By Johnny Griffith
If you’ve been on the Southwest side of Tyler on a Saturday morning the past few months, you’ve probably noticed a buzz of activity centered around Juls on Old Jacksonville Highway. What you’ve been missing, assuming you didn’t stop, is the Rose City Farmer’s Market (RCFM). Held Saturday mornings from April to November, the RCFM is a place for local farmers, artisans, and shoppers to come together in a grand exchange of produce, conversations, and ideas.
But before you dismiss the gather as “just another farmer’s market,” perhaps consider that you cannot only get fresh produce and locally made artisan foods and crafts, you can also hear live music, play games, and enjoy great conversations over fresh coffee. Rose City Farmer’s Market is something to be experienced, not just another place to buy a fresh tomato.
Juls manager, Jarrod Maness, was excited about the prospect of having a source of fresh ingredients, literally in their front yard. “For our Chefs, it’s a dream come true, being able to have the finest produce in East Texas on site,” Maness says, but the benefits weren’t just visible in the kitchen at Juls. Jarrod also says that both the regular and new faces alike quickly added Saturday morning excursions to the parking lot into their routines. According to Maness, “The Farmer’s Market created a lot of exciting buzz. Saturday morning trips began a culinary adventure for many of our patrons! Seeing families walk across the street to fill their shopping lists at the Rose City Farmer’s Market was a beautiful site.”
I recently tracked down Carmen Sosa, founder of the RCFM and director of the Farm & Food Coalition of Tyler, to find out a little more about this unique event that focuses on the “Farm to Fork” movement.
Johnny: How did the idea of the Rose City Farmer’s Market begin?
Carmen: Growing up, we always had a garden in our backyard. My mom loved fresh tomatoes, onions, okra, and strawberries, so those were staples on our table whenever they were in season. As I grew older I sought local farms and farmer’s markets where I could buy my food because of the intense flavors of fresh food and the appreciation for the folks that grew it. After moving back to Tyler about 6 years ago, I visited a local farmer’s market and came home with a tomato that had a sticker from Florida on it. I was furious and couldn’t understand how this could happen. I returned to the market and was essentially told by the manager that there wouldn’t BE a farmer’s market if they didn’t allow people to bring in produce from big city wholesale markets. Needless to say, I was shocked.
Johnny: Tell me a little more about the Farm & Food Coalition.
Carmen: Preparing to launch a new farmer’s market required a lot of extensive research on local agriculture, existing and failed markets, and laws governing the sale of food at farmer’s markets. During this research, I discovered an enormous food-access problem in Tyler. According to the USDA, Tyler is home to 8 food deserts. A food desert is a community that has little to no access to fresh, nutritious food. UT Tyler had conducted a study of their own which identified sources for fresh food in these areas and the results were dismal. My neighbors in the east, north, and west neighborhoods had absolutely no access to fresh food. The Farm & Food Coalition’s goal, and it has been since this realization, is to improve and provide access to clean, nutritious, locally-grown food and have a permanent location within one of these food deserts, ideally north of Front St. where our market is needed most.
Johnny: What has been the biggest challenge so far in the evolution of the RCFM?
Carmen: Finding a permanent home for our market has been our biggest challenge. We have the agriculture, we have the farmers, and we definitely have the customer support. What he haven’t had to this point, is support from city and county leaders, which would allow us to have a permanent facility with infrastructures in place to hold a year-round market, open more than one day a week. It can be discouraging, but we are determined. I have been contacted by numerous business owners and private landowners offering to host us on their property. As a market, we have agreed to not move again until we have all of the necessary components in place, which would include a covered trade space, ample parking, bathroom facilities, on-site storage, electricity, and an easy-to-access location.
Johnny: What were the first couple of years like in regards to getting the word out and sourcing local vendors?
Carmen: The first couple of years were overwhelming. We put ads in the local papers, posted on Facebook and Craig’s List, and pushed hard to get the word out about our market. The response was steady and strong, but I soon realized we needed to have a more thorough application and screening process as we discovered several farmers were supplementing their own produce with items being bought at wholesale markets. We now have a comprehensive application process and conduct on-site farm inspections for each of our agriculture members.
Johnny: What kind of vendors do you try to attract for the market?
Carmen: We adhere to a 75-mile radius for most products sold at the market, and we will expand that radius for items not available in our region. For example, Texas Hill Country Olive Oil, Co. in Dripping Springs is our closest olive orchard, so we invited them to join our community. Since we are a producer-only market, it is imperative the vendor grows, produces, bakes, makes, or nurtures everything they sell. We pride ourselves on the variety and quality of vendors at our market and we strive to have a nice balance of agricultural products, artisanal foods, and non-food items.
Johnny: What kind of response have you gotten in terms of local restaurants and chefs since opening?
Carmen: About two years ago we saw a flush of chefs interested in purchasing local ingredients for their menus. Oftentimes, there is a bit of a learning curve to understand the difference in purchasing from small farms compared to national produce distributors. Chefs don’t always get to plan weeks and months in advance. When a bumper crop of tomatoes turn red, they need to be on the menu that week. Also, it is important that chefs get to know the farmers personally, to understand their growing practices, harvest and storage methods, and iron out the logistics of delivery. Farmers are usually in the field so they can’t be running all over town during the week to deliver produce. We are thankful for the chefs that attend our market regularly and have made an investment in our farmer members.
Johnny: What are some of the top myths surrounding local farmer’s markets that might keep people away for unfounded reasons?
MYTH: It’s more expensive.
FACT: The Farm & Food Coalition conducted extensive research three years ago where an assortment of produce items were priced at Brookshire’s, FRESH, Super 1, and Wal-Mart and compared them to our market prices. For conventionally grown produce, our price averages were comparable to the grocery store prices. For organic produce, our prices were considerably lower. Something that is oftentimes not factored in when comparison shopping is shelf life. The shelf life of a just-picked vegetable is going to be considerably longer than its factory-farmed cousin that was picked weeks ago.
MYTH: It’s a farmers market, so everything is local.
FACT: Sadly, this is far from the truth. Farming is really hard and often times unpredictable. Sometimes profits are good and other times there are no profits. Buying boxes of wholesale produce and reselling them as a local product is an easy money maker and, very sadly, is not uncommon. It is really difficult to identify this fraud especially if the wholesale tomatoes are mixed in with the homegrown ones. It takes a tremendous amount of diligence, oversight, and communication on the part of a market manager to enforce a “no reselling” rule. The best advice I can give to anyone that wants to support local agriculture and buy local produce is to get to know the farmers that grow their food. Ask lots of questions and then follow up with even more questions.
Johnny: What’s a typical Saturday morning like at the Rose City Farmer’s Market?
Carmen: RCFM has become a thriving community gathering place. Our market is kid-friendly with kid’s crafts each month, sidewalk chalk, and an oversized checkers game, and it’s also pet-friendly with an ice-water station for dogs. There are picnic tables in the shade, and musicians play from 8:30am-12 noon each market. We have a lot of regulars, so it’s not uncommon for large groups to gather, sip coffee, shop, and visit.
Johnny: So let’s assume it’s my first trip the Market. What can I expect?
Carmen: Hopefully you’ll stop by the Welcome Table, and let us know it’s your first visit. We’ll tell you what’s in season and what is coming soon from our farmers. You can grab an iced coffee and fresh-baked pastry before making the rounds to comparison shop while listening to local musicians under the Music Tent. You can stock up on freshly cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, herbs, pastured chicken and lamb, grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, wood oven baked breads, (to die for) dark chocolate croissants, pastries made from local produce, allergy-free baked goodies, jam, jelly and preserves, pickles, and salsa. One of our farmers has an apothecary line that includes balms, bath teas, essential oil bug repellant, and other luxurious bath and body items.
If you come on the first Saturday of the month you’ll enjoy meeting local artists selling their wares…paintings, hand-thrown pottery, woodcrafts, fiber arts, handmade soaps and lotions, and many other handcrafts. Bring your yoga mat and enjoy a donations-based yoga practice on the terrace overlooking the lake before you start your shopping!
We hope a first-time customer will take away a feeling of belonging and a sense of being a part of a caring, nurturing, and inclusive community. Welcome!
Rose City Farmer’s Market is open Saturday mornings 8am-12 noon through November. It is located in Juls parking lot at 7212 Old Jacksonville Highway in Tyler.