By Spike Gillespie
Photography by Jody Horton
Dorsey Barger stands amid her recently acquired flock of 200 chickens and describes how the girls greet her each day. “In the morning, I grab the bucket of feed and let the hens out,” she says. Then, taking swift, deliberate strides in order to keep from being tripped in the excitement of so many hungry, flapping critters, Barger makes her way to the feeding bin to dump the food. Once there, the fowl followers suddenly stop and stare up at her in quiet unison.
“They surround me and, all at once, make a sound that sounds something like Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” she says, doing a spot-on impersonation.
The chorus’s song suggests surprise and delight at the offering, even though the routine is the same every day. But it’s a reaction that seems fitting for the newly hatched, two-acre farm on Govalle Avenue in East Austin. For Barger and her partner, Susan Hausmann, the delightful surprises come in the form of new responsibilities as urban farmers.
When Barger and Hausmann first saw the property, it featured a couple of abandoned crack houses and was covered in junk. Still, they saw great potential and purchased the lot. They tore down one house, transformed the second into a henhouse of admirable size and hauled off the mountains of debris. Then they found an old house on Meriden Street that was slated for demolition, paid to have it moved, gutted it and refurbished it into cozy living quarters. There are plans to eventually build their dream house on the back of the property and use the little front house as a guest cottage, but for now, they’ve settled in nicely at the newly named HausBar Farms.
Since acquiring the land last July, things have moved quickly. The birds arrived in mid-December (from Arkansas via Austin’s Vital Farms), and the humans followed suit a couple weeks later. The farm is currently awaiting organic certification, but the practices and guidelines are old hat to Barger. As co-owner of Austin’s Eastside Cafe—famous for its lush, on-site vegetable gardens—she’s been an active proponent and promoter of organic food and recycling long before they became popular. The hard part of the operation, says Barger, all preceded the move. “This was a huge financial investment, and the economic downturn made financing hard.” Beyond that, six very cold weeks at the start made morning feedings memorable as Barger froze her fingers getting up with the girls. These days, though, the biggest challenge is when a hawk flies over looking for a snack.
Currently, all of HausBar Farms’s chickens are laying birds, though some will eventually be used for meat. Barger supplements the free-ranging birds’ ground grub with organic feed from Coyote Creek and Vital Farms. And now Eastside Cafe is completely out of what Barger calls “the disgusting factory-egg cycle,” as her birds provide all the eggs used at the eatery.
Barger estimates that 30–50 percent of the restaurant’s veggies are grown between the café’s gardens and HausBar Farms’s gardens, but there are big plans to expand the crops. “The dirt—old river-bottom soil—was already great when we got here,” says Barger. “It lay fallow for fifteen years.” When an expert came out to test the soil to recommend what soil amendments they’d need, he was amazed.
To prepare for the future bounty, the latest addition to the farm is a washing station converted from the former garage. It features sinks and refrigeration units to allow for on-site processing and proper storage of eggs and produce.
Wearing her new hat as urban farmer thrills Barger, who says she couldn’t be more excited if she were laying the eggs herself. Already, she’s imagining growing her role, and it just so happens that Hausmann’s family has 95 acres in La Grange. The pair is imagining the possibilities—more crops, or perhaps even grassfed beef.
For the moment, though, Barger is content to tend to her current duties at HausBar, which include hopping out of bed each morning thinking, I’m an urban farmer! and making her way out to that collective and cheery Ohhhhhhhhhh that awaits.