There is no mistaking Hairston Creek as you drive up County Road 335 toward the farm that bears its name. It is a big creek, with clear, crystal-green pools that suggest underground springs and year-round fishing. Sprawling pecans and cottonwoods dot its banks, tracing its course through the Hill Country.
Ezekiel Hairston settled on the creek in the 1850s and found the alluvial soil to be some of the richest in Burnet County. The present day Hairston Creek Farm occupies thirty of Ezekiel’s most arable acres. The soil here is deep, and the fields are flat as a gridiron, easy to plow and safely above the floodplain.
In 1990, farmer Gary Rowland and his wife, Sarah, bought the property, and in 1993 they obtained one of the first organic certifications in the state. At the time, Whole Foods was just beginning to expand, and the chain was happy to buy all the pesticide-free vegetables the Rowland family could provide. Gary and Sarah continued running the farm until Sarah’s untimely death in 2012. Gary soldiered on, but once the couple’s three children were grown and pursuing their own careers, it became increasingly difficult for him to go it alone.
Rowland found himself in a very common predicament: needing to find young farmers to take over his farm. Farming is physically punishing work, yet the average age of a farmer in the United States is 58. At the present moment, there are six farmers over 65 for every farmer under 35. Additionally, 80 percent of American farms are expected to change hands in the next ten years, with most of them falling into the hands of agribusiness conglomerates. This wasn’t the fate Rowland wanted for Hairston Creek.
Rowland’s friend John Simmons mentioned his daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Rob Beall, might be interested. The couple met while Rob was getting his associates degree in Wind Energy and Turbine Technology. “One of the things I found out after I got my degree was, if you want to work in the wind energy field,” Rob says, “you have to live in the middle of nowhere. Literally.”
Sharing an intense love of music, they settled in Austin instead, and they opened a bicycle rental business called Bikes on Bikes. Using specially built cargo bikes, they transported rental bicycles around the city, leaving a zero carbon footprint. The business did well for five years, but eventually, Austin’s bike rental market became glutted and they needed to find a new “green” business. The birth of their daughter, Winnie, only made it that much more important to them to leave a livable planet behind.
Organic farming fit the bill. To prepare for the transition, Hannah took Farmshare Austin’s “Farmer Starter” program in the spring of 2018. “I wanted to make sure I understood the challenges of farming, especially the business side,” Hannah says. “Was this something I really wanted to do? Better to find out before making a big commitment.” She and Rob moved to Hairston Creek Farm in July. They spent six months farming alongside Rowland, learning the farm’s particular rhythms as well as where and how to sell what they grew. Then, this January, they took the reins.
Their first goal is to build the business back up to its former prosperity, hopefully by the end of the year. This includes expanding the farm's CSA, a program in which members make a seasonal commitment to the farm and receive a weekly or bi-weekly share of the farm's bounty in return. “We are looking to increase our CSA boxes up to 100 a week,” Hannah says. “It’s going to take time, but we do have one of the best CSA boxes around.”
“We also have a secret weapon,” says Rob. “Our eggs.” The Hairston Creek Rhode Island Reds have the run of the farm during the day, and they are spectacular, visibly contented birds. Their eggs have always been in high demand, and CSA box customers can request a dozen. This summer, the CSA boxes will feature sweet peppers, jalapeño peppers, basil, pickling cucumbers, potatoes, okra, shishito peppers, onions and heirloom tomatoes, including Cherokee Purples, Sungolds and San Marzanos.
The Bealls are also renting campsites along breathtaking Hairston Creek via the website HipCamp. Unlike overcrowded State Parks, the area along the creek is secluded and peaceful. You can even see the stars at night. “We are really close to Spider Mountain Bike Park, the only mountain bike park in Texas with a bike lift,” says Rob. “And it’s not far to Ink’s Lake and Lake Buchanan.”
You know those cargo bikes they used to transport rental bikes around? It turns out they are perfect for transporting flats of produce in from the fields. Each cargo bike can carry up to ten cargo flats at a time. “And they are far more reliable than the tractor,” says Hannah. “It gives me hope when I see all the ways farming can be even more sustainable.”
For more information, visit facebook.com/hairstoncreekfarm
By KM Thornberry • Photography by Andy Sams