Marysol Valle and Jeff Wiley of Fat Frog Farm enlighten us with their wisdom on this installment of This Is The Farm. Marysol and Jeff have extensive experience growing fruits and vegetables, as well as raising cattle. They’ve been through many trials and tribulations, and bring light to many of the successes and problems they’ve encountered on their various farming adventures. Starting farms from scratch, investing in infrastructure, speculating on how policy can encourage more new and young farmers, tips on how to grow better fruits and veggies, and so much more. Serious Knowledge.
A week before the fundraiser, Lorig and I were sweating hard about low ticket sales. As it turns out, the day before the event demand for tickets went wild-crazy, and we sold out in a flurry. It was such a relief to see that people in Central Texas care so deeply about young farmers and the future of agriculture, that they’ll lay down their hard-earned cash to help support it. Not only did they get to support TXYFC and Cardo’s Farm Project, but they got some delicious food, drink, a farm tour, and an excellent farm panel discussion! Everyone’s a winner!
The warm, golden evening laid the groundwork for an ultra-sweet event. We started things off with Farmers Skip and Erin of Green Gate Farms showing off their beautiful farm. They concentrated on their pig production, showcasing their larger Hampshire mix breed that impressed everyone with their sheer size – mammoth creatures! Later on, we got to hang out with their Guinea Hogs – a rare heritage breed that produces tasty meat, as well as ample fat, which they process into lard for their customers.
After Lorig and I rambled about how rad TXYFC is, we dived right into the farmer panel discussion – and what a panel it was. Everyone on the panel generously contributed food to the event – Skip and Erin of Green Gate Farms, Katie Pitre of Tecolote Farm, Amy Greer of Winter’s Family Beef, Renee Miller-Rangel of RRR Farm, and Marie DeNoon of Cardo’s Farm Project. Also, a huge shout out to Madrono Ranch for their donation of tasty bison. Lorig asked the panel exactly one question, and the panel flew with it for 30+ minutes, addressing important issues such as: Defining what ‘Local’ is; How we strengthen the Local movement; Defining what a CSA really is; How consumers can support local farms; and much, much more. It was inspiring to see such respected farmers from our own backyard address these issues, drawing off of their years of experience and expertise. Also, everyone on the panel knew each other in one way or another, so the dynamic was electric yet casual – many laughs abound.
Chef Tony Grasso of Split Rail Ales / Field and Fare took the stage, introducing the menu to the guests. Everyone then proceeded to gorge themselves on the awesome food, buffet style, and consume tasty drink. Here’s what the menu looked like:
I, personally, met so many amazing farmers / food folk – and we can’t thank you all enough for coming out to the event. I hope everyone else got to meet some cool folks, as well.
We’re looking forward to stretching each and every penny raised at this event to help support young farmers and local communities. We’ll be purchasing workshop time with Cardo’s Farm Project to help connect young farmers in the Denton, TX community, as well as establish a North Texas Young Farmer Coalition. This will happen down the line in the fall, although we’ll be providing Cardo’s with the payment for this event up front, now, so they can use this cash to help grow their farming operation now – when they need it most. The rest of the funds from this event will go towards paying farmers in the Central Texas area to help educate and support local young farmers. This might include: Paying farmers for farm tours and workshops, as well as organizing crop mobs and paying farmers for their time, but we’re open to putting funds towards other areas such as advocacy or events at farm conferences around the state. We mentioned this at the fundraiser, but I’d like to reiterate: We pay ourselves absolutely nothing. Every penny from this fundraiser will go back into the farming community.
We’re moving forward with great optimism into 2013. And, how could we not after such a beautiful showing of support from our friends and neighbors?
We interview Tim Miller of Millberg Farm. Located in Kyle, TX. Tim utilizes ultra intense cultivation practices on his 5 acre plot of land, and shares his deep and varied knowledge with us liberally. He practices sustainability on social, economic, and environmental levels – really and actually! He’s also a really good seed saver. And a good teacher. And is filled with enthusiasm. And has lots of practical tips!
Join us for TXYFC’s first fundraiser! 1st Annual Texas Young Farmer Coalition Fundraiser! Huzzah! Excellent local food donated by Winters Family Beef, RRR Farm, Green Gate Farms, and Tecolote Farm will be cooked into a delicious gourmet farm dinner served at beautiful Green Gate Farms! Friday, April 12. Hand crafted brew and cider from Split Rail Ales. Food, music, farm-photo booth, and plenty of folks to kick it with. All proceeds will go to TXYFC and the young farm owners over at Cardos Farm Project.
Join Amanda Austin of Cardos Farm Project and your host, Evan Driscoll, for the first installment of This Is The Farm, a monthly podcast. We talk about starting her farm, running said farm, and planning ahead for the future. Education workshops are also on the bill. Amanda knows what’s the what for sure, so please commit your ears for 20 minutes or so.
My first thought walking up the driveway, through a gate, and onto the grounds of HausBar Farm was, “Those carrots are blowing my mind.” These were also, literally, my parting words to Dorsey Barger, the owner of this lovely East Austin urban farm, as I walked out that same gate an hour later. This bed of carrots was an absolute forest of lush green tops. Dare I not even disturb them by culling one unlucky carrot from the bed to get a root specimen. The message was clear: We are delicious, probably some interesting color(?), and just the right largeness. Carrot Top aside, the other fruits and vegetables looked delectable, healthy, and highly diversified. Everything from fall tomatoes and okra, to the more unexpected Moroheiya greens and sweet potato (also grown primarily for its greens).
HausBar Farm is very much an urban farm. It’s roughly two acres, and about 3 miles from Downtown Austin. On said two acres, they have set in place a whole host of systems that produce:
- Fruits and Vegetables
- Meat Chickens / Ducks
- Chicken / Duck Eggs (Duck eggs will begin to come on in the near future)
- Meat Rabbits
- A Lovely Bed and Breakfast
- Two Sweet Looking Mules
- Compost / Vermi-Compost
- Tilapia (Beginning In The Near Future)
- Hydroponics (Beginning In The Near Future)
- Classes / Tours / Education
- And Probably Some Other Things I’m Missing
If this farm were run by, say, me, I would be doing all these things in a very half-assed sort of way, but not Dorsey. Each of these systems are maintained to a high degree of detail, and it shows. The farm is very pretty! Here’s evidence of that:
HausBar produces fruits and vegetables 365 days a year. Cultivated soil on the land is relatively small – maybe 1/3 of an acre? But because all the work is done by hand (not even a rototiller), they seem to get a lot of food out of what soil is cultivated. The hoops in the picture, above, help extend the growing season in the spring using row cover and in the summer / fall by using shade cloth. The hoops looked to be made out of 10′ PVC pipe, and were maybe schedule 40? Low tunnels like these seem to be a good way to extend the growing season on the cheap, rather than investing in high tunnels, which might run you a few or many thousands of dollars. I’ve seen low tunnels work on farms up to an acre, but even at that size, it seems to be a handful (lots of materials to manage!). HausBar seems to be workin’ it super proper, though.
Seeing a meat bird operation up close is always an interesting experience. There are so many variables in bird production, and it’s fun to pick a farmer’s brain and see why they do what they do. What type of bedding do you use, and why? Why have the brooder here, and the adolescent birds over there? How do you protect the birds? What materials are used to build the structures? How do you process them? What feed and why? Etc, etc, etc. Dorsey was extremely open with her knowledge, and she was more than willing to thoroughly answer all our questions in detail. Here’s some chicken photos:
Above, Dorsey shows us the brooder she’s designed.
These will be the first duck egg producers at HausBar.
All chickens produced here are also slaughtered onsite. They have a small processing area on site, which is very cool/rare. Processing meat (ie. killing them) is always a weird, touchy subject when it comes to regulations. With chickens, though, it’s relatively more lax, as you can produce 10,000 birds and not have an onsite USDA inspector. I didn’t inquire further about the requirements for the processing area, but I’m sure this would have been interesting to touch on.
Dorsey is the first to admit that her rabbit operation has had more failures than successes. She’s had bad luck with hawks, securing structures, and flooding. This is a very successfully cute rabbit, though:
It was inspiring to see Dorsey persevere in the face of past failures. She’s clearly blazing a trail as she continues to experiment with new structures (one uses an old satellite dish, and looks oh so rad), and how these structures interact with each other. The rabbit brooder below is a lot like some of the chicken tractors I’ve seen, but for adorable bunnies. Honestly, there are so many nuances to rabbit produciton, I don’t think I can really dive into it here. There’s a lot to it.
ALSO: Do you know why HausBar has an extremely difficult time with rabbit production? Because they want rabbits to spend their lives on the ground, in the grass. This was something I was personally very interested in, as I’ve looked for information on this in the past and found next to nothing on the subject. (Almost all rabbits that are produced for meat spend their entire lives in a pretty small, suspended cage [all the ones I've seen aren't chicken-battery style. They have space to move around, for sure, but they just don't get their feet in the soil / grass]). Dorsey found very little on this subject, as well, but is just plodding ahead anyhow, learning through trial and error. I’m very excited to see how this operation evolves. Right now, the rabbits run around the property semi-willy-nilly, to which my mind instantly turned to a U-Hunt operation. Am I right?
Alright, more good stuff. They’ve recently completed their new gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous house. Here’s what it looks like:
My phone/camera thing ran out of batteries, or else I would have taken some shots of the sweet pool they have out back. Not only will it be a sweet pool, it will be part of an aqua/hydroponic loop they’re creating. The pool water is pumped into an aquaponic area, which will produce tilapia. This water (and all the nutrients that the fish pump into it) will drain into a hydroponic area, where they can produce vegetable crops. This is then pumped and steralized by lights (I’m short on details here), and then pumped back into the pool, closing the water loop. All very, very cool stuff.
I’ve failed to mention thus far that this property used to be a crack den (really and actually). As such, it was an unhealthy blight to the community. Now the community has this super amazing resource! Huzzah!
There was more, lots more, like the bed and breakfast they are opening very soon, the outdoor cooking facility (for classes and events), other cool structures, etc. But, I think you get the point.
“Those carrots are blowing my mind.” And then I left.
Last Saturday a gathering of established farmers, young aspirants, food artisans, urban gardeners, and other interested citizens came together to celebrate the launching of the Texas Young Farmers Coalition, the great state of Texas, and all things agricultural therein. With the uncommon threat of a summer rain looming, tents were erected, paths were mulched, and fingers were crossed. Fortunately, the rain held back allowing the panel consisting of Ty Wolosin of Windy Hill Farm, Marysol Valle of Fat Frog Farm, Carey Burkett of Buena Tierra, and David Pitre of Tecolote to discuss their varied experiences growing and farming in Texas.
That said, much of the panel gained their agricultural know-how on farms far from Texas before beginning their own ventures. Ty Wolosin came back home to Texas after studying agricultural systems in Spain and soon began cultivating vegetables and stewarding goats. He aspires to see a Texas that provides for itself. He believes this to be possible due to the wide range of agricultural potentials offered by the vast variations in land and climate. Summers such as that of 2011 suggest that Central Texas may be becoming hotter and drier. Goats are climate appropriate in that they can tolerate brushy and rugged grazing conditions remarkably well. Part of his mission in selling to area restaurants and farmers markets, is to ensure that not every morsel of goat meat leaves the state, but that some finds its way to the dinner plates of folks living nearby.
Like Wolosin, Marysol Valle first learned about farming far from her native land of Texas. In her case it was the fertile lands of upstate New York that opened her eyes to the promise of farming and caring for land. Upon returning to Austin, Valle dug in and began farming in East Austin while raising her young son. After a few instructive, but successful years, Urban Roots, a local non-profit that promotes leadership in young adults through agriculture, was looking for land and proposed that Valle become their farm manager. She accepted and managed the farm for several years. While working with the youth was a definite highlight for her, Valle is once again ready to grow into a new stage of her farming career. With the establishment of Fat Frog Farm, she and her partner Jeff Wylie are delving into growing delicious vegetables as before, but also fruit trees, cover crops, horses, sheep, and rotationally cycling the animals throughout the fields.
Before settling in Austin with his wife Katie, David Pitre studied agricultural ecology at the University of Santa Cruz, and worked on farms in California and Alaska. Now one of the most experienced vegetable growers in Texas, he has been farming the fertile soils of Eastern Travis County for nearly twenty years. Starting small, Tecolote has grown over the years to a sizable CSA while supplying local restaurants and farmers markets. When an audience member brought up the issue of economy of scale on a farm, Pitre described it as a balancing act between the limiting realities of soil, water, and personal involvement with the land and the farms supporters. One can make a living farming, Pitre believes, but also nearly everyone seems to have a different notion of exactly what making a living is.
A common theme of the night was trial and error. While potentially one of the most stressful of ways to learn, it can also be exciting and instructive, as Carey Burkett of Buena Tierra pointed out. The many challenges and setbacks involved in farming can often make the small victories that much more significant. They can also drive home hard realities such as when a hail storm destroyed much of a large order she and her husband Steve were obligated to deliver the next day. Striving to keep their farm as simple as possible, they lacked in certain modern conveniences at the time and were promptly informed by the frustrated buyer that they absolutely have to join the 21st century and get a telephone. Nowadays many farmers are using their computers and iPhones to assist them in the field and with planning. Burkett applauds the adoption of these technologies and readily admits their utility even if she might still secretly wish that fateful hailstorm hadn’t coerced them into joining this century.
Although a good amount of farmers are providing a wide diversity of products to local markets, Central Texas is still in its infancy in this new food culture and is growing in producers and potential daily. What is remarkable is not only the quality of the food being produced, but also the people behind it. Over the years the path that food takes from field to plate has become a lengthy, anonymous process. Thankfully, a new trend is emerging, demanding that food be closer, fresher, and associated with a place, a face, and the knowledge of how to do an important thing well.
We are thankful to the panelists for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their experiences and help bring together a wide diversity of people who care about farms and food who might otherwise never meet. One of the goals of these gatherings is to promote an agrarian ethic that provides a working knowledge of how to feed one another while caring for the land. Another is to connect those wanting to learn with those in a position to teach. Central Texas is gifted with a growing number of farms exemplifying an agrarian ethic and showing that despite scorching heat and frequent droughts, it is still possible to farm. These farms of potential and possibility serve as the guideposts as we build agrarian networks, allowing us to learn from and support one another along the way. One TXYFC member’s son may have put it best when said, “We’re building a railroad!”
So! I recently sent out a last-minute notice regarding an olive harvest just outside Austin. This was in conjunction with Green Gate Farms (whom I, Evan, work for). Too late of notice to get any TXYFCer’s out there, which is totally understandable and completely my bad. There will be another harvest this week, so I’ll be sure to send out a not-so-last-minute invite to that, as well.
As far as the harvest went, it was a great success! We harvested roughly 75 gallons of raw olives in 4 hours, which was processed into 3+ gallons of olive oil (if memory serves).
A little on olive oil production:
I failed to write down what variety these particular olive trees are, but they come from a similar latitudinal coordinate in Spain. So, they do pretty well here. They’ve been establishing themselves for the past 10 years, and although they have been producing for quite some time now, this is the first year they’ve produced enough olives to produce a substantive amount of olive oil. The owner recently invested in a very large/excellent olive processor to perform such a task.
So, after everyone showed up and we all said howdy-do and met lots of really cool folks, we got on our merry way and started to harvest. The grove that we harvested looks like this:
The first thing to do is lay a net around the bottom of the tree that we plan on harvesting. The nets serve as a large basket, where the harvester can simply rip the olives off the tree (by hand or mechanically with the rake), letting them land on the net.
We used the rake to get the olives that were out of hand-harvesting distance (the trees are about 15 feet high), while all the other folks ‘milk’ the lower branches by hand. This was something I was unaware of. Instead of actually picking each and every olive with your thumb and forefinger, as I envisioned in my brain because I base everything I know nothing about on Hollywood films (that exist only in my brain, no less), you actually grab the branch with your hand and pull down, similar to a milking motion. Olive trees are extremely rugged, and are not perturbed by the rough action.
Lovely volunteer Stephen demonstrates how the olive rake works. It looks odd because it’s designed to do a highly specified task, which is to smack olives out of trees with vigor. The two blue rakes at the end flap up and down with comical rapidity (imagine those chattering teeth toys). You push the rake into the tree, and it smacks the olives off the tree and onto the net. Also, an interesting note: When the rake is away from the tree, it runs at an idle rate. When it gets close to a branch, it greatly increases it flappy-ness rate. It has a sensor on the end of it which detects this.
Once a tree is more or less harvested, we slosh the olives around on the net until it’s in a nice tidy pile.
This pile is then put into a bucket and transported to the processing shed. This particular olive processer can handel 25 gallons of olives at a time.
The olives are dumped into the machine, where they are sifted (to get the branches and leaves out), crushed and spun (to extract the oil), and then poured into a bottle.
Hey-oo! We tried some of the olive oil from a previous harvest, and it was really, really delicious. Fresh olive oil is definitely more olive-y than the stuff in stores – and the result is superior flavor.
Harvesting olives is, in and of itself, a very satisfying task. I’ve also noticed, though, that it presents a really fantastic opportunity to connect with people while you relish in the shared experience of hard, satisfying work – which only strengthens that bond. It’s definitely a community builder.
I’ll be sure to send out a notification for the next olive harvest in the coming days. Would love to see y’all out there!
Driving through the quaint, small Texas town of Kyle, we approached Tim Miller’s artistically functional creation, Millberg Farm. Pulling into his driveway was like trying to infiltrate a decidedly confused system of roads in which to maneouver, like that of historic cities that used this as a tactic of war to confuse enemies. Of course, war has no place on this farm. Rather, the human embrace of all things natural directs this farm, masterfully ordered and maintained by the knowing hand of Tim Miller, gardening / farming master of Texas food production.
The emphasis of this farm tour was dry farming and gardening. Tim has devised some ingenious ways to hold on to every possible drop of water, rationing it to his plants accordingly. He catches rain water in a variety of vessels, including a hand dug, plastic-lined pond fed by a now defunct shed roof. Rain barrels dot the land, where he also hand delivers this water to his plants as necessary (which is not as often as you might think). One of Tim’s keys to holding on to precious H2O is by building his soil using composted or partially composted wood chips. He applies this liberally to his fruit and vegetable beds. He said that one of his rules is to never walk into his fields empty-handed. That is, you might as well bring a wheel barrow filled with wood chips, and apply them as you best see fit. The soil could use the spongey carbon.
Millberg Farm is filled with life. Everywhere you look, there is a deliberate system put in place. Each of these systems is specifically put in place with the micro-climate in mind. For instance, in the image below, you’ll find freaking lettuce growing in freaking July. Check out how he managed to do this:
First, the image (sorry, I came ill prepared with a proper camera)
- First, this bed is lined on one (or both?) sides with dug down paths. These paths were then filled with wood chips, to allow water to penetrate more deeply into the soil, while also aiding in the decomposition of said wood chips.
- He added wood chip compost to the beds. Shortly after, there was a rain, soaking this compost. Tim then added another layer of compost on top of this, trapping the moisture in the compost and soil beneath, increasing the length of time it would hang out in the soil.
- He then covered the lettuce bed with wire mesh, which was covered with dry debris from around the farm (largely sunflowers and johnson grass). This provides partial shade from the sun, relieving it from the heat and direct sunlight that would cause the lettuce to bolt prematurely.
- The soil in this particular bed was more suitable for water retention than any other bed in the immediate area. The soil was finer, which allows it to hold more moisture. He demonstrated this by showing us soil from the bed directly next to it, which was more coarse.
- Mulching has the added effect of never letting the soil crack and split due to dryness. Once soil cracks, it dries the soil out deep down, and water retention is nearly impossible until the soil is tilled again.
- He also knows the shit out of his land and micro climates. Direction of wind over this bed helped aid his decisions. Knowing when rainfalls might come during the month also helped (he references Ed Hume’s 2012 Almanac for this, which he says is an invaluable resource).
Dry gardening, from what I learned, is more than just knowing certain techniques, although this is certainly part of it. It’s more about a deep and intimate knowledge of your soil and land that can only be obtained through long, arduous work and incredible attention to detail observed over years.
As stated earlier, wood chips are very important to this operation. You see them everywhere: Piles and piles in the front yard, wood chips composing entire raised beds, mulching pathways, providing much needed compost on the tops of virtually every bed. This valuable resource requires foresight more than anything else. Tim has piles delivered by various private companies that are looking to off their wood chip byproducts on anyone. These piles sit for years (the wood chips on the lettuce beds had been sitting stagnant for three years), and it’s only once time has taken its course that this product is truly useable, at least as a source of nutrients.
Sunflowers are also omnipresent. They line virtually every field, and are even interplanted among many of his crops. This deters the deer population on his land, which is significant. Deer are irritated by sunflower’s spiny skin, serving as an excellent repellent. The sunflower is then used as a mulch directly on top of plants (this works especially well on melons), where they keep weeds down and the deer away.
At Millberg Farm, pests are deterred from eating precious fruits and vegetables, rather than simply desiccated. Grasshoppers are offered a lush patch of switchgrass towards the back of the farm, where they are free to consume as much food as they’d like. This swithgrass is then used as a mulch as needed, as it is voluminous and does well in dry weather. Birds are given the opportunity to consume fruit and nut trees that line the farm, where they stay put, diverting them from devouring the more valuable fruit trees that lay deeper in the heart of Millberg Farm.
More than anything else, this farm tour was about how the entire farm operates, rather than simply running a fine comb through dry gardening. He informed us of all sorts of varieties that have proved drought resistant on his land (and, subsequently, most farms in the Austin area; although, Tim does have black land clay). Tim informed us that 60% of the seed he uses is from his own saved seed inventory. He sells some of this seed to Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (his Egyptian Multiplying Onion and Harvey Wilson Leeks are in seriously high demand, selling out before they are even made officially available). His green onions are clearly a point of pride for him, outlining the story of how he provided two farmers on the east coast with his seed, and how it has truly been a boon for their farming enterprises. The Egyptian Green Onion developed on his farm has proven to be popular variety outside of Texas, where folks, incredibly, have water. In fact, we use it at Green Gate Farms (where I work), and we’ve been saving the seed and replanting it for the a few years now. It’s adapting to our land’s needs, and pleasing our CSA member’s palates. Hooray!
We left the farm with a small burlap sack filled with his saved seed. I’ll plant mine in my own garden, as well as give some to Skip and Erin at Green Gate Farms, to propagate, consume, and save.
I’ll certainly put some aside for TXYFC members. Get in touch, and let’s connect.