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Learning Local: Farmers Markets

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While learning to navigate the local food community, I have found that Farmers Markets are a great resource. You may be thinking, well duh, but when you take a closer look Farmers Markets can teach you more than you might have initially thought.

Farmers markets in essence are markets full of farmers. You want to learn about local food? This is your mecca. Vendors and farmers are knowledgeable, well connected in the food community, and friendly. At first, farmers seemed like a wise and untouchable breed, I was maybe even a little intimidated. How do you even cook kohlrabi?  Do they think I’m stupid because I have no idea what that cute little squash is? Farmers get up at the crack of dawn to haul fresh produce and goods to you. They farm because they love it and want to share their local seasonal produce with you. Use them as a resource! Ask questions, they won’t bite.

Learn the food seasons. Farmers markets are a great way to learn what grow when.  Spoiler alert, most fruits and vegetables grow best in one particular season. The produce at Farmers Markets directly reflect what is coming out of the farms at that time. You don’t get everything all the time when you buy local seasonal food, but it makes you appreciate the food more. It has helped me gain an appreciation for the natural cycle.

Now I am no stranger to HEB, I have circled the produce bins a time of two. But let me warn you, once you start going to Farmers Markets it changes the grocery store forever.  It is hard to describe how much of an impact it can have when you connect with your food source. Forming a relationship with your food and the people that grow it is a powerful thing. It isn’t just shopping anymore it becomes almost an experience. Have you connected with a local Farmers Market yet? Check out this Farmers Market guide from Edible Austin and start exploring.

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One crazy summer: Austin’s Urban Farm Code Update

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Phew! What a crazy summer. I didn’t mean to ignore the blog, but we have had a busy, busy couple of months in our corner of the local food world. In case you’ve missed it, I’ve been writing quite a bit for others, including the Beverage and Travel (releases 9/1) issues of Edible Austin and a new-ish gig writing a few times a month for CultureMap. But, the unexpected diversion in the schedule has centered around the City of Austin’s update to the Urban Farm Code.

If you haven’t been following this little soap opera, the City decided it needed to update the Urban Farm Code after a neighbor’s complaint resulted in HausBar Farms being shut down. The City Council tasked the Sustainable Food Policy Board with making recommendations and a working group held a number of public meetings through the spring ending with a list of adjustments that was more than a little confusing and not great for the farms.

I stood at the back of the meeting where the initial recommendations were unveiled and listened to the farmers speak up, in exasperation, about how the changes were going to negatively impact them. It was frustrating to say the least, and didn’t bode well for the farms.  A small, but vocal group is trying to prevent any new urban farms in the City of Austin – zero, zilch, nada. I don’t have to tell you how I feel about this and I’m not going to make their arguments for them. I will say that while I agree that we as a City need to solve problems like affordable housing, that trying to do so by limiting urban farms is misguided and fighting the wrong fight.

Since that meeting, a small group of volunteers (including Lillian and me) have helped the farms host several tours for the board, commission and council members who will vote on this issue, get the word out to the media about what is going on and round up a list of more than 1,000 people who signed up in support of having farms in the city. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of the farmers and a few diligent souls on the Sustainable Food Policy Board working group, they’ve made some progress.

The latest list of recommendations is better than first with less negative impact on the farms. They no longer limit things like school tours (um, duh), let the farm stands sell a limited number of outside items to have more diversity in the stand and allow a limited amount of slaughter for those with meat fowl.

Despite the long weeks of negotiating and revising, the process has really just started. The Sustainable Food Policy Board is the first of four votes that must take place to get the code through final approval. The second stop is the Code & Ordinance committee of the Planning Commission, followed by the entire Planning Commission and, finally, the City Council. At any time in this process, revisions can be made and road blocks can appear.

And that’s the problem. The small group who wants to end urban farming can try to sabotage the negotiations again and they have a tendency to be very loud and very public. That’s where you come in. The farmers need you to speak up in support of urban farms. If you have ever been to Boggy Creek, HausBar, Rain Lily or Springdale farms, bought anything from any of the farms or spent money in any of the countless restaurants that source from them, please, please, please show your support for the farms now.

You can help in one of several ways:

  • Sign up at AustinUrbanFarms.org as supporter of the farms and get everyone else you know to do so as well.
  • Write a nice note (emphasis on nice) to the Sustainable Food Policy Board, Planning Commission and City Council members who will be voting on this issue. You can find their e-mail addresses below and a sample letter here.
  • Show up at one of the meetings and sign up or speak on behalf of the urban farms. The tentative vote schedule (and this keeps changing so stay tuned for updates) is:

August 26th – Sustainable Food Policy Board meeting

September 17th – Code and Ordinance committee of the Planning Commission meeting

September 24th – Planning Commission meeting

October 3rd – City Council meeting

  • If you are really committed to urban farms, have oodles of free time and want to have an impact on the future of sustainable and local food in Austin, apply for one of the open seats on the Sustainable Food Policy Board. There are currently three open seats and a fourth will open up in November. You have to be approved by either the City Council or County Commission (depending on the seat you apply for) so this isn’t something to volunteer for lightly, but you will earn angel’s wings for doing it. If you are interested in serving on the board, contact one of the staff members who works with the board to learn more details.  Not sure what the board does? Review their bylaws for the purpose and rules for the board.

Austin’s local food scene has made amazing progress over the last decade. We not only have more farmers markets, but we have more fresh local food in our schools and at our food bank because of our local farms. It would be a damn shame for anything to slow that down. Please show your support and help us make sure that doesn’t happen.

In the meantime, here are a few photos from the last farm tour. What a treasure we have in these farms.

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Springdale farm stand

HausBar Farms Donkey

HausBar Farms Donkey

Bunnies at HausBar Farms

Bunnies at HausBar Farms

Working gloves at Boggy Creek

Working gloves at Boggy Creek

Onions hanging at Boggy Creek

Onions hanging at Boggy Creek

 

Carol Ann Sayle of Boggy Creek

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Growing Leaders at Urban Roots

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urban roots logoWhen you approach the Urban Roots booth at the Sustainable Food Center’s Downtown Austin Farmers Markets, you first notice the bundles of fresh produce and then become aware that you are being helped by teenagers. These high schoolers aren’t just bagging the veggies, but are engaging customers on how to best prepare different items and even occasionally upselling you on an extra batch of kale or turnips before they weigh your selections and make change.

The Urban Roots kids have detailed knowledge of the produce they sell because they also grow it as part of a 25 week paid internship and youth development program. Each year twenty-four youth (ages 14-17) are selected to participate in the program that grows over 30,000 pounds of produce on a 3.5 acre farm. They donate 40% of their yield to local food pantries and soup kitchens and sell the rest through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, at farmers markets and wholesale.

As much as the Urban Roots kids learn about food and eating healthy, they learn even more about confidence and leadership. When you meet one of the teens, there is no foot shuffling with eyes diverted to the ground.  These kids look you straight in the eyes, extend a firm handshake and greet you with a clear voice, “My name is…”  It’s refreshing and all too rare to meet a teenager who can interact with adults with so much assurance.

urban roots booth

photo courtesy of Urban Roots

The five year old program started as a program of Youth Launch and spun off into a standalone nonprofit in 2011.  The first year the program graduated 16 kids.  The initial group of interns was invited to apply to be crew leaders for the second year – 10 of 16 reapplied. By the third year, they were able to expand the program to its current size of 24 interns with three crew leaders and three agricultural interns.

Executive Director Max Elliott says that the organization is focused on moving from start-up mode to a stable, sustaining organization. “We are creating more opportunities for people to volunteer and have more meaningful experiences on our farm with more open houses and  partnerships where we can use the space for the public. We are also creating more opportunities for the the young people to engage the community.”

Prepping for market

Prepping for market

As part of they program, Urban Roots finds ways for the youth to see where the food goes when they donate it. During the summer, they help serve and prepare food at Caritas. This last summer, the chef taught the kids how to make eggplant lasagna, with eggplant from the farm, which they  then served to the Caritas clients.

“The kids were so moved by people who loved and appreciated the food and that people wanted seconds of something they made,” Elliott says. “When you have that kind of reward, it makes the work in the fields during the summer worth it.  That’s why we are doing this.”

This year, Urban Roots partnered with other organizations to expand their reach.  A Glimmer of Hope Foundation sponsored a farm to school project that allowed kids from Connally High School, Garza High School and a few special needs groups participate in an abbreviated six-week program.  Connally’s culinary program took the produce they harvested and prepared a potluck at the school.   With help from JP’s Peace, Love & Happiness Foundation and Green Corn Project, they were also able to install gardens in at the homes of the Urban Roots alumni.

Expanding that reach is important because the influence of the program continues years after the interns leave the farms.  Elliott said he had recently heard from one of the interns who participated in the first year of the program, a shy teenager who only worked for six weeks and didn’t apply to come back the second year.  Now in college, the young man called to thank Elliott for what he learned at Urban Roots, telling him that half the reason he was successful and on track for law school was because of the program.  “We don’t always see the full impact until years later, but it is having a profound impact,” says Elliott.

Urban Roots isn’t just growing vegetables, they are growing leaders.  You can support Urban Roots by giving, volunteering your time, joining their CSA program and buying from their booth at the Downtown Austin Farmers Market.

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