Hallie: Hello and welcome to One to Grow On. A show where we dig into questions about agriculture and try to understand how food production impacts us and our world. My name is Hallie Casey and I studied and currently work in agriculture.
Chris: I’m Chris Casey, Hallie’s dad and I don’t know anything about it. Each episode we pick an area of agriculture or food production to discuss and this week we’re talking about local food with Amy Gallo.
Hallie: Amy is the farmer’s market programming manager at the Sustainable Food Center, which happens to be where I work.
Hallie: No, are you the marketing manager or the programming manager?
Amy: Yeah, I’m the programming manager.
Hallie: Okay. Good. [Laughs].
Amy: But I can maybe explain a little bit what that actually means.
Amy: Sure. I’ve been with SFC since 2017 in various roles. First off, I was just hired to run the Downtown Farmer’s Market and then sort of moved up or maybe sideways into some marketing and communications work for our entire department, the farm viability department, which probably takes its own bit of explaining what that term means. [Laughs].
Chris: Actually, I would love that. I think Hallie has done a cursory job once or twice I’m saying. This is what the Sustainable Food Center does, but I don’t know. There’s other people out there that have no idea. What is this thing?
Amy: Well, the Sustainable Food Center has been around in one form or another for maybe 40 years. In Austin, it’s been a community garden organizing body. It has run farmer’s markets, done some cooking classes and trainings, facilitator programs for both home gardening and home cooking and now sort of pivoting the organization where we’re at the tail end of pivoting the organization away from individual behavior, change programming and towards more of systems level work on food systems and local agriculture.
Right now a main focus of our programming is farm viability, which I take to mean assisting local, small to mid-scale farmers, where they need help to continue to be viable on whether that’s operationally, financially, with backend policy work, maybe some administration, business management, marketing assistance. Wherever small to midsize farmers are feeling that pinch, we’re hoping that we can step in and fulfill a little bit of the help for them.
Chris: Cool. Okay. Yeah, all kinds of good help with agriculture stuff.
Amy: Everybody I think is familiar or under the belief that farming is hard. It’s not just long hundred degree days outside digging holes and stuff like that, but the whole business of it is pretty difficult. We’re sort of finding our niche of where we can provide some relief and support.
Chris: I’m used to being able to type some code into a computer and get something working within a few hours or a few days. I can’t imagine putting something in the ground and waiting months or a year to see the results of your labor.
Amy: Exactly. Dealing with that unknown and with these factors outside of your control, battling the weather constantly, it’s almost biblical.
Hallie: This episode is part of a larger series that we’re doing where we’re trying to talk about local food and what it means and I actually don’t know that much about your background professionally. How did you get into the farmer’s market and local food space?
Amy: I sort of fell sideways into this. This is not maybe where I thought my professional career was going to go. I studied neuroscience in school.
Hallie: Oh, wow.
Amy: Maybe not a linear trajectory, but I moved to Austin in 2010 from the Northeast. I’m from New York and went to school in Boston. My partner and I moved down here and I started volunteering first at Springdale Farm and then at Johnson’s Backyard Garden. Just a shift for exchange of free, fresh, local delicious vegetables and I really liked it. I picked up a part time job helping out at the farmer’s markets on the weekends and then ended up quitting my full time job in healthcare and helping to run the farmer’s markets department at JBG, so I was there for about four years. I went to California briefly to work on a farm and found myself back here and Sustainable Food Center was hiring. I took the job helping to run the downtown market.
Hallie: That is very interesting.
Hallie: But I feel like I hear a lot of people who come to the local food scene are kind of more I guess like values based eating area in one of those less linear paths I guess.
It seems like it’s something that really just draws people in and if you believe in it and if you’re into it, then you just have to end up there.
Amy: I’m a pretty emotional person and I have always been better at working at something I really care about and I sort of figured this is the thing that I really care about.
Hallie: That thing being like farmer’s markets specifically?
Amy: Yeah, farmer’s markets are definitely a tangible hands on sort of product that I really thrived in, but I always thought I would be a therapist or doing something to help people individually. When I came to farmer’s markets and just thinking about this connection people have with food and how that can heal both people on a one on one basis and communities and maybe a society to be a dreamer. For a second, I thought this is maybe having more of an impact. People coming together around food, people physically handing food over to one another, seeing how things are grown, eating food that is nutritionally dense and really healthy. All of these things sort of wrapped up and clicked in my mind of this is where I need to be. I need to be helping this process.
Hallie: Wow. In this series, we’re hoping to talk to an urban farmer and we’re hoping to talk to someone higher up who’s doing more like institutional buying, focused on value chains, but I would love to hear your thoughts on where farmer’s markets fit into that and what role they serve both to farmers and to consumers. I know it’s kind of a big question.
Amy: We can dive right in. Where do farmer’s markets fit? Farmer’s markets maybe traditionally, and I’m not exactly studied in this, despite how long I’ve been working with farmer’s markets, we are a way where farmers could sell off sort of excess food. This wasn’t people’s first or only outlet. A lot of people would have their farm growing corn or soy or doing whatever they needed to do and then have their personal garden for their own home use and then come to market with excess stuff. I think it’s always filled sort of that role in a community where you can get a lot of very things, where you can sort of get to know your farmers, where there’s this breakdown of the urban rural divide. Then now I think farmer’s markets fill definitely a different role. A lot of people maybe think markets are a little pretentious or inaccessible or expensive or just some fun thing you do on the weekend and not necessarily your main outlet for groceries. I think maybe a little bit of that perception is breaking down now during this pandemic. Farmer’s markets have been at least in our city and stayed open since the beginning and people have really been coming to market to stock up, to get their groceries, to come to a place where they know is safe. That there’s a high level of trust, where they know the farmers, where they know that they’re going to be supporting local people to feed their families and stay healthy through everything. I don’t know if I actually answered your question.
Hallie: I mean, it was a very big question, but I think that you answered it in a very beautiful way. I think that that part of bringing people together and farmer’s markets as a community building tool beyond just like the economic value that it brings, is something that is so hard to describe and to really get people to buy into and understand the value of.
Amy: To me, it’s definitely been this cultural institution as much as it’s been a true place where financial transactions happen. Farmer’s markets are great at letting people who are maybe smaller or starting out, get their start. Farmers who are just starting, who are maybe trying to pick which crops they will then become known for, or to try to make those initial connections to restaurants because they need to be seen, you can’t just pop up out of nowhere, to maybe figure out their brand identity, to work those kinks out in the sort of like live on the ground. Maybe people in micro economics should study farmer’s markets. [Laughs]. It feels like a really good testing ground for working all of these things out. There’s a real immediate result there.
Hallie: I know it. I definitely hear that. You mentioned inaccessibility earlier, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about that idea as it relates to farmer’s markets and at least in your experience, how the margin that is versus how real it is.
Amy: Farmer’s markets are a little bit inaccessible. They’re temporary popups. They only last a few hours. They’re not necessarily in a place that’s easy to get to. There’s not a huge wide parking lot always outside of a central location where you know that you can just get everything and check everything off of your list. You have to know how to be flexible, how to cook seasonally, how to have a list, but go off of it a little bit. So for all of those reasons, farmer’s markets definitely attract a different crowd. A crowd that’s comfortable and maybe excited about dealing with those challenges, but for most, that’s not really what you think of when you think of food shopping, you don’t want to be challenged maybe.
Amy: I think there’s a little bit inherently of that inaccessibility in a farmer’s market, but I think that the things on the flip side, maybe to challenge that a little bit are the opportunities there to happen upon half price, fresh peaches, first of the season, because there were too many. Though that’s not something that you’re going to necessarily get at a grocery store. To be able to know where your food came from, to meet the farmer who picks something and grows something for you is sort of an invaluable thing. To walk around and just have strangers or market staff shout a recipe at you when you look kind of quizzically at purple green beans or something, you’re not going to necessarily get that in a grocery store. I don’t have as many of those friendly interactions when I’m just shopping for normal things.
Hallie: Right. Totally. For me, at least when I’m shopping at a farmer’s market, I find it so much easier to try new things and experiment with new ingredients because there is someone there who knows literally the entire lifespan of this plant and can tell me everything they know about it just right in front of me.
Amy: Absolutely, that’s always what initially drew me to this work. When I was working at Johnson’s Backyard Garden, I was a market manager and I would drive the box truck downtown and set up and take out hundreds of pounds of produce out and display it all. I was really trying to get inside the mind of the shopper and make everything look beautiful and abundant. Then all day, I would just talk to thousands of people all day. Just every time somebody side eyed a weird looking cauliflower, I’d just be there ready trying to identify it.
Amy: I definitely came by that. Honestly, that’s my favorite thing to do is to help people with weird food problems. [Laughs].
Chris: Welcome to the break. Who’s excited to go to a farmer’s market? I am.
Hallie: I’m always excited. I go all the time and I’m always excited to go.
Chris: It’s true.
Hallie: This episode is the second in a series of three episodes we’re doing about the local food system. If this is something you’re enjoying, I would really love it if you could share this episode with a friend.
Chris: Sharing this episode with a friend is the best way for us to grow the podcast and get more people involved in the discussion.
Hallie: The more people we have that are listening and engaging with us on Twitter and Discord, the better the show can be. The show is all about learning out loud and growing together, no pun intended.
If you have someone who you think might be interested in what we’re talking about, we would love it if they could show up and join the conversation.
Chris: Speaking of people being involved. Thank you so much to our patrons, especially our starfruit patrons, Lindsay, Vikram, Mama Casey, Patrick, and Shianne.
Hallie: You guys are such superstars and we’re so grateful to you.
Chris: You are a superstar fruit.
Hallie: Hey, all right. Back to the episode.
Chris: Do you know much about the impact of having a pop up and having a bunch of people go to the pop up and all the individual farmers take their food to the pop up versus having some giant truck take a bunch of food to a grocery store and people just go to that larger distribution center?
Amy: The benefit to farmers for farmer’s market is if there’s a nice large central farmer’s market in the town or city where you are and a farmer can make that one stop, and unload a lot of things. The financial benefit for the farmer is pretty great. There are no middlemen, there are no wholesale pricing.
All of that money over $0.90 on the dollar goes directly into the farmer’s pocket. When you start getting into distribution models and wholesaling and selling to grocery stores, or even restaurants or institutions, farmers are going to start incrementally seeing less of the money end up back in their pocket. It’s easier. It’s less personal time or staff time or waiting out in the sun and maybe the unknown. What if you have a rainy day and the farmer’s market isn’t that profitable for you that day? But there’s definitely a sense of less of it is going into your pocket. Unless if it’s going into your pocket also from just being able to personally sell someone on something. If I had all really small zucchinis or something like that, I can unload them at the farmer’s market and I can’t sell those to a grocery store. I can convince people that they’re better for frying or zucchini salad or something and I’m not going to be able to make that same pitch to a school district or something along those lines.
Chris: Interesting. Now I’m curious about tiny zucchini.
Amy: Tiny zucchini are so good.
Hallie: They can be so much sweeter.
Amy: They’re very tender at that size. I would almost never cook them.
Hallie: Well, I guess me asking you these questions, I’m trying to put myself in our listener’s shoes for folks who don’t work at the Sustainable Food Center and think about these questions that you and I think about all the time, but I was wondering my work and I’ve talked about that on the show before is much more like further down the line I guess. Kind of that next step from the farmer’s market, trying to see how farmers could connect to a school or a grocery store or something like that. We’ve touched on this a little bit, but could you talk a little bit more about the things that farmer’s markets do uniquely for customers beyond just taste and meeting farmers, but more broadly, I guess. Well, now I don’t know. I feel like I had a question now. I don’t really know where I was going.
Amy: Beyond I think the sort of intangibles about going to the farmer’s market just that connection piece and the community building piece, I think there are real benefits to shopping at a farmer’s market. A lot of times produce has been picked very recently. If I’m a farmer and I’m selling to Central Market or something along those lines, I’m sending 24 cases of lettuce on Tuesday, and it’s going to be sold at that grocery store all week. They’ll restock it. They’ll move it. Customers will come pick it up, put it down, but it’s been in and out of cold storage for a week or more. At the farmer’s market, someone picked it, boxed it up and it went to the farmer’s market. I’m the first person who’s really been handling it and taking it home. There’s an argument there for food lasting longer. If people are concerned about food waste, if you’ve ever gotten something home and opened the fridge two days later just made to find that it’s gone bad. I found that that’s a lot more rare at the market than anywhere else.
There’s a sense of the nutritional value being higher in something that was picked ripe versus something that was picked unripe and traveled a long way, but it’s difficult when you start thinking about the difference between local food that’s bought at a farmer’s market and local food that’s procured by a local institution. If it’s coming from the same farm, is there much of a difference? There’s a lot of evidence that the food that you can get that’s local versus conventional or as cross state lines. There’s a big difference there.
Hallie: Totally. I guess I have some more practical questions that I would love your expertise on as a food expert.
Hallie: Are there things that you tell people if you’re going to get anything farm-fresh at your local market or from your local farmers here, the specific crops to get, because they’re so much different if you get them fresh. I mean, everything’s better fresh. Don’t get me wrong.
Amy: [Laughs]. I always say carrots definitely.
Hallie: Oh my god.
Amy: You haven’t tried a carrot until you’ve tried a really fresh local carrot. I thought I didn’t like carrots I think until I got it from the market.
Hallie: Oh yeah.
Amy: Fruit is always popular. It’s rare I would say if you get to know the seasonality of things come to the market early in those times. We have raspberries and blackberries that grow here for maybe three weeks out of the year. [Laughs]. It’s very important to get to the market earlier on.
Chris: I was listening to another podcast the other day, and they were interviewing someone who said they had a friend that grew kale and their fresh kale was just unlike any other kale they’d ever had and it was the best kale and the only kale they ever ate.
Amy: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
Chris: I don’t know. Maybe there’s no limit.
Hallie: There are very few limits. Like fresh produce it is so much tastier in my experience.
Amy: Oh, absolutely.
Hallie: I remember the first time I had farm-fresh romanesco and I was like, what is this food? Because I thought I’ve tasted broccoli and this is like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
Chris: Wait, what is that food?
Hallie: Romanesco. It’s like a fancy broccoli. It’s like broccoli, if it like had a Pinterest board.
Chris: [Laughs]. Okay.
Amy: It’s like a broccoli cauliflower. It has beautiful pointy fractals all over it. I think it’s much more convenient to cook as well. I usually just rip it apart with my hands into individual little triangles and throw it in the oven to roast and they just come out perfect.
Hallie: It’s a great vegetable.
Chris: I like the idea of eating fractals.
Hallie: [Laughs]. I don’t think I have any other questions. Dad, do you have any other questions?
Chris: Let’s say you were talking to someone who either had never been to a farmer’s market before, or was sort of reluctant because of things like cost. I guess in your mind, what’s the one thing, like sort of the top item you would say you should try a farmer’s market because of this one thing?
Amy: You should try a farmer’s market to just experience a new way of interacting with your community. I find a lot of joy in just walking the farmer’s market, talking to people, picking up a new recipe or technique, working at the beautiful produce, all aligned straightly in a row just appeals to me, aesthetically, running into neighbors, people you didn’t think you were going to see there. I like to make a morning out of it. I like to go to this place that’s not a bar or work and really get to be with people.
Chris: I love that. Do you have a favorite one?
Amy: Favorite farmer’s market?
Amy: Well, yes. Definitely the SFC Farmers Market downtown. It’s a classic urban market. It’s in a beautiful park.
Chris: Is that the one at Republic Square?
Amy: Yeah, that’s the one at Republic Square.
Chris: I don’t think I realized that was an SFC market.
Amy: That’s sort of our flagship market. It’s been open for 17 years.
Amy: Approaching that coveted heritage status pretty soon.
Hallie: [Laughs]. I would also like to say, Amy, you mentioned running into neighbors that you don’t expect to see, and if I’m not mistaken, I think many of your neighbors are farmers at the market.
Amy: I am living in Bastrop County on a farm and a lot of my neighbors are farmers.
Chris: Hallie told me you had chickens and you are very excited about them.
Amy: Oh yes. I have many chickens. I’ve been lucky enough for the past year to be living and working on Milagro Farm with Kris Olson. He’s the owner. My partner and I moved out here. Two days a week, we take care of the chickens. We have about 5,000 of them.
Amy: So yeah.
Hallie: They make the best eggs.
Hallie: They love to eat their eggs.
Amy: They do make the best eggs.
Hallie: Awesome. Well, Amy, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time. This was super fun.
Amy: Thank you. This was great.
Chris: Thanks for listening to this episode of One to Grow On.
Hallie: This show is made by me, Hallie Casey and Chris Casey. Our music is Something Elated by Broke For Free.
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Chris: Be sure to see what sprouting in two weeks.
Hallie: But until then keep on growing.