Indian Hills Farm

by Claire Cella • Photography by Pauline Stevens

One can learn a lot from a pecan tree. Patience and balance, for instance, are qualities that Hershel (Hersh) and Karen Kendall have been cultivating for almost 30 years. These virtues have been taught, most notably, by the Mohawk pecan—a variety native to Texas and, in particular, the sandy soil that abounds in the rear reaches of the Kendalls’ farm, Indian Hills, in Smithville.

On a peaceful winter day, the Kendalls and Karen’s mother, Lou, stand beneath towering tree limbs in their humble but ancient orchard; the pale, knotted trunks majestic sentinels in the muted golden field dotted by dark silhouettes of grazing cows and a few sprightly new calves. Toward the edge of the grove, Karen points out an enclave of the Mohawks. The problem with the Mohawk pecan, Hershel demonstrates, is revealed when one cracks open the nut’s thin outer shell, and the underdeveloped traces of what should have been a hefty, bronze, oblong nut tumble free. Hershel says this is because, under certain circumstances, the Mohawk variety has the interesting problem of dropping plenty of nuts to the ground, but most of which are half-empty.

It’s a lesson in balancing quality over quantity that the Kendalls have learned, and now practice, in their own production. Their 169 acres produce a wide bounty—everything from heirloom produce, glowing citrus and grassfed cattle, to fresh eggs and crisp pecans—but always just enough and never too much. To them, the farm epitomizes the ecology and symbiosis of nature, though it’s a nature that is, admittedly, sometimes hard to nurture under harsh heat and with only three attendants.

The responsibilities require grit but also afford gratification. When Hersh is out of earshot, Karen whispers with adoration about the pride he takes in the quality he can deliver to customers, week in and week out. And it’s easy to detect this ardor when Hersh’s speech quickens and his feet move more spryly among the garden rows of his cherished Mr. Stripey and Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Asian cucumbers that will come with warmer weather.

Even in the dead of winter, during what the Kendalls call the “ugliest time” for their farm, Indian Hills feels prosperous and fertile. A slight breeze flutters the leaves that crack underfoot, yet there are hints of life everywhere: Heavy yellow lemons still cling to branches, roosters caw from their pen, catfish lap the shores of the small pond and Karen carries a bottle of warm milk to the anxious lips of a young calf named Buddy, the farm’s most recent addition.

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“They say that Central Texas is one of the hardest places to garden because of the temperature fluctuations,” Hersh says. The heat, and the resulting drought, have been some of the most challenging adjustments the Kendalls have had to make. Although the couple bought the farm in the early ’80s—then just an 86-acre catfish farm—they were still living in Anchorage, Alaska, where they’d moved as a youthful twosome to find part-time work and a rustic venture after college.

There, even under the cold cover of snow, the agrarian couple found that everything grew magnificently. “You could just walk out there, dust off the snow, and pull up parsnips and carrots,” Hersh recalls. “And you don’t have bugs, you don’t have diseases, you don’t have the heat drying everything up. All the winter crops you grow here in Texas love the Alaskan summers: broccoli, lettuces, carrots, hearty greens, potatoes—especially potatoes—they’re the best you’ve ever eaten up there. But you can’t even grow one here.”

Karen sighs and shakes her head. “Down here,” she says, “you can put a lot of effort in, but if you don’t get the rain, it just won’t work. That sun is just too strong.” This is where that patience comes in. In order to thrive in this climate, a pecan tree, for instance, might produce small nuts as a survival skill in years when the trees are stressed from heat, dryness or disease—it produces only what it can, until more ideal conditions arise. The Kendalls have mastered this, too. During Alaska’s long winters, Karen learned how to can and freeze the produce that wouldn’t last; something she’s started doing here, too—selling jars of pickled ginger carrots, fermented sauerkraut and preserved citrus figs.

In addition to fighting the fierce summertime sun in Smithville, there’s also cotton root rot and persistent pests to deal with—all of which Hersh and Karen counter with organic methods, although they are no longer certified. “We just don’t see any need [for certification],” Karen says. “We don’t use anything different than we did. And we found that our customers have come to know us, and they know what we bring to the table, and that’s enough.”

And they’re making it. The prime cuts of Black Angus grassfed beef produced from their brawny ebony bulls remain immensely popular and are often the first things to go at the Sustainable Food Center’s farmers’ markets at Sunset Valley and in downtown Austin. The farm’s on-site and rentable bed-and-breakfast cottage (complete with morning delicacies courtesy of Karen and the farm) also helps. Rounded out by a selection of seasonal produce and freshly baked granola and breads at the markets, Indian Hills continues to represent the diversity, persistence, goodness and, yes, patience, that can be learned from a handful of beloved pecans.