A Food Revolution in Rio Grande Valley

A food revolution is on the rise in the Rio Grande Valley as more and more cities host farmers’ markets featuring locally grown produce, ranch meats, farm eggs, honey and other items. The food available at these outdoor markets is as varied as its growers.

Barefoot, tending immaculate rows of squash, cucumber, tomatoes and field greens, Susanne French seems a fraction of her age. The food she grows with her husband, Bud, at Acacia Farms near Bayview surpasses government specifications for organic products. Besides their sun-up to sun-down weed pulling, planting, watering and harvesting, the couple tend a compost pile that’s treated with as much care as their crops. The couple mixes organic molasses and other organic additives into a towering heap of decayed plants and organic matter to maximize the nutrients that will soon fertilize their gardens.

Though most local growers that sell at farmers’ markets don’t use chemicals or pesticides, Acacia Farms takes the extra step to create homegrown, organically produced compost, a technique that was central to the farms that created the organic movement decades ago.

In the last few years, the U.S.D.A. has relaxed requirements for farms to receive organic certification, so chemicals and pesticides can be used by farms and still receive “organic” certification. But some, like Acacia Farms, are carrying the torch of commitment and dedication to people and the environment that was the original catalyst for the organic farming movement by not lowering their standards. In addition to continuing to grow true organic crops, Acacia Farms also donates some of their crops to organizations that feed the hungry.

French, who has a degree in organic chemistry, spent 15 years running a plant nursery prior to starting the farm. Acacia Farms is one of the larger farms featured at Valley farmers’ markets. Others simply share harvests from their own gardens. Still, other vendors offer homemade crafts, jewelry, clothing, soap, bath salts and more.

Ruth Wagner does both. A retired teacher and community activist, Ruth sells fruit, herbs and vegetables grown in her West Brownsville garden, along with aprons, oven mitts and other kitchen apparel.

The first farmers’ markets four years ago were launched by university programs to encourage access to fresh fruits and veggies in unhealthy areas, while promoting small-scale, pesticide-free farming. Thousands of vouchers that could be redeemed for farmers’ market food in zones with high rates of diabetes and heart disease were distributed. The fresh-food-for-vouchers program was meant to encourage healthy eating, but with such high-quality food to be found, others soon discovered the markets – from home cooks to chefs looking for the best-tasting products. Amid the rise of farmers’ markets, the Texas Food Revolution was born, a team of volunteer chefs and home cooks who promote the benefits of local produce through public demonstrations and cooking lessons.

Introducing simple recipes using local ingredients is central to the Texas Food Revolution’s approach. Without them, shoppers might be intimidated by food with which they are unfamiliar. Some of the recipes used in demonstrations include winter melon, luffa squash (also known as Chinese okra or silk squash), cactus and other unique market offerings as main ingredients.

Some of the featured recipe demonstrations have included grapefruit pies, omelets, carrot-top pesto and South Texas Calzones (featuring ranch sausage, local cheese and a wheat tortilla produced in Weslaco).

“Our recipes happen instinctively because it makes sense to use local, fresher ingredients rather than those that have to be transported here,” said Joe Boswell, a Captain with the Texas Food Revolution and outreach director for the Rio Bravo Wildlife Institute. “This is about simple food; real food.”

Members of the Texas Food Revolution are called “Captain” to illustrate that each is in charge of his or her own voyage in the realm of promoting local food.

Although not a chef, Boswell introduced an all-vegetable sushi roll at the Brownsville Farmers’ Market two years ago. Since then, the Texas Food Revolution has sampled out more than 300 vegetable sushi rolls at farmers’ markets, public events, home dinner parties and more.

“The recipe varies but can include any vegetable that you can find at a farmers’ market and eat raw, as well as the local cheese, honey, jams, nuts and other market ingredients,” said Boswell. “Roll them up in a seaweed wrapper and dip them in soy sauce and you’ve got a super delicious treat that also supports the small farm economy.”

By purchasing local food from local pesticide-free growers, shoppers can help reduce carbon emissions into the environment, reduce chemical runoff from farms and support a local farm and ranch economy, noted Captain J.R. Garza, a local food critic who has written for various independent newspapers and blogs.

“The Texas Food Revolution is like a renegade economic development corporation that’s dedicated to the aspect of local food production, “ said Garza. “Mainly, though, we are concerned with reducing pesticides in our food and reducing the distance that food travels from the farm to your fork.”

That the small farm industry has benefited from the Texas Food Revolution is clear. The Farmers’ Market at Weslaco, for example, started with two core farms that produced the majority of the market’s food. Now there are more than five farms featured, with several other small farms selling during their harvest time.

Bertha Alaniz is one of the farmers whose profitability has improved by selling her food at farmers’ markets. She credits her participation with a reduction in chemicals and pesticide used at her Rio Hondo farm.

She and her husband, Pedro, tend to hundreds of acres, growing cabbage, onions and other large-scale crops year-round for commercial distribution. In the past, they used traditional chemical farming techniques. But since the couple began selling food at farmers’ markets more than three years ago, they’ve reduced pesticide use in their industrial production and have reserved several acres for pesticide-free farming, where they grow food specifically to sell at farmers’ markets.

“We understand that farmers’ market shoppers want to avoid pesticides and chemicals in their food,” said Alaniz, in Spanish. “So we’re changing how we grow food so that shoppers will have confidence in our product.”