The Biscayne Times

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Farm Fresh PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jim W. Harper - Photos by Silvia Ros   
June 2011

Easy to find homegrown produce? No. Worth the effort? Yes.

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CoverStory_1Art Friedrich and his girls are working their corner of Biscayne Boulevard. Several attractive young women are milling about and chatting with potential costumers, ready to sell their wares in the world’s oldest profession.

For a few of them, it’s their first time, but they sport inviting smiles and chat easily with the men who approach them. It seems like they’ve always been here, at nine o’clock every Saturday, and Friedrich flashes a knowing smile.

But it’s not that thing. It’s another hot Saturday at 9:00 a.m., and the new regular crowd rushes in: soccer moms, reggae musicians, Payless Shoes shoppers, the random drifter. They come armed with reusable grocery bags to purchase organic vegetables, herbs, and perhaps some fresh guarapo -- sugarcane juice. Because at this corner of Biscayne, the world’s truly oldest profession -- farming -- has come to the city.

Or has it? Think about it, how many farmers do you know?

The Upper Eastside Farmers’ Market at Biscayne Plaza grew out of a grassroots movement of hipsters holding old-school potluck dinners and ghetto garden tours. These urban gardeners are bringing fresh, local produce to an ultra-urbanized area that is about as far away from the farm as you can get.

These are places where there’s not an alfalfa sprout for miles, and even supermarkets are rare. Such inner-city neighborhoods are called “food deserts.” Moving into Miami’s deserts are start-up farmers’ markets like those of the young, volunteer-based Urban Oasis Project, founded by Freidrich and Melissa Contreras.

Friedrich, soft-spoken, thin, and youthful, is the anti-pimp. He believes in his mission, and he wants you to green for peace.

The Sixties are back. But this time with business plans.

CoverStory_2The Upper Eastside endeavor is also a marketing stratagem for Terranova Corporation, the developer that manages the sad but centrally located plaza at 79th Street and the Boulevard. This past February, Terranova launched both the market and a Thursday-night food truck roundup here. The farmers’ market intended to close temporarily in May, but it received a special waiver from Miami officialdom to operate at least through June, and now plans are afoot for summer operations (see sidebar).

As South Florida’s traditional growing season ends and hurricane season begins, being a locavore becomes a loca-chore. While the option of locally grown vegetables wilts under the sun and humidity, a few farmers’ markets are bucking the trend to remain open all year.

Summer is for fruits. It’s the best time to reap the local harvest of mangoes, lychees, and other heat-seeking treats. Yet the mangoes currently at many markets, both farmers’ and otherwise, come from Mexico and other faraway places, so the savvy shopper knows not to assume that food “in season” means food from “the farm.”

But who cares where their food comes from, as long as it’s cheap and abundant? This convenience-obsessed, Fast Food Nation mentality, especially in the inner city, contributes to the obesity epidemic and other health and quality-of-life issues. People who gobble fast food in isolation are going to be unhappier, period, than people who select, cook, and share their food with care.

Doesn’t everyone deserve to be healthy and food-happy? Fortunately the French-fried tide has been turning in some concerned communities, and everyone knows that the Obamas are growing organics.

During the traditional South Florida growing season, roughly October to May, many options exist to procure fresh produce. Local food activist Mike Moskos of Hialeah has compiled page upon unpublished page of what he calls “real food sources” in or near Miami-Dade County. The list includes five community-supported agriculture distributors, seven produce-buying clubs, and nearly 40 organic or regular farmers’ markets. (See sidebar.)

CoverStory_3By my count, there are at least seven farmers’ markets somewhat close to Biscayne Times territory that are staying open all summer. Most of these strive to offer local organics. Large outdoor flea markets that feature fresh produce also run year-round in Homestead and Hialeah.

But the only way to guarantee local produce in the summertime is to grow it yourself. Farmers’ markets necessarily turn to Georgia and other parts north to stock their display tables. Supermarkets look much farther afield, and the added transportation costs start to shock consumers. Consider the $5 gallon of milk.

“When gas prices went up, that’s when people really started saying, ‘Why are we flying in blueberries from Chile?’” observes Claire Tomlin, our area’s most experienced manager of farmers’ markets.

In the global marketplace, the cheapest produce wins, and the world, including Chile, also flies in produce from South Florida. In the winter, Florida becomes the China of fruits and vegetables. In fact very little Florida-grown produce remains in-state. Small-scale and especially organic farmers have trouble competing based on price alone.

Farmers’ markets, strangely enough, are not always popular with farmers. Andres Mejides, a very experienced organic farmer in the Redland, never sells his produce at farmers’ markets because the return is too low to sustain his five-acre operation. He sells directly to upscale restaurants and wholesale markets. Mejides emphasizes that real, long-term farming is hard work, whereas he sees recently developed urban gardens and street markets as hobbies.

Street markets or community markets may be better terms than “farmer’s market,” with or without the apostrophe. A pure farmers’ market offers growers the opportunity to interact directly with consumers, and vice versa. They can sell their produce without any middlemen forcing industrial efficiency while taking their cut. This purist, Euro-style roadside market fits in with the “slow food” movement, which encourages consumers to know where their food comes from, who grows it, and how they grow it.

CoverStory_4Taste may be the key. Compare canned corn to fresh-from-the-farm corn, or sliced peaches in syrup (not bad) to ripe Georgia peaches (amazing). From my childhood in Fort Lauderdale, I reminisce about how our backyard tree produced huge oranges and the best juice I’ve ever tasted.

Kids raised on McDonalds don’t appreciate fresh, but they can learn. School gardens are popping up all over, and Miami-Dade even has its first preschool edible and native garden. Located at the pre-K center on Miami-Dade College’s north campus, the garden was developed in cooperation with Urban Greenworks, a nonprofit focused on gardening as a form of community development.

“Every community is different. That’s what I’ve learned,” says Roger Horne, director of projects and programming for Urban Greenworks. “I’m new to it, just like everybody else in South Florida, except for Claire.”

Claire Tomlin, herself a Georgia peach from Atlanta, has been in Miami for 16 years. She runs The Market Company from humble headquarters near the Design District. The for-profit operation manages roughly ten farmers’ markets in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, and she says this season was “an excellent year.”

CoverStory_5These markets pay close attention to consumer demand, and they get their supplies from a variety of places. “I’m not idealistic,” says Tomlin. “I grew up eating tomatoes and I want tomatoes.”

She has seen many markets open and close. One of hers near the downtown Macy’s fell apart eight years ago because the location was “premature.” She also watched another market, not hers, disappear from downtown’s Bayfront Park after four years of being subsidized by the Downtown Development Authority. “The vendors were paid to come,” she says. Despite these failures, Tomlin is talking with the DDA about bringing new markets to areas in and around downtown Miami that lack grocery stores.

As small businesses, farmers’ markets can also become too successful too quickly. In 2009, when Tomlin opened the first Upper Eastside Market, of no relation to the current one of the same name, it seemed to fill a void immediately. “It was incredible,” Tomlin recalls. Located at Legion Park along the Boulevard at 66th Street, the market was so successful that the owner of the nearby Vagabond Motel opened an imitation, and Tomlin says the competition diluted demand and ultimately killed both markets.

CoverStory_6The City of Miami had given The Market Company a grant to initiate the first Upper Eastside Market, but the park’s fee of $200 per market day was burdensome, says Tomlin. On top of that, the city charges $153 per day for a requisite special-use permit.

Tomlin tried to resurrect Upper Eastside Market in 2010 at a less prominent location on private property owned by Mark Soyka, in the parking lot just south of his restaurant at 55th Street and NE 4th Court. When that venture stalled, she requested to return to Legion Park for the fall of 2011. But the City of Miami Parks and Recreation Department would not allow a market again, she says. (Spokeswoman Lara De Souza was not able to address Tomlin’s situation by press time, but says her department is bound by city ordinances limiting special events.)

With an eye still on the Boulevard, Tomlin is hoping to open a new farmers’ market at an empty lot near 33rd Street.

A farmers’ market can attract new and different types of customers, and Tomlin thinks her oldest market helped to establish one of South Florida’s hottest spots. On South Beach’s most popular pedestrian and shopping lane, Tomlin opened her first farmers’ market 16 years ago, and she says it was “designed to bring people to Lincoln Road.” The market certainly did that, and it continues to operate on Sundays all year long, although its few tents in summertime barely register in comparison to the Road’s restaurant row.

On a recent Sunday, only one market vendor offered fresh produce, with mostly nonlocal items. As the techno music blared, I bought a bag of ping-pong size Key limes in green mesh netting for two dollars. The label read, “Produced in Guatemala.”

That same Sunday I drove north to Hollywood, where I encountered the extremes of what is called a “farmers’ market.” Driving defeats the purpose of a farmer bringing his wares to you and of you saving money by going local, but I had to see the heavily promoted Yellow Green Farmer’s Market, operated by the Lalo clan -- Abraham, Eyal, and Gany.

CoverStory_8Near the Hollywood water tower and west of I-95, this huge warehouse announces itself with a half-mile string of fluttering yellow, green, and orange flags. The plastic cows outside set the tone for the flea market inside.

Peruvian flute music beckons you buy CDs at one booth, while the next booth features striped hula-hoops, brought to you by Miss Padazzle. In the next aisle are ladies roasting corn, a man making candles, and a turbaned mystic giving a massage. The market, open Saturdays and Sundays all year, has fresh fish and produce, but most of its 200 or so booths are manned by the crafty and the clever, and there’s not a farmer in sight.

On the other side of town is Josh’s Organic Garden. And now it’s time for something completely different. First of all, you’re on the beach, as this combo farmers’ market and juice bar resides on the world-class boardwalk along Hollywood Beach, with clear views of the Atlantic. Second, Josh Steinhauser is really there, wearing blue running shorts, a white T-shirt, and a black yarmulke while he dashes around manically giving orders, taking orders, and slicing up free samples of grapefruit. He’s got the energy of Popeye on an orgasmic spinach drip.

CoverStory_9All of his produce is organic, much of it hails from his farms in north Florida, and he says the prices are a better deal than at Whole Foods. I bought some Florida basil and two purple yams (purple!) from California for $2.90. The fruit I tasted was delicious, and I believe Josh when he says he’s one of the largest distributors of organic food in the world.

Regarding his distribution business, he’s not talking about his Sunday market at the beach, open all year from 9:00 a.m. to 5:31 p.m. (I hear him confirm this exact time to an inquisitive customer); he’s talking about his weekday business. Organic is his thing, and the farmers’ market is his baby business. He protects it stringently with an off-duty policeman.

But that’s in Broward County. As most of the markets in Miami-Dade County are run by Tomlin’s company, most of them follow a similar recipe: one part produce, one part prepared foods, and one part bazaar. Most operate only between November and May.

Her market in Pinecrest is one of the area’s largest, whereas the markets at three universities, including Barry University, register only a few tables. In Mary Brickell Village, Tomlin says, the Sunday market cannot sell produce because of restrictions imposed by the managers of the property, which includes a Publix Supermarket. She uses the terms “crafts market” and “green market” to distinguish them from places where you might find a farmer or a grower of some kind.

CoverStory_10I talked with Tomlin under a tent at the Jackson Memorial Foundation’s Green Market, where people on low incomes get a two-for-one deal. This market and a few others accept the federal SNAP/EBT card (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program/Electronic Benefit Transfer), formerly known as food stamps, and the WIC benefits for Women, Infants and Children. It’s a great deal, but first these customers would need to travel here.

The food-stamp program started locally with Roots in the City in 2010 and has endorsements from on high. “The idea is that farmers’ markets and community gardens will help build up and strengthen the food-stamp program,” explains Roger Horne of Urban Greenworks. “Once Obama and his wife took it on as a project, funding started coming down nationally, as these are alternative methods of addressing community health and thus individual health.”

Horne also wants markets to be within walking distance. “There’s this dependency on corner stores and fast foods,” he says. “Supermarkets don’t bring a lot of quality” to poor communities.

CoverStory_11How can farmers’ markets save a community when they have trouble saving themselves? “You have to be real careful with expenses,” Tomlin explains. “You need to charge enough to make a profit,” she adds, noting the additional expenses of advertising and producing the markets.

Bureaucracies are also an issue. “Permits are the biggest obstacle,” Tomlin continues. “Each municipality is different, but still they all call me.” Cities on her to-do list include Boca Raton, Miramar, and North Bay Village.

In Key Biscayne, she says a tug-of-war between the city manager (for) and the local chamber of commerce (against) went on for seven years until a group of church ladies stepped in and demanded a positive resolution. At this market, says Tomlin, a small-scale grocer participates, demonstrating that a farmers’ market is not necessarily anti-grocery store.

The Jackson Memorial market, formerly held all year, had to close in May because of construction planned for its central plaza location. Tomlin is working with medical establishments to find a replacement nearby. She regrets the loss of income for its 30 to 40 vendors. On the market’s last day, a vendor exhorted customers in Spanglish both to buy freshly blended juices and to sign a petition to maintain the market.

This market in particular features cooked foods, says Tomlin, because the patrons wanted an alternative for lunch on Thursdays. My lunch that day consisted of delicious Colombian papas rellenas (stuffed potato fritters), a carrot-based energy drink, and delicate French pastries from the upscale bakery Atelier Monnier.

At such markets, the produce is secondary. Interestingly, they all seem to have an orchid booth selling the common pink and white Phalaenopsis. Jumping from market to market, you start seeing the same flowers, the same vendors, and the same types of produce.

Finding a farmers’ market can be tricky, and listings online are unreliable. Some markets have a staggered, uneven schedule, such as the one inside of Aventura Mall, and some disappear on the run from authorities.

CoverStory_12pixbyJimWHarperAt least two farmers’ markets run by nonprofits struggled this year with permitting and other sticky issues in the City of Miami: Overtown’s Roots in the City market and Liberty City’s first-ever farmers’ market operated by the Urban Oasis Project. The latter avoided the permitting conflict by moving out of TACOLCY Park and resettling nearby on county property at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Ave. Next fall, thanks to a waiver from the city, it plans to return to TACOLCY Park.

In Overtown it gets messier. Miami City Commissioner Richard Dunn has been trying to clear his name after being accused of obstructing the Overtown market for a period in March and April. “My office was totally oblivious to what was happening between Overtown and code enforcement,” he says. “I’m not anti-farmers’ markets.” The gardening side of Roots in the City, which grows food for its market, has lost its annual $100,000 grant from the city’s Overtown/Park West CRA -- at least temporarily.

Representatives of these markets say the City of Miami jumps from green to red when it comes to allowing fresh produce to be sold on the street. The applicable special permit can only be granted three times per year, and thereafter it requires the procurement of weekly waivers, says Maggie Pons of Roots in the City. She didn’t say much else, as our phone interview terminated abruptly.

The Upper Eastside Market at Biscayne Plaza obtained a waiver from February 12 to June 25 this year, thanks to support from Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes the plaza. Under current regulations, these special waivers would need to be obtained over and over again.

“It’s not a streamlined process,” says Art Friedrich of the Urban Oasis Project, using tactful understatement. “It seems strange that you need a special resolution from the city commission to have a farmers’ market.”

The Urban Oasis model depends on volunteers, and it places gardens in homes and low-income complexes for mostly personal consumption instead of for sale. For their farmers’ markets, they reach out to local suppliers. “It’s definitely been a challenge to find ample supply from local, small farms, especially for certified organics,” Friedrich notes.

The Upper Eastside Market’s business plan combines the financial muscle of a corporate sponsor (Terranova) with the authentic passion of a local nonprofit organization. That combo might work, though farmers’ markets without the profit motive may succumb to an early death by idealism, as they are unlikely to become self-sustaining in the short-term.

Another survival technique is education. “One of the models we like to push is to have these markets, especially in underserved markets, at schools or community organizations,” says Roger Horne of Urban Greenworks. His latest school project is at Nathan B. Young Elementary in Opa-locka.

But school is out for the summer, so what is the alert shopper to do? Food activist Mike Moskos traces his own year-round shopping habits. “I progressed from Whole Foods to Glaser to Josh’s,” he says. The name Glaser refers to South Miami-Dade farmer and vegan guru Stan Glaser, the force behind Coconut Grove’s Organic Farmers’ Market since 1979, making it a classic.

Moskos used to do all his shopping at “Glaser’s” in the Grove when he lived closer, despite prices that are higher than most markets. Now he makes the hike to Josh’s in Hollywood when local produce disappears in the summertime.

Josh’s seems to be winning in southern Broward County, while the most successful model in Miami-Dade County comes from The Market Company, both of which are for-profit operations. There are no handouts, notwithstanding the sliced peach samples Josh forces on you.

The nonprofit model needs more time and more successes to prove itself. Are these markets up to the challenge?

The Urban Oasis Project issues this appeal on its website: “In Miami-Dade County, we have lost many farms to development and other pressures, so there just aren’t enough farmers for local markets. To help with this problem, we are asking home gardeners to plant a few extra rows to sell at our market. If you have produce, please contact us to either come to market and sell it, or sell or donate to us for sale in a terribly underserved inner-city area. There are lots of nice folks there who deserve good, clean, healthy food!”

For now, however, most of Miami’s farmers’ markets serve affluent areas that can support them. In poorer areas, residents must walk to the corner store and take what they can get -- and that almost never includes those luscious, juicy tomatoes Claire Tomlin loves so much.

 

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