Houston’s Farmers Market Queen: The Woman Who’s Changed City Restaurants and Food Forever
The best Houston farmers markets bring eating fresh to new levels. But it wasn’t always this way. The city lived under a virtual produce blackout for years.
Gita Van Woerden, who owns Animal Farm, is a Houston farmers market pioneer.
Not all Houston Restaurant Weeks menus are created equal.
Gita Van Woerden is the Farmers Market Queen of Houston. Her Animal Farm has changed the city's restaurant scene.
It sounds like a horrific time long, long ago — a dark age best forgotten. A time when Houston did not have a single farmers market.
OK, we somewhat kid. But it is rather remarkable that a city as large and diverse as Houston went without a farmers market until the mid 2000s. One woman helped changed that — and Houston’s never quite eaten in the same way again.
“I was traveling a lot all over the world and wherever we went, there was a market,” Gita Van Woerden tells PaperCity. “Often several. And Houston didn’t have one. I thought that was outrageous.”
So Van Woerden went about trying to rectify that. She and her husband, Cas, a big-time petroleum engineer, owned and lived on a 70-acre farm in Cat Spring by then, and they knew there were more than enough farms like theirs to make a farmers market bountiful. Van Woerden held a leadership role in Urban Harvest and she grasped that the organization could be a catalyst for change. Surprisingly, a lot of others within its ranks did not see a screaming need for a Houston farmers market, though.
“There was a lot of opposition,” Van Woerden says. “People were not sure a lot of growers would come to town and they questioned if everyday people would support a market.”
Of course, the Urban Harvest Farmers Market turned into a big success and more Houston-area farmers markets eventually followed. Now, it’s hard to imagine living in a Houston where truly fresh produce is not readily available. Just call Van Woerden The Matriarch of Houston Farmers Markets (not that this low-key woman would ever call herself this).
Van Woerden and Urban Harvest continue to make a difference in Houston’s food culture today. On Sunday, she supplied ingredients for one of the chefs (Bramble’s Randy Rucker) cooking at Urban Harvest’s Sunday Supper at Sparrow. The star chef-packed dinner served as a fundraiser for Urban Harvest’s Youth Education Program, which reaches more than 20 local schools and community centers — and more than 25,000 Houston kids.
Urban Harvest’s director of youth education, Carol Burton, championed the program after seeing Houston school kids unable to identify basic produce like tomatoes. It’s hard to know what a tomato looks like if you’re a kid growing up who’s actually never seen one. This program works to change that, in part by fostering gardens at local schools. It’s the type of program a hands-in-the-dirt farmer like Van Woerden is proud to support.
Van Woerden’s seen the difference a little education can make — whether the student is a kid or a grandma.
“When we first started the farmers market, people were very hesitant to buy some of the little more unusual produce,” she says. “At the beginning, there was a lot of apprehension. People bought what was familiar.”
Van Woerden remembers eggplant being a particularly difficult sell. The farmer kept telling wary customers — who eyed the eggplant as if it was as scary as something out of The Walking Dead — “This is not a supermarket eggplant.”
One woman finally bit, with a caveat — she’d eat it, but her husband never would. Van Woerden smiled, shook her head, and told the woman exactly how to make the anything-but-supermarket eggplant. The customer soon came back, gushing about how her husband demanded more eggplant.
“That’s the kind of interaction you just can’t get in a supermarket,” Van Woerden says, her pride coming through over the phone line from Cat Spring. Supplying truly fresh vegetables to lauded restaurants such as Uchi and Oxheart is great for Van Woerden, but one gets the idea that this type of farmer-to-person exchange means even more to her.
After all, one must have a driving passion at the center of things to work as hard as Van Woerden does on the 70 acres she and her husband dubbed Animal Farm, after the classic George Orwell book. This is a dusk-to-dawn, 365-days-a-year operation. In the fall, this means starting at 7 am and “working pretty much continuously” to 5 pm. In the unforgiving Texas summer, the schedule shifts to 6-630 am starts, a long four-hour siesta-type lunch break to escape the worst of the heat, and then more work on the land until 8 to 9 pm each night. Van Woerden’s husband often cannot be there because of the oil-industry job that helps make the farming possible.
On the day of our interview, Van Woerden found herself scrambling up a hill to get better cell reception. Pioneers who change a city do not necessarily get to rest. There is still too much work to be done.