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Saturday, July 13, 2024 at 3:56 AM

Growing concern over Hutto farmers’ market future

EDIE ZUVANICH Special to the Press

HUTTO – A Hutto City Council workshop intended for discussing food truck ordinances became a screed against downtown farmers’ markets. Insinuations ran wild at the Dec. 14 meeting, sometimes painting vendors as fly-by-night operators, questioning whether they keep accurate tax records and even the legitimacy of their products.

“There’s a guy claiming he drives down from Alaska with fresh salmon. He’s got Alaska plates on his car. I find it hard to believe that someone loaded up a car with salmon, skipped all the metropolitan areas and ended up in Hutto and he’s doing us a favor,” said Mayor Mike Snyder during the workshop. He went on to question whether proper taxes were being paid and health standards being met by the vendor.

At the Jan. 4 City Council meeting, his questions were answered.

“It was appalling to hear some of the rhetoric at that Dec. 14 meeting,” said Tenny Warwick, CEO of Tenny’s Wild Alaskan Seafood, who said he buys his seafood directly from fishermen in Alaska, where it is flash frozen before being shipped frozen to Texas.

“We’re not only licensed, but we’re bonded to buy, sell and process in the state of Alaska. It took a lot of work and a lot of bureaucracy to become a known shipper and to be able to fly my product from Kodiak Island into the Austin airport. I had to go through the health department,” Warwick said, noting he is now also supplying seafood to local restaurants.

Hutto rose up en masse to support and protect its downtown farmers’ markets. The community filled council chambers, and gave almost two hours of testimony during the public comment period of the meeting.

Some downtown business owners reacted to workshop statements the mayor made claiming downtown businesses hate the farmers’ market due to competition for customers.

“I was very surprised to hear about the concerns about competing businesses downtown because nobody seemed to care when y’all approved for a tattoo shop to open right next door to mine six months later,” said Kendall Ramsey, co-owner of East Street Tattoo, 117 East St.

Brandi Townsend, owner of Cozy Cannabis, 200 East St., leases space next to her building for the Wednesday and Saturday farmers’ markets. She pointed out that competition is a fact of business, and added that businesses can benefit from the additional crowds of shoppers brought in by the markets.

“Healthy competition only makes us better,” she said. “All of those people that are at these markets are actually just prospective clients.”

“Markets bring new people, fresh ideas and word of mouth. It makes me a little upset when business owners think just because they were able to lease a space they can just sit there and bully away other competition and think that you will be able to grow in revenue,” Townsend added.

Many vendors approached the podium to tell council emotionfilled stories of why the farmers’ market is important to them – stories related to health issues, job layoffs, family obligations and chasing the American dream.

“I had to resign from my position because my wife’s health has declined significantly over the last couple of years. I needed to be more available for her...I have to be able to drop everything I’m doing in order to go to the hospital,” said Nick Pierce, owner of Mossy Rock Coffee. “I had to take control of my own destiny. I had to own a business, and the only place that I could start my business out was farmers’ markets.”

During the workshop, in a twist that had viewers speaking out against government overreach, council members also discussed moving the downtown farmers’ markets to “The Gin” in the Hutto Co-Op. The Gin is a multi-purpose open-air event facility that the city rents out.

“As a government official, if the businesses say get rid of it, it’s hurting my business, I feel like my job is to do everything I can,” Snyder said, asking staff members if there was a way to gather data to indicate whether the market vendors were impacting the brick and mortar stores.

All of the Hutto farmers’ markets are privately owned businesses, with proper business permits, being held on private property that they lease. Vendors said they are required to have sales tax permits and face many of the same requirements as regular stores and restaurants.

Joseph Cortez, coowner of Hutto Farmers Market with Daniela Medellin, spoke out against what he called uneducated statements during the work session.

“Not only were the concerns unsubstantiated and outright false, but they were inflammatory and damaging to the community that we’ve devoted years to build,” he said.

The couple has started a petition in support of downtown farmers’ markets and have received over 350 signatures so far.

Cortez addressed the concerns about competition by listing at least six businesses on the short street that the mayor didn’t speak with and which support the market.

“I can guarantee you that if I was forced to have a brick and mortar...I wouldn’t be blaming a four-hour farmers’ market for my failing business,” Cortez said. “I would blame my poor business planning decisions.”

At the end of the public comment, council members took the opportunity to react to what they’d heard. Most admitted they had not been well educated on the topic and two apologized for what they had said. Several said they had been unprepared to speak on farmers’ markets when the agenda item was about food trucks.

“I have great ideas for farmers’ market at the Gin I know you guys may not be there but it is an option,” said council member Dana Wilcott.

Farmers’ markets are held in downtown Hutto on East Street Wednesday afternoons and every other Saturday. Vendor markets are occasionally held at the food truck lots on Farley and on Main. There is also a Sunday market held at the Co-op.

An agenda item to further discuss farmers’ market regulations is set for the Feb. 1 city council meeting.


Taylor Press