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Growing a Conscience

A movement to "buy local" has shoppers scouring for food grown close to home.  Are farmers' markets headed for a revival?



Reggie Gordon looks conspicuous,  out of place wandering between stalls at the Byrd House farmers' market.  It's a hot day in June,  and in his smart summer-weight suit with pastel-colored tie,  he looks like an executive who's strayed onto a hippie commune.

But make no mistake,  this place — and the attached Grace Arents Community Garden — is his baby.

Gordon,  director of the William Byrd Community House,  smiling and waving to customers he knows,  mills about with the throngs here,  the women in billowing skirts,  the hipster college students.  Many are residents of the surrounding Oregon Hill neighborhood served by Byrd House's philanthropic programs.  He chats like an old friend with vendors who've brought fresh vegetables here from their farms in the surrounding counties.

"There are ways to make this work," Gordon says,  thinking big about the future.  He surveys the small,  hilly field behind the Byrd Community House on South Cherry Street,  where the market has quickly taken off since opening in early April.

Gordon hopes the Byrd House Market experiment spawns a series of markets around the city,  serving neighborhoods and bringing communities together.  It's a model that's worked in other cities.

The Byrd House Market exists largely thanks to a one-time grant of $50,000 from the W.  K.  Kellogg Foundation,  through the New York-based Project for Public Spaces.  But Gordon wants the idea to stretch long past the dollars.

"This was exactly what they were going for," Gordon says.  "Connecting communities with locally grown food and in places where low-income families are tied in at some point in the equation."

This equation is part of a much larger bit of arithmetic.  It's the local face of a growing national and global movement toward environmentally conscious,  health-wise consumerism,  a trend that started in earnest in the 1990s. It fueled massive mainstream retailers such as Whole Foods Market with annual sales of $1.2 billion and has sustained longtime locals such as Ellwood Thompson in Carytown.  

Under the banner of sustainable agriculture,  the movement employs a host of buzz terms,  some familiar and others not: organic,  whole foods,  food miles,  pesticide-free,  hormone-free and localtarianism.

Not long ago,  the movement was defined by organic foods,  a diet exclusive to granola-loving environmentalists.  With increasing concern over global warming,  rising energy costs and political tensions — think Al Gore and hybrid cars — the movement has gone mostly mainstream.

Despite its informal feel,  the good old farmers' market is at the center of this relatively new prism of civic and social consciousness.  Richmond boasts two such markets,  the new one in Oregon Hill and the old 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Bottom.  Nearby markets in Ashland and New Kent round things out.

"No,  I don't drive a [Toyota] Prius," says an only slightly annoyed Gayla Mills,  one of nearly 400 people who've come through the Byrd House Market today.  Mills isn't up on some of the buzz words,  but knows plenty of commonsense reasons to shop here.  

"I come here to get,  ideally,  local and organic [foods],  but mainly local," she says,  her expression turning blank at the mention of food miles — the practice of buying food based on the least distance it travels from field to plate.

Mills is already on board that train.  "It reduces the amount of energy that's used to get the food," she says.  "Saving energy,  that's one of the big things.  It reduces pollution.  But it's also a way of building community."

That's what Gordon likes to hear.  And he's happy that others in places that matter are talking about it,  too.

"I know there's been talk at City Council about the idea of having markets all over the city," he says,  mentioning Councilwoman Kathy Graziano,  who's floating a vision similar to the one he has.  "And [Councilman Marty] Jewell came last week.  He ran back to council and said, 'This is it — this is what the city needs.'"

In fact,  the folks at William Byrd initially approached the city with their grant proposal,  looking for a partner to help bring the multiple-market idea to life.  It was a seed that fell on fallow soil.  He says that in the end,  the city may or may not be the right partner to make a farmers' market circuit work.

But it wasn't long after Jewell's visit,  Gordon says,  that he and other Byrd House Market personnel were before council being recognized and congratulated for their work.  

"Maybe this provides a prototype for Richmond," Gordon says of his market.

Richmond used to be a real market town.  

Ask any old-timer from the city and they'll tell stories of going with their parents to one of the handful of bustling markets around Richmond.  Their contemporaries from Henrico,  Hanover or Chesterfield counties might talk nostalgically of riding a horse cart or truck loaded with produce fresh from their family's farm to Richmond.  They'd come every day to 17th Street Farmers' Market,  or to one of the other downtown markets that thrived.

Today,  17th Street is what's left of the old markets.  It's a pale shadow of what it was even in the 1970s,  when local truck farmers still came in droves to sell fresh fruits and vegetables directly to consumers.

Some of those old-timers still come.

"We're the fourth generation," says Rosa Fleming,  who with her sister,  Evelyn Allen,  has been coming to 17th Street as long as either cares to remember.  Their family is from Hanover,  where she was born.

"You see those scales?" she asks,  pointing to a grocer's scale hanging from her stall.  "They were my father's."

They're here every day the market's open,  and even days when it's not.  This past winter,  when everyone else stayed away,  the sisters came.  Not because there were customers,  but because they say they wanted to make a clear statement to the city,  which owns and operates 17th Street,  that the market is important.  It needs to be here.

"I wanted to let them know I wasn't giving up," Allen says.

The sisters expect they're not the last generation of their family that will cling to the old ways.  Most of their children have moved on to professional careers,  mostly in the medical field.  One is a doctor.  But Allen's son,  Robert Allen Jr.,  has the family's entrepreneurial spirit.  He'll carry on,  both sisters say.

But will the market?

Compared with the sisters,  Mike Wiblin is a newby.  When he retired from the government in 1996,  he started growing strictly on contract at his Hanover farm for local restaurants through an area wholesaler.

But the wholesaler went belly-up and Wiblin needed something to do with his land and equipment.  He began bringing his produce to 17th Street.

"I guess you wouldn't call me a farmer,  but I don't like being called a gardener either.  I'm a farmette," he says,  chuckling.  But he turns serious when conversation returns to the market and its politics.  "The city gives it no support."

Comparing 17th Street with Byrd House Market makes for an odd contrast.  17th Street has considerably more amenities. It's brick-paved,  with tall,  tin-roofed canopies providing shelter for vendors.  Pilings holding the place up are sunk deep.  An ATM lets customers come back for more squash and cucumbers.

By support,  Wiblin means the government,  but also the potential consumers.  On the government side he lists a litany of misfires and bureaucratic roadblocks that have kept 17th Street from reaching what he thinks is its full potential.  Among them,  the old Tomato Express bus,  a 15-passenger van that on market days would go from office to office bringing customers from downtown businesses to shop.  It's gone.

"There's no parking down here," he says.  "People that come down to the market have to really want to come down to the market.  For a lot of them,  it's just too goddamn much trouble to get down here."

Wiblin grouses,  but he loves the market.  He wants it to succeed,  to grow like the Hanover tomatoes he hopes to bring to market within the next few weeks.

The 17th Street vendors share enthusiasm about what they see as a noticeable increase in customer traffic this year.  With the residential growth in Church Hill and the Bottom — in the most recent census,  the area was tagged as the fastest-growing residential corridor in the city — the timing could be right for 17th Street to excel.

Avis Binford,  manager of the 17th Street Farmers' Market — the fifth in five years — confirms what Wiblin suspects.

"Lately we've been getting between 300 and 400 people [a day]," she says,  noting that in past years,  "200 people was a highlight."

Binford is tall and young,  with the look of the free-spirited jewelry maker and market vendor that she was before being elevated into her new position four months ago.

It's difficult to pinpoint a reason for the growth,  she says.  "But I do think the whole idea of eating better and living a different lifestyle has contributed.  You get to talk to the person who grew your food.  Or made the bowl yesterday from the tree that had been growing in his backyard for 30 years.  It's a connection."

She introduces another buzz term: experiential shopping.  Emphasis is still on the product,  but perhaps more on how the consumer gets it.

The Starbucks coffee chain is the true visionary of experiential shopping.  It thrives with a comfortable,  hip environment and servers know customers' names.  On its bags of coffee,  the chain touts its oh-so-personal relationship with Latin American farmers and how it's contributed to improving the environments where coffee is grown.

"Starbucks started in [Seattle's Pike Place] farmer's market," Binford points out.

But most farmers' market vendors will never be a Starbucks.  Most own farms barely bigger than an average Wal-Mart parking lot.  It could well be the thing that holds Richmond back from proponents' dreams of more markets.

Could the city sustain a broader circuit of markets,  each operating on a different day? Are there enough customers? Are there enough farmers?

There are certainly other communities asking for markets.

"Lakeside wants one," says Stacey Moulds,  market manager at the Byrd House Market and a former manager at 17th Street.  "Forest Hill is interested in having one.  I know the Fan does — hopefully this could be their market.

"I'm not at a loss right now for vendors," Moulds says.  "But I don't know if there are enough farmers in the area to sustain multiple markets."

Though lack of farmers could be a short-term issue,  Charlie Collins doesn't think it needs to be the thing to dash dreams.  

With a creased and weathered face,  calloused hands and bent fingers,  Collins is used to mixing science and economics with hard labor to produce hearty-looking crops that have become the envy of fellow vendors.  

He arrived from Phoenix by way of Maine about six months ago.  He rents a small farm — one acre — from his landlord in Hanover.  Most of his growing is done for Sprout,  a local nonprofit,  community-supported agriculture cooperative that allows subscribers to pay up front for vegetables grown throughout the season.  

Even postage-stamp-sized farming operations could yield profit,  he says.  

"There's money in this business," he says.  In Phoenix,  community awareness and support of farmers' markets was far worse than in Richmond.  But he says he made a comfortable living — doctors and lawyers would be jealous — farming on about four acres.

Boasting a degree in botany with a keen interest in the economics of small farming,  Collins knows that direct marketing,  such as farm stands or farmers' markets,  is the key to small-farm success.

You can't count on grocery stores to help the small farmer or increase consumer interest in locally grown products,  he says.

He sells some produce to a local grocer,  but says it's counterproductive.  The grocer buys from him at 60 cents on the dollar.

"They're taking what I'm selling here for $2 and selling it for $3.50.  That actually gives organic a bad name," he says,  suggesting this fuels a public perception that organic is synonymous with more expensive.  "It's ass-backwards."

That's the problem with going mainstream.  The demand for organic foods,  which pays Collins' bills,  has forced local grocery chains to respond.  In many ways,  it's increased the availability and ultimately reduced prices.

Like most grocery chains,  Ukrop's Super Markets was buying organic produce from Florida and California.  But because of the distance the food had to travel,  it was more expensive and had a shorter shelf life.

To meet demand,  says Al Oliver,  head of the produce division for Ukrop's 29 stores,  he approached a group of farmers in Southwest Virginia in 2003 about striking a deal.  They were losing their government subsidies to grow tobacco and agreed to supply the chain with organic vegetables.

"These guys are delivering a minimum of two to three times a week," Oliver says,  from farms about 200 miles away.  "They are picking that morning and it's in our stores the next day."

The deal allowed Ukrop's to lower its prices and offer a fresher variety of such food.  Today,  organic vegetables make up about 5 percent of the stores' produce business,  but Oliver expects it to grow to as much as 15 percent.

Still the prices are high enough at local groceries,  driving some customers to the farmers' markets.

Collins blames it on the boutique approach grocery stores use to sell organics.  He figures that a small number of customers will pay a premium for locally produced goods.  Because fewer such goods are sold,  they end up sitting longer on shelves,  looking worse for it. The lower demand keeps more local farmers from selling to local groceries.  

But that method may be short-lived.  Now that organics have gone by way of the capitalists,  the pesky laws of supply and demand keep getting in the way.  

And the masses don't necessarily carry calculators when they buy produce.  Tom Leonard's Farmers Market in Short Pump,  which opened off West Broad Street in 2004,  is a case in point.  Tom Leonard's store is not a farmers' market; it's a speciality grocery store that sells mostly produce, dairy products and meat.

Requests for produce that adheres to the food miles concept have yet to appear in the store's customer suggestion box.  Leonard says he's never heard of food miles.An extension of the organic-foods movement? Leonard bristles,  emitting a quizzical glare,  brow scrunched.

His customers routinely ask for organics,  but they breeze past the giant 10-foot refrigerated displays filled with pesticide-free broccoli,  squash,  lettuce and tomatoes.  He's lost more than $30,000 learning his lesson.  

"You really want to know what I think of organic foods? I think it's bullshit," Leonard says.

For all practical purposes,  Leonard's market should be the poster child for the organic-food movement.  Customers come to him after they've been let down by the produce bins at typical stores.  In the West End,  his store is the alternative,  he says.  

Of the 15,000 people who shop in his store each week,  Leonard estimates about 4,000 are from the city of Richmond.  "And you want to know something?" he muses.  "None of them are buying organic."

But they are buying local.  During the next couple of weeks,  Leonard says everything in his store will be "locally grown" in-state until cold weather forces him to bring in produce from warmer climes.

Tom Leonard's is the sort of place Melissa Roberts shops only rarely.   Roberts owns Nonesuch Art and Apparel near Virginia Commonwealth University.  She has that natural look about her.  She doesn't need to gussy up herself or the food she eats.  

"I just don't really believe in factory farming or mass production of things like this because I believe it's too hard on the environment," she says.  She's also a local business owner who wishes more area consumers would think local.

"The small time I spent living out West [in Seattle] really opened my eyes," she says.  Small markets were more prominent than large ones.

Richmond may need a re-education,  she says.  Here at the Byrd House farmers' market,  she observes,  "It seems like a lot of farmers are going to leave here today with leftover produce."

Consumers "need to be reminded that places like this exist again," she says.

There is, of course, a very good reason for using pesticides and fertilizers. In the early 1900s, when the world's food supply wasn't keeping pace with demand, nitrogen fertilizers were largely responsible for quadrupling the world's food supply. Without man-made fertilizers, more than 2 billion people would starve, according to a 2002 Swiss study.

A resurgence of local farmers' markets seems unlikely to cause starvation of a third of the world's population, but it could shine new light on 17th Street, which would be the flagship market should the market movement continue to gain momentum.

"We're not going to have five markets next year," Byrd House Market manager Moulds says, but " we might have one more."

"It has a lot of potential,  and it has a lot of history," Councilwoman Graziano says of the 17th Street Market,  which predates the city of Richmond.  But because of its limited hours of operation (it's open Thursday and Saturday mornings) and its location,  she says,  there's a large group of consumers who are unable to avail themselves of what's offered.

"And it's hard to get the vendors coming because you can't get the customers.  It's kind of a vicious circle."

She thinks 17th Street's lackluster performance has given a false sense that the city doesn't support its farmers.  She believes the demand is there and says it was evident even before Byrd House Market began.

"There's a guy that parks a truck on Libbie [Avenue] just before you get to Patterson [Avenue]," she says.  "There are always four or five cars parked there,  people buying stuff from him.  There's a definite demand for fresh goods in the city.  

"It used to be there were truck farmers parked in lots of places."

Part of the problem with 17th Street,  says Graziano's legislative aide,  David Hathcock,  is the ill-advised notion that "this ought to be a revenue source."   That's been the mindset of previous and,  perhaps,  the current administration at City Hall.  Rumors have circulated for months that at least one developer is interested in enclosing the market and adding national franchises.

Rather,  Hathcock says,  farmers' markets "are amenities.  The revenue stream is immaterial.  They are a lifestyle enhancement."

But it could still be an economic benefit to the city,  even if counting dollars directly from there will never work.  It's simple math.  The city charges $10 per stall per day.  With 40 vendors,  that's $400 a day on each of three market days.  Assuming the market is open 25 weeks of the year,  that's $30,000 back to the city.

"But if you had a really booming farmers' market down there,  and you had a lot of people," Graziano says,  "you'd have them also shopping down there and poking in shops,  so you'd have an economic outfall.  I don't think it's realistic that any farmers' market is going to make money by itself."

Despite this view,  some past administrations have looked to the market as a potential revenue source,  which leads Graziano to wonder: Maybe the Byrd House has it right by putting it in the hands of a not-for-profit.

The Byrd House's Gordon isn't sure which is the right way to go either.  He's worried about his own backyard for now.

"It's a matter of finding out how to sustain it," he says.  Both he and Moulds say this one market could essentially run itself.  As long as customers come,  vendors will too.  But expanding is tougher.

"It's about finding the right corporate partner — or somebody who has an affinity for this kind of thing," Gordon says.  "Hopefully,  this is a way of reinvigorating the mood,  the environment." S— News Editor Scott Bass contributed to this story.

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