Bolstered by the mild winter and above-average rainfall, area farmers markets are using creative strategies to lure customers this spring after last year's devastating drought, which ravaged crops and hurt attendance at some markets.
Fort Worth-area markets are adding festivals, wine tastings and gardening demonstrations, scheduling chef appearances, offering lessons on rainwater harvesting and considering expanding hours.
"A farmers market should be a community gathering place," said Doug Voet, manager of the Grand Prairie market. "We want to bring people in and give them a reason to stick around awhile."
Last year's drought -- the worst one-year drought in Texas history -- caused attendance to plummet at some markets. Farmers at Cowtown Farmers Market in Fort Worth say attendance fell by one-third to one-half, the lowest they had seen in years. At Keller Farmers Market, average attendance was 450; by the end of summer, that number dropped to 117.
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As crops died, farmers brought less variety to the market. Tomatoes and peaches, arguably the two biggest draws of the summer, grew scarce because of the heat, said Greg Johnson, president of the Cowtown market.
"When the tomatoes go, it hurts everyone's sales," said Johnson, co-owner of B&G Garden in Parker County. "Tomatoes are a big deal around here."
Markets are working to remind people that they have alternatives to grocery stores.
To draw customers, Cowtown will throw a spring festival March 31 featuring a band, door prizes, farm-oriented contests for children and advice from gardeners.
Grapevine Farmers Market, which opens today, will have a cookbook giveaway, cooking demonstrations and "guess-the-protein games."
Attendance at the Grapevine market actually grew last year, owner Jack Morehead said, but the market relied more on larger, established farms than on small ones. Some farmers were forced to pull out of markets entirely, he said, worried that they could not make enough of a profit to cover the cost of gasoline.
The same thing happened at the Keller Farmers Market, which will open May 5 with a new layout. The market will host a seed-and-plant exchange and two arts-and-crafts festivals. It will also offer a discount to farmers who commit to the full 25-week session.
Market manager Patricia Eltiste said many farmers hurt by the drought are preparing for another one. One farmer is raising chickens for eggs. Others are adding hydroponics, enhancing irrigation systems or planting more drought-resistant crops.
"Farmers are so resilient," Eltiste said. "For people who make a living that depends on circumstances entirely out of their control, they stay amazingly upbeat."
Several markets are diversifying with new products that do not rely as heavily on day-to-day weather. The Downtown Arlington Farmers Market brought in a local wine vendor. The Grand Prairie Farmers Market, which opens March 31, is adding more crafts vendors.
Grand Prairie will also have a barbecue kickoff, a Cinco de Mayo festival, a crawfish boil and a bounce house. It's also considering opening on Wednesdays.
"It's a sign of the times," Voet said. "If we can bring in people who are interested in crafts, maybe they'll stay and buy some bread and fresh produce."
At Artisan Bakery, which sells at Cowtown and Downtown Arlington, sales fell dramatically last year. The bakery, which uses mostly local and organic ingredients, hopes to recover this season.
"When the farmers struggle, we struggle," bakery owner Gwin Grimes said. "As city dwellers, we tend to be far removed from the source of our food. Farmers markets try to change that."
Sarah Bahari, 817-390-7056