On a recent chilly Saturday morning, local developer Peter Ellis walked to the Waco Downtown Farmers Market pushing a stroller with his 1-year-old daughter, Hazel, to buy some fresh vegetables and an aromatic lavender plant for his wife.
Hazel was bundled up and cozy and didn’t seem to mind the nip in the air. Ellis said he was delighted by the 15 or so growers and vendors who had come out despite the cold to sell fresh farm eggs, artisan breads, homemade goat soaps and organic meats.
“We tell lots of people about the Farmers Market. We want more people to come and be a part of it,” said Ellis, 29, of Ellis Isle Equities, which is developing the nearby Praetorian loft apartments at Sixth Street and Franklin Avenue.
The Waco Downtown Farmers Market helps add to the allure of downtown living, he said. “This is our chance to bring life and vibrancy back to downtown, so it has more of a city/community feel to it. We’re trying to do things to attract more businesses downtown.”
He’s not the only one who believes that.
Since opening last November at 400 S. University Parks Drive — behind the old Waco fire station — the Waco Downtown Farmers Market has quickly grown in size, popularity and offerings. It is becoming quite the bustling place to be on a Saturday morning.
The market’s early success is due in part to steady support from city and local business leaders who believe a thriving downtown farmers market adds to urban appeal. It’s a touch of the big city but with a friendlier, down-home Waco feel.
“Creating activities for all of Waco in the downtown area is a priority for the city, especially when we can enhance the livability and add a venue of goods and services not previously available in town,” said Waco City Councilman Malcolm Duncan Jr., who serves on the 10-member farmers market board.
Duncan has backed the creation of this market since last summer, when he served on an ad hoc market planning committee. Representatives included leaders from the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce and HOT Urban Gardening Coalition. Their goal was to find a central area that could spur an interest in locally grown foods and healthy products. They also wanted to entice more people downtown.
“This is incredibly important. It’s been a priority to bring a farmers market downtown that drives businesses and promotes business opportunities and brings people here,” said Chris McGowan, director of urban development for the chamber. McGowan also was on the ad hoc committee and has worked for four years to get a downtown market open. And he believes they’ve found the perfect spot.
Overlooking the picturesque Brazos River west of Interstate 35 and within walking distance of Baylor University, the market is easy to access, full of variety and sometimes offers entertainment.
“We have a special emphasis on broadening this type of local participation in the greater downtown area,” Duncan said. “We have been very encouraged with the market’s success over the winter months, and look forward to accommodating more customers and vendors in the spring.”
With warmer months approaching, Farmers Market President Terry Vanderpool anticipates more patrons, as well as a greater selection of the earth’s bounty, more local art products and even open-air concerts.
The market draws 500 to 2,000 patrons each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dozens of vendors rotate weekly, bringing different products to sell depending upon the season and previous sale successes.
“It’s going really well,” said Zacary Bryan, development coordinator for the Urban Gardening Coalition. “Even on the rainiest of days there have still been 500 people and many vendors.”
New vendors are arriving weekly, and inquiries about vendors happen all the time, said Vanderpool, a garlic grower from China Spring.
“Everyone seems to be happy with how the market is going,” he said. “There is nothing equivalent between Dallas and Austin that offers the same variety of meats and produce locally grown unless you travel pretty far.”
Economic benefits to all
In a time of lingering recession, this spot of 5 acres offers hope and opportunity to those with the desire to sell items they either grow or make by hand, supporters say. It’s an outdoor business incubator of sorts that inspires ingenuity, hard work and creativity.
Vendors pay $25 per day to operate a booth and an annual $50 fee. All agricultural products for sale must be grown within 150 miles of Waco. Only 20 percent of products for sale may be nonagricultural local products.
Organizers say the objective is to tout local goods and promote healthier products.
“We’re putting money into the local economy not only by bringing people downtown, but by supporting local producers and local farmers and that’s a win, win, win for Waco and McLennan County,” said McGowan, who serves as an adviser to the market.
By drawing visitors downtown early on Saturdays, local merchants and city leaders hope patrons will stick around throughout the day and shop and enjoy a meal out, further increasing the market’s financial impact.
It’s also a venue where smaller farms and merchants can hang their shingle and sell their wares without having too much overhead cost.
The Urban Gardening Coalition runs a booth from which smaller growers and community gardeners can sell for just $5 per day, Bryan said. The coalition operates two after-school gardening clubs to teach students the benefits of working the land. Collard greens and Swiss chard grown at Tennyson Middle School have been sold at the farmers market this winter. In the spring, they hope to grow and sell carrots, tomatoes and sugar snap peas as well. Sale proceeds from Tennyson greens are being put in a special account that students want to donate to a charity, possibly one that serves cancer victims, Bryan said.
Such unforeseen benefits from the market seem to come about every week. An unemployed laborer builds a chicken coop and sells it at the market for a few hundred dollars. An early-rising egg farmer collects thousands of eggs to bring.
Ingenuity and hard work definitely pay off here.
Miranda Tucker, 17, leaves her Caldwell home by 6 a.m. on Saturdays carrying 150 dozen brown, cage-free eggs from Yellow Prairie Farm, which her father owns. Originally, the Tuckers bought the 5,000 chickens to naturally fertilize 30 acres of soil to grow plants. But they soon noticed that their hens were quite fertile and they had more eggs than they could handle.
“The hens have gone crazy laying eggs,” said her booth partner, Rhonda Johnson, who works at the farm.
When the Waco farmers market first opened Nov. 19, they packed their egg cartons in large white coolers, unloaded stacks onto long white plastic tables, put up a handmade sign that read $3 per dozen and watched the cash roll in.
That first day vendors sold out and the public response was more than organizers had hoped for. Some growers had to return to their farms for more bounty, while patrons delighted with all the local, healthy options and didn’t seem to mind the delay at all.
Opening day seemed to uncover a demand within the community that this market fills.
“It’s probably going to be great in the summer,” Tucker said with an optimistic grin.
“Many people who come are in search of a more natural lifestyle,” Johnson added.
That’s what brings Amanda and Brad Pierce every week.
“This is the biggest farmers market Waco has ever had,” said Amanda, who was buying big bunches of carrots and bottles of sarsaparilla (similar to root beer, without artificial colors) one recent morning.
“We used to go to the HOT Fairgrounds to buy fresh produce. This is so much better,” she said.
Nearby, Betty Flowers was picking through turnips. “I come every week. I haven’t missed a single week,” she said as she dropped healthy greens into a plastic laundry-like basket draped over her arm. “Waco needs to support this. We complain that we don’t have anything to offer downtown, but now this is open and more people need to come out and shop.”
This spring the farmers market seems headed for several changes and expansions that could make it even better.
Councilman Duncan said city officials “are currently reviewing the farmers market permit to allow more local food-related activities, like food truck rodeos (a gathering of trucks and trailers with prepared meals) or food and entertainment options in their space on a more frequent basis.”
The market operates under a 2011-approved city ordinance that dictates operation hours. But it seems the market might soon be able to open other days and could offer additional amenities.
Vanderpool, the board president, said his group would like to open the market on Friday nights and offer prepared meals made from locally grown foods, like brick oven-cooked pizza from Artisan Oven, and freshly made crepes from Co-Town Crepes. These vendors draw some of the biggest crowds on Saturday mornings and he believes this could bring in more families who are looking for a healthy end-of-week meal out.
Board members also want to open a community booth for local artisans to sell more artwork without charging each artist a vendor rate. And they want to increase weekly concerts and other exhibits and workshops offered on site, Vanderpool said.
“When the weather is good, people can really spend several hours there,” he said. “It’s a community-safe environment where you can bring your children and look at the various booths and enjoy life.”
Teen egg vendor Tucker already has a keen salesperson’s eye. She’s noticed the most successful market vendors are those who prepare food in front of patrons, like Co-Town Crepes, which makes delicious paper-thin crepes with fresh ingredients such as spinach and mushrooms.
Round Rock Honey booth vendor Neal Curran, 26, dips cut-up blue straws into locally grown honey and hands out samples. The honey — which many people believe combats local allergies because it’s made from area plants — is harvested from 4,000 bee hives between Round Rock and West.
“When the market first started, everybody sold out in the first couple of hours and that was great motivation,” he said. “Although it tapered off some in the winter, I think it will pick up in spring.”
Curran sells about $500 worth of honey each Saturday. One day he sold more than $1,000. His honey ranges from a half-pound jar for $6 to a 12-pound jar for $50. When sales are slow, he gets out an electric keyboard or mandolin and plays tunes. “If I get desperate, I tell folks that they’ll get a free song with a purchase,” he joked.
That’s part of the good vibe one gets at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market. It’s an eclectic blend of vendors and patrons, taking their time to stroll through a beautiful plot of land. No one seems rushed. Everyone has time to chat.
On chilly mornings, Artisan Oven pizza owner Grace Glueck offered people a place to warm up in front of her brick oven where she makes homemade pizzas.
Glueck and her family haul the oven to market on a trailer. She knowingly kneads the homemade gluten-free dough, prepared from their own millery at Homestead Heritage. Once flattened into a circle, she spreads a homemade organic fire-roasted tomato sauce on it and tops it with shredded cheese. Then she places the pie on a long stick and slowly puts it in the oven to bake. In three minutes the bubbling pizza is out and sells for $3 a slice or $11 whole.
The market atmosphere is casual and upbeat. Pups and children are welcome. Vendors are chatty and laid-back. Many customers are environmentally savvy and provide their own recycled bags.
Silver-haired 64-year-old goat farmer Ron Schocke isn’t rushed as he patiently explains the different types of handmade goat soaps at his Dairy Meadow Farm booth.
Some are made with pungent herbs, like anise and lemon grass; some bars are for washing pets and ridding them of fleas. He even explains the science behind the benefits of lower-alkaline handmade goat soap products via a colorful tri-fold display board akin to a student’s science fair project.
Each soap takes 45 minutes to make at his Homestead Heritage home and sells for around $6.
Like many here, Schocke believes in the mission of the market in promoting more natural living.
“If we all could eat more naturally, we’d all be healthier and it would be great for our world if we were all self-sustaining,” he said with a wink.
Downtown Farmers Market
400 S. University Parks Drive
(look for the old fire tower)
9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays
Check Facebook page or website wacodowntownfarmersmarket.com
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