There is no electricity, so there are no lights in the barn. When the market opened at eight on a gray Saturday morning in May, the sunlight struggled to find its way through to open doors and into the back corners, and the interior took on the soft, muted tones of an impressionist painting. Cris Columbus was outside, hosing the dirt off a basket of Savoy cabbages he had harvested that morning. When the cabbages were clean, he took them into the barn and arranged them in a display next to the new potatoes and the ears of corn. On a long board counter farther back were bunches of deep red tomatoes still attached to the vine, piles of onions, and a dozen or so green and red bell peppers.
The red peppers didn’t last very long. A little after nine, Katie Livezey, who commutes every day from McKinney to her job as chef at the restaurant of the Bridges Golf Club in Gunter stopped by the barn on FM 121 in the community of Elmont, west of Van Alstyne, to see what she could find for lunch. She found the peppers and bought the whole lot. “I try to stop by every Saturday and pick up some produce,” she said. “The peppers are beautiful, so I’m going to do bratwurst and peppers today. I also got some tomatoes and onions and some of those homemade tamales. The tamales are for me though, not the restaurant.”
A Saturday trip to the market also has become a ritual for Charlotte Akres, who lives nearby in a subdivision called Steeplechase. “I’ve been coming to the market since the day it opened,” she said. “We watched Cris as he was repairing and getting the barn ready, and his wife, Amy, had told us he was going to start a market. I started passing the word to everybody, and we all got excited because this is a wonderful thing for people who like fresh vegetables.”
Akers stops by early each Saturday so she can have a good pick of the produce. “Today I bought some onions and tomatoes and new potatoes and peppers. I’m going to take the tomatoes to my daddy, who lives in Missouri, and give him a taste of heaven from Texas.” She is an opportunity shopper, figuring out what she can do with what she sees on the tables. The new potatoes will cooperate with some green beans for a classic dish or end up in a cream sauce for a comfort food that isn’t served as often as it once was, and the peppers will find their way into a salad.
Esther Pozad is typical of the gardeners who sell their products at the market and “gardeners” is the right word. None of the people who set up and sell each week are properly farmers. They are neighbors who like to grow what they eat and need an outlet for the excess. Save for convention, the place ought to be called a Gardener’s Market.
“I’ve got fresh vegetables and fresh flowers, and they came out of my garden,” said Pozad. “Two miles down the road,” was the answer to where the half-acre garden was located. “I’ve been gardening all my life and producing for the family and I just decided…” She never finished the sentence, switching subjects to list her products. “I’ve got baby spinach, carrots, fresh chard, collard greens—I picked them this morning. Oh, I’ve got fresh rosemary too.”
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The market is the project of Cris Columbus. And no, he is not related to the Italian guy who went looking for Cathay and bumped into the New World instead. That Columbus was Chris with an “h.” As far as Cris—no “h”—knows, they aren’t even related. Cris and Chris have at least one thing in common however. They’ve both seen a lot of the world.
Before he settled on five and a half acres west of Van Alstyne and started a garden a couple of years ago, Columbus spent ten years in the U.S. Navy and then sixteen more with the State Department. During the later turn, Columbus served in France, Jordan, Austria, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, Panama, and a few other stops. “While those were places I was posted, I’ve probably been in eighty different countries serving in a TDY situation.” TDY is a military slang for “temporary duty yonder.”
At age fifty, Columbus decided to take early retirement and settle down in one place, and all that travel left him yearning for home—wherever that was. It turned out it was a five-acre plot in south Grayson County. “My mother is here. I have a brother in Plano and family in McKinney. We used to plan to come back for vacations, but working for the government, we didn’t always make it.
After living in so many foreign capitals, I wanted to come back to a slower-paced American lifestyle.”
Part of that slower life was a chance to grow things in the dirt. “In all those years, my stress release was gardening, growing vegetables and fruits and trees,” Columbus said. “Through all my travels, I would go out on weekends and talk with farmers.” This association with local growers in distant places gave Columbus a healthy respect for growing things in a natural way, without pesticides and chemical applications common in the U.S. and many other Western countries.
Along the way he picked up a lot of natural growing practices, and his “hobby” became something more, taking on aspects of a crusade for natural farming. “We need to get back to growing more of our own food, so we know where it comes from,” Columbus said. “There’s a lot you can do in a small garden.” The move back home gave him an opportunity to put his mouth where his mouth was, around some garden-fresh greens.
Photos by Robyn Raggio
Columbus and his wife Amy, whom he met eight years ago in Washington, D.C., spent considerable time choosing a place to live. “I wanted to raise my own beef. I wanted to raise our own chickens, have our own eggs and raise enough vegetables for us. We wanted to settle down, take a deep breath and enjoy our retirement.”
Cris and Amy moved on to their new home place in July 2007 and immediately set about planting a garden. “We did get some fall crops,” said Amy, “and we had some pear trees, so we had pears.” By spring of 2008, the Columbus’ garden was looking good, and Cris started thinking about a way to share the harvest with his neighbors.
“My name is Martha Still—S-T-I-L-L; like I’m still here.” Still is the jams and jellies purveyor at the market. This morning she had set out a bowl with a block of cream cheese topped by her pepper jelly and some crackers. People would stop, spread a little cream cheese and jelly on a cracker, eat it and then mosey off in another direction.
A few minutes later they’d be back for a second helping, and then a third. There was something about that pepper jelly. “It is really big during the holidays,” she said.
“I’ve been making jams and jellies for friends and family forever, and about two years ago I decided to go commercial and got my state license,” she said. Still works from her nearby home and she doesn’t advertise. As is plainly obvious from the rapidly disappearing bowl of cream cheese and pepper jelly, word of mouth, or perhaps word of what goes in the mouth, is her best promotion. “One person tells someone else, and they come by and get a gift box.”
“That’s the blackberry,” Still said, pointing to another sample bowl. “Did you try the blueberry honey? It’s made with local blueberries and honey from my farm.” Most of Still’s jams and jellies are made from local produce, plums from Tioga, blueberries from Sadler, and blackberries from Pottsboro. She grows her own peppers—three different types go into the jelly, and she gets peaches from local producers. In the works are sugar- free versions of her products, but Still said she wasn’t satisfied with the results yet, so she’s still experimenting.
Columbus leased an empty barn hard along FM 121 at the Elmont intersection and set about cleaning it up. People in the neighborhood would see what was going on and stop to inquire, and pretty soon the word about a farmers market was drifting around Van Alstyne. “We opened in April,” said Cris, “and that was too early. We got in a hurry. Some things were planted a little early, so this year we pushed it back to May.” If Columbus was short on the front end that first year, he was long on the back end. “We stayed open until the end of November, and that was too long. It got cold. We’ll close sooner this year.”
When the market opened, it began to attract other like-minded growers and artisans in the area. Soon, in addition to a handful of vegetable vendors, Columbus had sellers offering handmade soaps, ceramics and stained glass, baked goods, jams and jellies, rugs and more.
Joanne Sheehan is a baker. “Coffee cake, banana bread, pound cake, pumpkin bread, bran muffins, banana chocolate chip muffins, lemon bars, lime bars, brownies, and today I’ve got some yellow cake with chocolate icing,” she said, pointing to the array of offerings spread out on the table manned by her husband, who was reading a book.
For Sheehan, the required “Why?” was easily answered, “I love to bake. I bake every day.” The “why here?” question had a more involved answer. “I came over here one day just to see what they had, and Cris asked if I did anything. I said I baked, and he said ‘We could use you.’ So the next week I came with my table full of goodies.”
She said she bakes daily and freezes the results, so she will have enough for Saturday’s business. Like most of the vendors Sheehan has what she has. There’s no trip to the storeroom to restock, so when the goodies are gone, well, you’ll just have to rely on Mrs. Baird for your Sunday morning coffee cake. Sheehan also makes pies, but by order only. “At Thanksgiving and Christmas I bake—I don’t know how many. Whatever you want, I can do.” She declined to pick a favorite flavor, but from behind his book, her husband said, “Apple.”
“This is not a flea market. It’s an agricultural market,” Columbus said, and he is very specific about what can and cannot be offered there. “One of my rules is—say you’re making blankets—you can’t get on the Internet and buy them and then offer them for resale. If you make them, you can sell them.”
Dianne Beattie sets up next to one of the big doors at the front of the barn, so her multicolored rugs will show in the best light. “I use sheets. I cut them into one inch strips and then crochet them into rugs. They don’t come apart, and they last a long time.” Beattie said it takes her about three days of off-and-on crocheting to complete a medium- sized rug. “I could do one in a day if I worked steady.”
Six years ago, Beattie got started making rugs at a family reunion. “We all got together at my mother and daddy’s house and each family did one. It’s just fun. It keeps me busy, keeps me going.” Like the other folks at the market, Beattie has turned a hobby into something more—but not too much more. That quickly might become work.
Amy Columbus said that it all starts with a “back to basics” philosophy, doing things yourself. And the back to basics encompasses the produce sold at the market as well—“naturally” grown foods, no pesticides. “Natural” is not necessarily organic, although it may be. Natural is the grass-fed longhorn beef one vendor offers.
If OU fans across the river knew what Lisa George was up to, they might make her an honorary Sooner. She is selling Bevo steaks, not the Bevo of course, but the Texas mascot’s longhorn relatives.
In a society beset with warnings about fat and cholesterol longhorn beef is finding a growing number of admirers. Longhorns are lean and rangy, and their meat has about a third of the total fat and saturated fat, and about one half of the cholesterol of most commercial beef. A serving of longhorn has fewer calories than an equivalent portion of regular beef, chicken, turkey or fish, and Bevo burgers are 98 percent lean.
“We’ve been raising longhorns for about seven years, just for fun. We like the looks. I like the variety of colors,” said George. She and her husband, who have a ranch west of Van Alstyne, were looking for an outlet for the cows they didn’t sell. “Longhorns are harder to market. You can’t just take them to market like Angus and Brangus. We had a few cattle, but not enough to continually keep meat in front of customers, so some breeders in the area got together and started a Longhorn Co-op. We’ve just recently started marketing the meat.”
George, whose operation meets all the standards required by the health department, had a big cooler filled with steaks, roasts and packages of ground meat. She has become a regular vendor at the market on Saturday mornings.
“We have two acres here where the market is,” said Columbus, “but we don’t want to get too big. We want to keep it small to medium. It’s not about making money. I know people have expenses, but I don’t want to see big city prices. It has to be reasonable.”
“We want to keep it intimate,” added Amy. “We want to know who you are when you come into the market. We want to know all our vendors.” And the Columbuses see their market as a service to both the buyers and the sellers. It’s an idea both sides of the ledger agree with.
Marsha Carr is an after-hours agriculturist. Days, she works in a law office in Sherman, but when she and her husband Frank come home in the evening, it is out to the garden. She is nothing if not enthusiastic. This particular morning she was showing everyone “…the biggest pepper I’ve ever grown.” It was a nice pepper, green and glossy with a solidly square shape. It wasn’t all that big really, but Carr didn’t care; it represented a new record for her efforts and was a harbinger of better things to come. She and some of the other producers are kicking around an idea to open the market on Sundays when yields increase later in the summer.
“We have Swiss chard, lettuce, okra, squash, tomatoes and peppers right now I have stuff from other people, but my goal is to just have vegetables from our garden,” said Still. “I sell a lot of okra. I have Heritage okra, little short, fat round okra, and people are just waiting to get it. I also grow the long skinny okra that you can pickle.
“We have three acres, with a quarter of an acre of blackberries. They’ll be ready by mid July. We sell all of our vegetables and local honey from Weston.” Carr has hooked into the convenience idea, with bags of salad ingredients. She packages Swiss chard, lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, and radishes that are washed and ready to go.
For Carr, the market is more than just a place to share the good things from her garden. “It’s fun. I love it. I love more than anything, the fun of watching things grow and the camaraderie of meeting new people. I get so excited. Since we have a place to sell what we don’t use, now we have two reasons for growing it instead of one.”
Cris Columbus sees the market as a learning experience also, a chance for younger generations to see that there is a lot more to the things that make up daily life than going to the store with credit card in hand. “I want people to come out with their children and say, ‘See, that’s the way your grandma made quilts.’ Or ‘Taste this peach. Son, this is what a peach is supposed to taste like.’”
Clearly, the Columbuses see the market as a sort of living history exhibit without the costumes and quaint speech. “We’re here to help people learn about things,” said Amy. “If we can give kids the joy of raising beans, or show them where an egg comes from and how it looks different from what mom brings home from the store, there’s an educational factor there.” And the market will soon add a more direct educational aspect when members of the Grayson County Master Gardeners begin giving regular lectures on Saturday morning on different aspects of growing things.
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The sign behind the table loaded with cookies, muffins and other baked goods reads “Five Reasons.” “I’ve got five children, and I didn’t want to name it for just one of them,” said Judy Borst. “I bake cookies, muffins, cakes, pies—cheesecakes are my specialty. Everything I make, I make with organic sugar, organic vanilla, and fresh farm eggs.” And she makes it early in the morning. “I made all these things this morning. I never freeze anything.”
Judy Borst may have five reasons for what she does, but Cris and Amy Columbus have even more. After a lifetime of here and there, they are putting down roots, culturally and agriculturally. For them, it’s back to the land, back to the basics. For the customers who come to the market, it is all of that plus—a jar of pepper jelly, a lemon bar, a red bell pepper, six varieties of tomatoes, three kinds of cantaloupe, three kinds of potatoes…. (End)
Historic Elmont Farmers Market
Saturdays 8 am to 2 pm April until November
FM 121 and Elmont Road
Van Alstyne TX
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