Change under way at one of country’s best farmers markets

The artist formerly known as Sunset Valley Farmers Market is now Barton Creek Farmers Market in Austin.

For fans of Austin’s Sunset Valley Farmers Market, which Eating Well magazine named one of the five best farmers markets in the country, this past weekend might have been confusing.

Anya Jack, market manager, said market leadership had been trying for some time to move out of the parking lot behind the Austin Independent School District. When they got the chance to set up at Barton Creek Square Mall, they took it. With only about two weeks notice.

On the final Saturday at their old location, signs everywhere announced the move.

But let’s say you don’t get to the market every week and this Saturday you just drove out to the south side location where you’d always gotten your fruits and veggies. You’d still find a market, as Sustainable Food Center, which operates the Austin Farmers Market network, has started a new one in Sunset Valley’s old place.

“I’m sad that a few people aren’t coming with us,” said Jack. (By the way, I can’t find anything online confirming Jack as market manager, and this story about the move lists the manager as Jim Moore. So color me confused, too.)

Karen Lee of Texas Olive Ranch said they planned to split the difference, setting up shop with their olive oil and balsamic vinegar in both locations.

“I’m going to go where the customers are,” Lee said, adding “I have no opinion on the politics.”

Politics? I thought I was just showing up to check out best practices in farmers markets. But here’s a letter from the mayor of Sunset Valley, who is “gravely disappointed by these events.”

The Austin Food Journal writes:

Someone has turned the goofy meter to 11. As the farmers’ markets in this town get cooler by the day, the Sunset Valley market seems to be spiraling out of control. After getting their high school parking lot space yanked from them, they were slated to move to a strip of grass on the shoulder of highway 290. Apparently, they thought a wiser choice was to move to a mall. Starting March 20th, their new home will be the North East corner of the Barton Creek Square mall parking lot. Next to Dillard’s (tasty). Nothing says local and sustainable more than a mall parking lot.

Jiminy Crisket performed folk tunes while shoppers bought produce, plants and prepared food at Sunset Valley Farmers Market's last Saturday.

While South by Southwest had thousands of geeks and filmmakers swarming downtown Austin, John and I visited Sunset Valley for its last Saturday in its old location, March 13.

Observations on Sunset Valley Farmers Market, in its old incarnation:

  • It felt more like a festival than a grocery store

In the city that’s home to Whole Foods HQ, it’s not as though there’s a shortage of organic produce and artisanal food products. It felt like one way Sunset Valley made it worth driving to the back of a huge expanse of pavement was the warm and friendly atmosphere.

Several vendors sold food ready to be consumed right away, like Empanadas La Boca, who sold me a slice of Greek pizza, a caponata empanada, a samosa empanada and a strawberry napolean the size of my head for $14.

Buy chips and salsa or cupcakes or whatever else calls to you, then grab a seat in the picnic area and enjoy live music or a juggler.

  • There might have been as many dogs as people

Dogs o' plenty at Sunset Valley

When I arrived at the market, I beelined to Coop Coffee for my first morning java. While I was there, I met Belinn and Brinkley. Brinkley is a year and a half old golden retriever who greets smaller pooches with what Belinn calls “little dog down” — a crouch to bring himself to their level.

As I watched Brinkley receiving guests, I realized he could be there all day sniffing other canines. Belinn said that’s why she shopped at Sunset Valley, because it was dog friendly.

  • The vendors reflected both Austin and Texas

Farmers market shopping list: banana plants, buffalo meat and written-while-you-wait poems.

All around the city, you’ll see people wearing “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirts, honoring the college town’s legendary eccentricity. It’s a multicultural place that embraces things outside the mainstream.

So in addition to buying fresh produce, you could also get a poem written while you wait. Or buy ceramic ‘shrooms.

It’s still very much in Texas, though, so nearby Thunder Heart Bison sold tenderloins and sirloins and Blanco Valley Farms rocked my world with candied jalapenos.

  • It’s manageable

Unlike another premier farmers market, the massive Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, Sunset Valley had fewer than 100 vendors. Laid out in a square, with smaller interior rows, I could easily see from one end to the other, and did a quick scouting walk of the perimeter in a matter of minutes.

I’ve been looking for photos online to see how many vendors made the move and what their new layout looked like. No success yet, but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

What happens now?

Outstanding lunch from Empanadas La Boca, with music from Jiminy Crisket

James Visco, co-owner of Plantucopia, said he’d been selling at Sunset Valley for seven years.

He says since market founder Pamela Boyer left, his sales are about half what they once were.

Visco, who now looks to the Internet for a significant chunk of his sales, isn’t sure what to expect with the relocation.

But Jack said the market has moved three times in 15 years and now has a three-year lease on a better location — she says shoppers will be happy to follow them to the better spot.

Maybe they will, as long as there are dogs, musicians and candied jalapenos. But if they don’t, it’s just one of three markets to choose from on Austin Saturdays.

I have some good video of the market but I’m still new to video blogging, so I apparently lack the correct Firewire cable to get the video onto my laptop. So I’ll hope to get that posted this week, following a trip to B&H.

Have you been to either the relocated market at Barton Creek Square or the reconstituted one behind the Independent School District?

Do you think farmers market shoppers are more loyal to the location where they shop or the management that organizes the event?

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5 replies

  1. The new Barton Creek market is thriving. Great location. Lots of new vendors as well as lots of old ones. I haven’t been to the new (old) SFC Sunset Valley market, but I hope it’s thriving too.

  2. One of the most enjoyable market experiences I’ve ever had. The food, the vendors, the music, the customers (and the dogs, of course): all good. And I’ve been known to enjoy a farmers market or two in my day.

  3. Thanks, Colleen, for giving a customer’s (astute customer at that) point of view on the market musical chairs. We hope that all farmers’ markets thrive– for the sake of the farmers, and the dust will settle and we can see that Austin is a town that can support local food to the tune of three major Saturday markets, a small neighborhood Saturday market, a later Sunday market, an established larger mid-sized Wednesday market, a new mid-sized Thursday night market, and more!

    Just in case readers didn’t catch it: A major slice of farmers and vendors under the umbrella of the previous market management have decided to stay in Sunset Valley, and they are open Saturdays 9 am to 1 pm! Now called the SFC Farmers’ Market at Sunset Valley, this market, in a week’s notice, was able to stay running and be there for the customers that have come to rely on it for the past six years. See http://www.austinfarmersmarket.org/blog for continuing updates.

  4. No one likes to see a market have problems. The good news is that someone else is running that location and that there are many other markets for vendors and consumers to interact. SFC Triangle location on Wednesday, Truck in Westlake on Thursday, SFC Republic Park on Saturday, SFC Sunset Valley on Saturday, South Austin Farmers market on Saturday and HOPE market on Sunday.

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  1. The tour of best farmers markets continues this weekend « Newvine Growing — exploring evolution, revolution and living life intentionally

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