Growing Magazine - July, 2013

FEATURES

Selling Customers on Healthy Produce

By David Weinstock and Curt Harler


Spring produce from Tanksley Farm (Mineola, Texas) at the Historic Longview Farmers Market, including mizuna, romaine, turnips, rainbow chard, beets and radishes.
Photos by Courtney West, http://sweetmiscellany.blogspot.com, unless otherwise noted.

Despite having one of the highest standards of living in the world, Americans don't eat very well. Many eat too much. According to research completed by the Trust for America's Health of Washington, D.C., more than onethird of adults and nearly 17 percent of children in the U.S. are obese.

As a result, one of the growth industries in this country is nutrition consulting. Professionals in this field help clients eat more nutritious foods and create lifestyles designed to help them be healthier and live longer.

This market sector represents a substantial growth and profit opportunity for U.S. fruit and vegetable growers.

A personal revelation

There are 22 organic farmers in East Texas who owe their increased incomes, at least in part, to a nutrition consultant from Longview, Texas. Their experience could provide a road map for other small growers who want to expand into a high-reward area.

An East Texan who left the Lone Star State for New York City and then returned to help her ailing mother, Danielle Heard was one of the spark plugs that helped grow a local organic market. She wanted a reliable source to provide her with a steady supply of organic foods for her clients.

One of the principal strategies nutrition consultants propose is consumption of fresh, organic produce. Coincidentally, incre-ased consumption of fruits and vegetables is at the top of the list of strategies to reduce and control obesity put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That should be good news for fruit and vegetable growers everywhere.



Danielle Heard sips juice made from local farmers' produce.
Photo courtesy of Danielle Heard.

In 2007, Heard opened the doors of her New York City-based holistic nutritional services firm, Artemis in the City. She did well, expanding her business to include clients throughout the U.S.

A year later, her mother became seriously ill with kidney disease. Heard left the city, returning home to Longview, Texas, to apply what she had learned to help her mother.

Getting opportunity to knock

When Heard moved back to Texas, she was surprised to discover that the region's supply of organic produce was low. "Availability was pitiful," she remarked.

Her practice called for clients to eat what she calls sustainable produce: "traditionally grown, without harmful herbicides and pesticides."

From her perspective, the local East Texas markets offered, at best, slim pickings. "The Vitamin Plus store had a few barrels of organic apples and potatoes, and very limited shelf space for a few seasonal vegetables."

Since most of her local clients are chronically ill, Heard needed a steady supply of good-quality organic produce, because the regimens she provides are high-plant diets, featuring whole grains and legumes.

Luckily, she heard of a local effort to jump-start an organic market in Longview. Heard went to one of the first organizational meetings, where she met Lynette Goodson, who is now the market's manager.

Goodson's vision for the market called for its leadership to be drawn from both buyers and sellers, and Heard was elected as the group's vice president.

One of her early contributions was to recruit growers. There was a small market in Tyler, Texas, that was beginning to flounder, so Heard recruited a number of the market's growers to sell their produce in Longview.

"She got it started," said Goodson, "and the trend has continued, with our growers recruiting others to come and sell here."



Beets and spring onions from Tanksley Farm at the Historic Longview Farmers Market.

Called the Historic Longview Farmers Market, it meets on weekends from March through November in a parking lot on the corner of Cotton and High streets. "It's the former site of the Kelly Plow [Works], which acquired the second business license in Texas history in 1843," Goodson said.

Personal market relationships

Heard does steady business with a number of the market's growers through the market, rather than buying direct from the growers. That's because the market offers something she cannot get from a direct buying relationship: the product diversity she'll encounter over the course of the market's season.

Still, she has created some close business relationships with a few of the growers. One is Cindi Bjork, an organic (though not USDA-certified) grower in Pine Mills, Texas.

Twenty years ago, Bjork and her husband Bob grew tired of their life in Tucson, Ariz., and moved to a 76-acre East Texas farm. Since then, Bjork has grown what began as her personal garden into a small enterprise.

The Bjorks eat a lot from their half-acre garden and sell what they don't eat year-round. That's an advantage Texas growers have over northern farmers - a year-round growing season, which allows them to make money on fewer acres.

Bjork's organic enterprise, which also sells a small array of organic gardening supplies, is called Aunt Cindi's Organic Market Center. Her mainstay crop is greens: collard, kale, spinach, mustard greens, and a large variety of lettuce and chards.

It is those greens that brought Heard, Bjork and Goodson together. Another common thread is that both Heard and Bjork are organic farming educators.

James Lowell Tanksley of Mineola, Texas, is another of Heard's favored suppliers. He derives 80 percent of his annual sales from the Longview market.



The Crawford Farms tent at the Historic Longview Farmers Market.

Tanksley, president of the Historic Longview Farmers Market, steadily grows 3 acres of sustainable commodities in both of Texas' growing seasons. He feeds his operation with 8,000 to 10,000 seedling sets grown in his hothouse each year.

"I don't buy my seedlings because you never know what you are getting," he said.

Get growing

Heard's story about growing her business begins with her own hardship. In 1997, doctors diagnosed her mounting energy loss and body pain as fibromyalgia and connective tissue disease.

Her experience with the medical profession was much the same as others who live with this condition. She tried a variety of drugs and exercise regimens that did little to ameliorate the problem.

Heard, who was working as a media buyer in New York City at the time, sought relief through conventional methods. "After trying a number of medications, and gaining 20 pounds, nothing was helping," she said.

She switched to "a natural, whole foods, lifestyle diet" that she says abated her pain, helped her to lose the weight she had gained, and increased her energy level.

The experience brought her face-to-face with natural foods. Over the next several years, Heard earned certification as a holistic health counselor from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City and completed the Chef's Training Program at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts.

Upon her return to Texas, she formed a symbiotic relationship with the Longview Farmers Market, and both sides have profited.

Success through diversity

Goodson said the market draws its customers from a 50-mile radius - west to Tyler and north to Daingerfield. She netted this bit of market intelligence from the names she collected through some weekly drawings the group has held.



Yellow squash and zucchini from Tanksley Farm at the Historic Longview Farmers Market.

Anticipating more this coming season, she said the market counts 22 growers who come to the sale over the course of the season. "Some of our growers sell over a very short season. For example, one family just sells Noonday onions."

Within that statement is the secret to the success of the Historic Longview Farmers Market. "Lynette is very careful about who she allows to come and sell at the market. She allows only those growers who add to the variety of what the market offers to its customers," Bjork explained.

If all the market's growers sell the same commodities, customer numbers would dwindle, and the growers would soon follow, said Tanksley. "I have seen it happen again and again. A farmer has to sell steady or he will go somewhere else where he can."

Bjork said Goodson admitted her stall to the Longview market because she sold greens and no one else did.

Goodson will also welcome people who sell nonvegetable farm products, like grass-fed and organic beef. Other farmers sell goat milk and goat milk products, such as candles and soaps, at the market.

What Goodson will not admit to the market are resellers, people who buy produce from wholesalers and resell it at farm markets. Longview market customers like to talk to the people who grow the produce they are buying, something they can't do with resellers.

On a good weekend, when the weather is warm, the market is visited by up to 850 customers. When the weather is cold, the number slips to 250.

Goodson has her eye on a year-round market to match the year-round growing season. "All we need is a citrus grower," Goodson concluded. l

Dr. David Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler. He earned his mass media Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from The Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.