By Rose L. Thayer
Killeen Daily Herald
Summer is coming and so are farmers markets.
Onions and heirloom tomatoes, summer squash and spicy garlics, free-range eggs and goat cheese will be available from local growers this summer, and customers are encouraged to connect with their community farmers.
"It's important to talk to the people growing your food because you're going to put it in your mouth and eat it," said Brent Doty, a Temple-area grower who prides himself on growing the weird and unusual.
"Some people pick up a black tomato and say, 'What is this?'" he said of some of the unique produce he sells at markets in Temple and Belton.
At a grocery store, he said people might be baffled with what to do with it, or with the varieties of eggplants he offers.
"I like to try everything and eat everything I grow, so I can tell you this eggplant is better for eggplant Parmesan and this one is better for grilling," he said.
Jeff Oaks, a pharmacist, provides an informational card with recipe suggestions for each variety of international garlic he grows in his Belton garden.
The number of farmers markets in Central Texas has grown over the past year.
Customers can now choose from seven markets open five days a week between Copperas Cove and Temple.
Anthony Marshall, a local grower, spent nearly every Saturday last summer selling produce from his Nolanville garden at the Harker Heights market and is looking forward to selling there again.
"It was a good market considering it was its first year," he said.
Heather Cox, activities center coordinator for Harker Heights, agreed.
"I think it blossomed into something more than we expected," she said. "Last year worked really well, so we are keeping the same times and same rules. Vendors really liked the way that it went and we see no reason to change anything major."
Like Marshall, many of last year's Harker Heights vendors also sell at the Killeen market, which debuted in March under a new pavilion on Green Avenue.
The city received a $24,600 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, money prioritized for urban food deserts. Parts of north Killeen are considered food deserts, an assessment based on the population's proximity to grocery stores, transportation and area poverty levels.
The grant is designated to promote the market, said Jill Hall, senior planner and heritage preservation officer for the city.
"Not including the neighborhoods in Fort Hood, there are 2,000 residential lots that include single-family homes, duplexes and apartments within a one-mile radius to the new market location for an estimated total of more than 5,540 residents within walking distance," said Hall.
The extension of the Andy K. Wells Hike and Bike Trail will increase walkability to the market.
Another site to recently open is the Belton Water Street Market along the banks of Nolan Creek at The Gin.
"It's not major producers, but it gives them a venue where they can sell to the public and community," said Bob Bonney, who manages the market. "You may pay $3 for our eggs, and they are $2 in the store, but bite into that egg and man, you'll know the difference."
Oaks is one vendor who sells free-range eggs in accordance with the Texas Department of Agriculture's Egg Law, which mandates egg sellers abide by rules such as labeling the cartons.
"The chickens are loose and so they have green grass that they can eat," said Oaks, while Annabelle, a great white pyreneese-anatolian shepherd mix stands guard. "I use a stationary house where can they go in and lay their eggs. It's a much more natural way of raising them."
Studies, including one conducted by Mother Earth News, show chickens that have green grass in their diet produce eggs with a third of the cholesterol, a quarter of the saturated fat and double the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than eggs purchased in grocery stores.
Oaks, Doty and Marshall, created the Belton Veggie Guys Co-op, after meeting each other at various markets last summer. Customers can place orders and pick up organic produce at various drop sites. Joining forces allows the three men to grow a wider variety and fill orders easily.
"I met these guys and they're doing the same thing I am," said Oaks of his farming hobby. "We learn from each other and I intentionally didn't raise tomatoes this year because I know they have them."
Marshall said it was Doty who taught him the techniques of organic farming, which can be tedious and time-consuming, but in the end worth it. "I have young children and I'm trying to influence what goes into their bodies," said Marshall.
Some items may be more expensive at farmers markets, but the extra cost is the result of the time it takes to protect crops from bugs like the cucumber beetle, which Marshall said is the grower's biggest enemy.
To keep them away, organic farmers spray herb combinations onto their crops instead of chemical-based pesticides.
Traditional farmers, said Marshall, can spray pesticides once and be done with it, but organic growers have to spray more frequently.
There is currently no evidence to prove an organic diet is healthier or safer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but others disagree.
Many of the synthetic pesticides and growth hormones used in conventionally produced foods have been proven to cause cancer, birth defects and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems in animal studies, though at higher levels than commonly found in food, according to the National Resource Defense Council.
Despite a record-setting drought last year, Mary Coppin, market manager for the Belton Farmers Market, said she hopes a wetter spring will bring more produce.
"There'll be a whole lot more variety to choose from," she said. "It's high quality produce, fresh from the farms or gardens to the market. You can't get any better than that."
Contact Rose L. Thayer at email@example.com or (254) 501-7463. Follow her on Twitter at KDHreporter.
Pick up some produce
Belton Farmers Market
Central Avenue and Penelope Street
Saturday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Opens May 19.
Harker Heights Farmers Market
Carl Levin Park, 400 Miller's Crossing
Saturday, 7 a.m. to noon.
Open May 5 through Oct. 27.
Temple Farmers Market
212 S. Main St.
Tuesday and Thursday, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Opens May 22.
Water Street Farmers Market
At The Gin on Nolan Creek in Belton
Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Open all year.
Copperas Cove Farmers Market
1506 Veterans Ave.
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Monday, 3 to 6 p.m.
Opens May 19.
Green Avenue Farmers Market
Green Avenue and Second Street, Killeen
Tuesday and Friday, 3 to 6 p.m.
Saturday, 3:30 to 5 p.m.
Farmers Market at Scott & White Hospital
Lawn located north of the main building complex, 2401 S. 31st St., Temple
Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Open May 16 through Aug. 29.
- Compiled by Rose L. Thayer