What Every Citizen Should Know About Food From North Texasby Micheline Hynes, Chair, Tarrant County Food Policy Council
To improve access to healthy foods, you have to have a community that produces it. The North Texas region needs more farmers and gardeners to meet the needs of our community. Most local growers are family run small businesses. When you buy local, it can often mean fresher, more variety, and foods that are more nutritious than those that have been transported hundreds of miles, and your dollars stay in the community where you live.
While buying local is great in many ways, it may require a little adjustment to consumer expectations. Here's the real deal about locally grown in North Texas:
1. Locally grown is not cheaply grown. Small-scale, local farmers typically have higher costs and sometimes shorter growing seasons than large-scale farmers or suppliers from other regions (or even other countries). Many times, local farmers are not using the expensive, mechanized equipment or cheap labor that can significantly reduce operating costs like large-scale producers do.They're also not as likely to farm exclusively in massive hoop houses, greenhouses, or other climate and pest-controlled environments which increases yield and sometimes lowers the sticker price on their inventory. Comparative length of growing season is a factor, too--while we can grow some truly lovely, tasty little strawberries here in North Texas between March and June, we cannot compete with southern California's twelve month growing season of gorgeous, large (albeit relatively flavorless) mass-produced fruits. Locally grown is not cheaply grown, but it is worth the difference.
2. North Texas has unique soil fertility and microclimate. This presents both some opportunities and challenges for our farmers. Eastern parts of DFW, boast the more fertile Blackland soil which drains relatively well and is quite conducive for vegetable production. Western parts of DFW, like Tarrant and Parker counties have Grand Prairie soil, which has comparatively inferior drainage and is more suitable for ranching, although vegetable production is certainly possible. This is one factor in why there are more produce growers circling the eastern edge of the metroplex and the western side leans toward beef. Whether you're growing in the east or west of our region, our shared microclimate gives the advantage of extended growing seasons for all of us compared to our northern neighbors--we can grow something in the soil all year long. We typically have a long season for things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra, but you'll only find table staples like broccoli and cauliflower for a short while in spring and late fall and never in mid-summer at your farmers market. Droughts, deluges, hail, and the occasional 85 degree day followed by a 45 degree night is rough on plants and can result in some significant crop loss for area market farmers. Our extreme weather events can simply break a farmer's heart, but amazingly, they just get out there and start again!
3. Sometimes ugly or weird vegetables taste better than pretty, standard ones. What makes something beautiful to behold (and transport well from field to distributor to grocer to consumer) is rarely also the best tasting. Flavor comes from compounds present in any given plant cultivar, the nutrients in the soil, and the interplay of sun, wind and rainfall on the crop. We've become accustomed to all the perfect looking produce at the grocers and have let our eyes fool us into thinking what looks best, tastes best, too. There are 10,000 varieties of tomato plants alone, each with a unique flavor profile and I promise you that the vast majority of them taste better than those pale-but-perfectly round hothouse sandwich slicers you can get all winter. So, trust your farmer and take a chance on something different, for they know the secrets to great flavor.
4. Your patronage really does matter, but more markets may not be the solution. One recent study in California discovered that, “for every dollar of sales, direct marketers are generating twice as much economic activity within the region, as compared to producers who are not involved in direct marketing.” There's some good evidence that farmers markets and other types of direct-sales benefit local farmers and stimulate their local economies. Adding new farmers markets in our region is always a popular idea and could be a great thing, but not if there aren’t enough farmers to fill them. At this moment, we don't have enough small-scale farmers in North Texas and the ones we do have on average aren't able to effectively scale up their production to support multiple weekend markets. Small neighborhood markets seem like a good idea, but the past few years have demonstrated they tend to have few vendors, limited product diversity, low sales, and typically close within a year. For the time-being at least, there is more overall benefit from the presence of a few, well-run, large markets with robust traffic.
So whenever you can, make the effort to get out to our region's farmers markets, stop by the on-farm road stands, get your harvest share through a CSA or dine at restaurants featuring locally grown food. When you do, you can be proud to know that you're supporting our hard-working growers who in turn, not only put great food on your table, but create jobs and spend their money supporting local, too. They're right at the heart of the local food movement and what makes food grown right here in North Texas something to treasure.