Leon Caldwell, owner of Comanche Oaks farm in La Grange, has been in the farming business since 1987 and has the proud distinction of being one of the first certified organic farmers in Texas. Legend has it that the land he farms is the spot where—following the 1840 Battle of Plum Creek near Lockhart—a Comanche warrior named Hoomtaka, wounded by Matthew Caldwell’s troops, made his way down the Colorado river to a cabin on the banks. He sought shelter at the door of Leon Caldwell’s great-great-grandmother, who was newly widowed with an infant. She could have easily shot him with the rifle she held in her hands when she answered the door, but she let him in and helped him heal instead. The two ultimately fell in love and began a family of their own. This unexpected love story was the inspiration behind the name of Caldwell’s farm, and today, he’s carrying on that spirit of expecting the unexpected.
On a drizzly Saturday morning in February, Caldwell’s not at the farm but manning his booth at the Barton Creek Farmers Market. He has no vegetables to offer today, but his table is nonetheless stacked with abundance: jars of honey and bee pollen, green bottles of oil from the subtropical, multi-beneficial Moringa oleifera plant and little jars of a specialty night cream made with a carefully extracted red algae gene—all unusual items you don’t see every day at a market.
A fellow vendor pops by to ask about some champagne grapes (Caldwell is quick to point out that he has a reputation as a person willing to grow anything). Indeed, the moringa he grows on his farm—the oil of which he cold-extracts from the seeds—came from a bag of seeds brought to him from Africa by a Senegalese doctor friend. All over Africa, and in many countries where moringa grows native, the plant is known as the “tree of life.” Its medicinal properties are myriad and legendary, from the reduction of cholesterol to helping control diabetes. It’s known to help moderate blood sugar, reduce inflammation and contains many antioxidants. Caldwell’s trees grow to an average of 15 feet, as they freeze back in the winter and return in the spring, but in Africa, they can be 50 feet tall. He recommends the oil for hair growth and skin health among its many other benefits, and has several customers massaging it into their scalps before the day is out.
Caldwell’s honey seems to be the most popular item du jour, though, with the first customer purchasing three quart-size jars. He sells wildflower and clover honey, and offers tastings of each. The clover has a mild, fresh taste, while the wildflower has a deeper, darker sweetness. At a recent market, when he had a fresh batch of hibiscus flowers, he sold jars of honey mixed with the petals, giving it a tangy flair. He grows Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as “Jamaica,” the most popular type grown for tea. In addition to honey, he sells pollen collected by the bees of his own hives as well as from his friends’ and neighbors’ hives. It’s a sort of consortium, he explains. The bees come from Roy Weaver in Navasota, the hives from a local cabinetmaker and the honey is processed by Sanford Schmid, a pillar of the Fayetteville community who’s been keeping bees since the 1920s. “The pollen is good for allergies,” Caldwell explains to a customer. “Knocks ’em dead in a day. A teaspoonful on an empty stomach every morning will keep allergies at bay and is chock-full of nutrients and minerals. You can live on bee pollen and water.”
Caldwell also grows a strain of Bavarian chamomile that he’s cultivated over the last 15 years or so. He bought the best seed he could find from Germany and planted it on his farm. It all died with the first frost, but one plant came back in the spring, and he kept sowing the seeds of the successful plants until he had it popping up all over the farm. He now sells the flowers at market, along with blessed thistle, when available. “Together,” he says, “they make a tea that will cure just about anything that ails you.”
One of his newer projects is the night cream, which consists of a red algae genome in a base of shea butter and coconut oil. The algae is a type that grows in extreme conditions—enduring intense heat, cold, ultraviolet rays and rough, rocky seas. In response to nature’s brutality, the algae evolved and developed a gene called Porphyridium purpureum, which serves to protect the plant. He sells the night cream in partnership with a company called AlgEternal out of Weimar, Texas.
Caldwell raised five children on his farm, all of whom are either in college or have begun their own careers. These days he gets up with the dog about an hour before dawn and does the things you’d expect: planting, harvesting, fixing equipment and packing for the markets. He stays abreast of the latest plant and herbal news, and has a thirst for knowledge and a natural curiosity about life. He says the farm life suits him. Perhaps that’s because it runs in his blood.
By Laura Cherry • Photography by Pauline Stevens
Look for Leon Caldwell at the Barton Creek Farmers Market on Saturdays, the Lone Star Farmers Market in Bee Cave on Sundays and soon, the HOPE Farmers Market on Sundays in East Austin. For more information, visit comancheoaks.com or call 979-530-8309.