

“You want to create the kind of places that attract high-quality talent,” he said. “People have this perception of Waco of being full of fast-food chains. We’re interested in creating quality of life and great places. That’s part and parcel of this emerging trend of people wanting quality food and wanting to know where their food comes from.”

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