By Dorsey Barger
Photography by Jody Horton
Life on HausBar Farms in East Austin is a marvelous, circular dance between vegetables and animals; a whirling waltz of eating and pooping, fertilizing, regrowing and eating some more. My partner, Susan, and I invited many of our animals to this barn dance because of our decision not to use gas-powered equipment on the farm.
Sure, we could dig the 51 beds of vegetables using just pitchforks and shovels, but there was no way that I nor my helpers were going to be pushing around a push mower for the rest of the two acres to beat down grass and weeds.
Nor were we going to spray the poison ivy that grew up our trees like kudzu with Roundup or any other foul chemical. “Get you some goats,” our friend Stephanie Scherzer of Rain Lily Farm said. “They’ll eat your poison ivy in no time.”
So we got a couple of goats (Jaq and Mamma G), then a miniature donkey (Julian), then another one (Rose), who do the work for us. Graze. Poop. Repeat. They joined the couple-hundred laying hens we already had scratching up the dirt to eat bugs and chase flying insects. The hens help control garden pests (there are no crop-killing grasshoppers on our property), lay golden-yolked eggs and leave tons of one of our farm’s greatest assets: chicken poop. The donkeys and goats self-distribute manure around the farm as they bend to their mowing duties, fertilizing as they munch. But hens, which sleep on perches in a henhouse at night, provide us with conveniently located, easily shoveled, nitrogen-rich, compost-igniting organic gold. With the addition of leaves from our enormous pecan trees, a sprinkling of water from our well and a couple of good tossings with a pitchfork for aeration, in a couple of months we have what has become the only thing we add to our garden beds: HausBar Chicken-Poop Compost.
We have rabbits that poop a lot, too. Rabbit droppings are said to be the only manure that can be applied directly to vegetable crops without burning tender vegetation. We wouldn’t know. Since our rabbits are free ranging, we don’t have a way to efficiently collect their poop, so their little, brown, pea-shaped droppings just stay where they are laid and slowly release their goodness back into our pastures.
Our ducks and geese squirt out a bunch of poop throughout the day. They might be the only animals I know of that actually look cute as they poop. They waddle and poop, waddle and poop. It’s absolutely adorable!
And soon we’ll be in the fish-poop business, too. Behind the yellow farmhouse that we’ve just constructed to be our forever home, we’re building a natural swimming pool. The pool water—chemical-free rainwater from our 30,000-gallon cistern—will cool us off in the sweltering heat of summer and then be pumped to a pond where we’ll raise fish. Nutrient-rich (read: poop-laden) water from the fishpond will then be gravity fed to a series of hydroponic lettuce tanks. Lettuces thrive on this natural food source and clean and filter the water as they grow. Sparkling clean water will then flow back into the pool in a circular dance of water nymphs.
We have a far less beautiful dance (if it can be called a dance at all) going on in our mosh pit of a meat composter. The few animal entrails that we can’t eat or sell after we slaughter chickens or rabbits go into a large plastic tub inhabited by meat-eating black soldier flies and all manner of beetles. The hardworking insect larvae grow as they devour our leftovers, and when nature tells them it’s time to go on to the next phase of life (or when they simply become overcrowded), they crawl up a plastic channel, jump down a tube and become a protein snack for our chickens—some of which hang out all day waiting.
Red wiggler worms lend us a hand with daily chores as household food scraps are deposited into a cinder-block vault that’s home to these worm casting-spewing, blind, slimy workhorses. Their excrement is cherished not only for its ability to enrich soil by providing readily available nutrients to plants, but also for its role in retaining soil moisture.
And there’s always a party going on at the garden fence. Whenever farm helpers Samuel and Lola and I harvest or prepare a bed for planting, we throw unusable greens, plant stems and any bug-eaten vegetables over the mesh to the crowd that always gathers. Donkeys jockey for the juiciest morsels, chickens try to avoid the flying hooves and the geese and ducks give honks of thanks. There’s never a need to clean up crop residue or even throw it on the compost pile. The compost process begins all over again, inside the churning crops and stomachs of our beloved animals.