Grow Forth and Conquer

By Rob Hodges

Five-fifty a.m. I reach for the alarm, roll out of bed and throw on ragged clothes. Climbing down in the dark from the bamboo-and-thatch tree house, I make a pit stop at the compost toilet, then stumble to the boot room. The hogs await, bellowing in anticipation. Once in the pen—shovel and five-gallon bucket in hand—the wrestling begins. The 200-pound hog is a formidable opponent—throwing his weight around, knocking me off balance and slamming me into the pen. But I’m in control (sort of).

I stand my ground; the swine backs down—all while standing deep in fetid, soupy pig scat, which is exactly what I’m after. Each hog (two more wait in their pens) produces enough excrement daily to fill the bucket. When full, the bucket is carefully lifted over the pen and passed to my partner, who pours the contents into the bio-fuel generator that provides about 30 percent of the power for the farm’s stove. 


For one month, that was my reality at a rural farm on the coast of Ecuador, where I was enrolled in an intensive course on organic agriculture and permaculture. Other daily chores at the farm were far less foul but just as memorable—cutting sugarcane for the horses with a machete, and feeding the guinea pigs that lived in raised cages with mesh floors so their poop could fall into earthworm beds. The experience was a crash course in sustainable living and food production, and it made a huge impression that I strive to replicate in small ways back home.

I had the “luxury” of this unique experience because I was on an extended trip in South America.

But you don’t have to travel to exotic locales for a similar experience. Learning and volunteer opportunities abound in Central Texas, and even better, they’re tailored to our climate. While you might not surf on the weekends or make bowls and utensils out of tropical gourds, you can learn many of the same life-changing agricultural skills I did, such as canning food, various composting techniques, beekeeping and making organic fertilizers. Meet some local folks who have done just that.

ANNE HARGROVE, FORAGER

When University of Texas social work student Anne Hargrove saw the wild edible plant walk advertised on the Sustainable Food Center’s website in spring 2009, she knew she had to sign up. Offered by Edible Yards owner—and regular Edible Austin contributor—Amy Crowell, the class was just what Hargrove had been seeking. “When I first got interested in foraging,” says Hargrove, “I found out that a lot of people doing it were chefs or in the restaurant industry, and they were all very secretive about where they foraged because they didn’t want other people taking it. When I found out about Amy’s class, I thought it was great because not only was she going to tell us where to go, but also help us identify things and give us all the information I wanted.”

The class met at Big Stacy Park in South Austin, where Crowell provided an introduction, tips and protocol. Then the participants walked the park while Crowell identified edible plants and explained when they could be harvested and what could be done with them.

Hargrove now mostly forages in her Hyde Park neighborhood on walks with her Great Dane, Pixel. She looks for wild edibles in public spaces along sidewalks or on property owned by people she knows. “I live in an apartment, so I don’t have space to grow my own,” Hargrove says. “So it’s great to be able to walk outside my door and, in a sense, have my own garden.”

Some of her favorite plants to find are amaranth, dayflowers, prickly pears, bamboo, pecans, figs and oxalis. Because a lot of the wild edibles are highly perishable, she only takes what she can eat that day. She takes along a couple of field guides and does not pick a plant if she is not 100 percent sure what it is.

“I would highly recommend taking one of Amy’s classes or going out with someone who has been foraging,” says Hargrove. “I also recommend getting Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest: A Practical Guide.”

TYSON AND CARRIE BROWN, GARDENERS

Before purchasing Pecan Springs Farm in East Austin in 2007, Tyson Brown jokes that he had two Brown thumbs. He and his wife, Carrie, previously lived in apartments and knew nothing about agriculture, but they fell in love with the house and two-acre property that had previously been a garlic farm, just 10 minutes from downtown.

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“The previous owner started with just two plants in the early or mid-1990s,” says Tyson. “He was growing organic elephant garlic, and it just started going crazy. Part of our buyer’s agreement was to let him have that last crop. I helped them harvest, and they walked me through the whole growing, maintaining and harvesting process.”

Overwhelmed by the size of the property and their relative lack of gardening knowledge, the Browns were nonetheless excited about their setup, which included irrigation lines, a 2,500-gallon rainwater collection tank and solar panels. They planned to take it slowly, though, by skipping the first year and learning from research and experimentation. But when garlic started coming up on its own, they adopted Plan B. “I pulled it out and planted what I could,” Tyson recalls. “Then, two years ago, we planted some more, ate that and gave quite a bit away. We planted again last year and harvested it in June and sold some of it to Greenling. Then, we just planted some again.”

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Along the way, the Browns were introduced to Randy Jewart, owner of Resolution Gardens, a subsidiary of Austin Green Art that helps people establish yard farms and connects them with local establishments for small-scale commercial distribution. An agreement was reached in which Resolution Gardens would plant, maintain, harvest and sell eight rows, while the Browns would keep two rows of garlic for themselves. “Last season, [Resolution Gardens] grew kale and sold it to Daily Juice, Wheatsville, Greenling and Casa de Luz,” says Tyson. “This year, they will be selling kale and collards to Rio’s Brazilian Café and Whip In, too. We’ll probably end up selling some of the garlic to Greenling again.” Compost from Daily Juice’s and Wheatsville’s vegetable scraps is used on the Browns’ plot, so the partnership goes full circle.

“The way that we approached it with Randy is that we want to help them as much as possible. They’re doing a really great thing by promoting yard farming and locally grown produce, and so we just figured we have the setup already, they’re wanting to do this, so we’ll help them out in any way possible,” says Tyson. “Plus, it’s a huge learning experience for us,” interjects Carrie.

MARJORY WILDCRAFT, HOMESTEADER

Marjory Wildcraft came to organic agriculture and sustainable living from a political angle. She and her husband, Dave, were previously real estate investors who, around 2003, became alarmed at the potential instability of the financial markets and peak oil, as well as alternative 9/11 theories. Deciding to walk the walk, they liquefied their assets, bought land in Bastrop County and moved their family of four to their new homestead and learned to live sustainably. They took classes like Citizen Forester at TreeFolks, and homesteading courses on topics such as goat milking, beekeeping, soap making and biointensive gardening, offered by Homestead Heritage and World Hunger Relief, Inc. They even earned a permaculture design certification.

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“We ended up starting to teach ourselves, and we started getting reasonably proficient at growing our own food,” Marjory says. The couple sponsored workshops on wildfire preparedness, alternative currencies and barter circles. Eventually, the demand for their workshops grew so much that they were teaching every weekend, which led to the creation of their DVD, Food Production Systems for a Backyard or Small Farm (available from their website, backyardfoodproduction.com).

“In my opinion, growing food and being able to sustain yourself is such an important skill that I would recommend taking any [class] you can,” Marjory says. “The lifestyle change has been so incredible, so rewarding and so healthy. We’re eating such high-quality food, getting exercise, and my level of health is increasing all the time. I’m really enjoying the work I do; it’s deeply meaningful.”

MARY HILLEMEIER, FARMING MENTOR

Mary Hillemeier’s odyssey began when she started working at an Italian restaurant in New York City with a cook who was passionate about quality ingredients and farmers markets. Hillemeier got into cooking, began volunteering at a community garden and, eventually, realized her life needed a major shake-up. She saved money, found a farm in El Bolsón, Argentina, that accepted volunteers and spent four months there working in the garden, greenhouse and farmers market, as well as learning about preserving food and stocking the cellar.

Later, Hillemeier moved to Salta, Argentina, where she worked for about three and a half months on a farm that produced goat cheese. She milked goats, tended to horses and planted trees. “It didn’t really hit me until I was [in Argentina] how much I missed gardening and how much I loved it,” Hillemeier recalls. “I had forgotten how much better food tasted and how much more connected I felt. I also realized how universal that experience is, and I was able to connect with people that I could hardly speak with. There’s something bonding about working outside with someone and then cooking with them every day.”

After those unique experiences, Hillemeier returned to New York City, took an internship with a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and rooftop garden in a Manhattan housing unit and worked in a restaurant that did local sourcing. But while she stayed very active in the urban agriculture scene, she found herself wanting to be outdoors and actually farming on a regular basis. Hillemeier had a background working with youth, and she wanted to merge those interests, as well. Online research led her to Austin’s Urban Roots, the YouthLaunch program that uses sustainable agriculture to empower young people and increase community access to healthy food.

She applied for, and received, a one-year stipend from AmeriCorps VISTA to work at Urban Roots, and she moved to Austin last April. She quickly became very active in the local agriculture scene. “I took the Citizen Gardener course because I hadn’t farmed or gardened much in Central Texas,” she says. “I wanted to know about the differences and challenges that are here, and get more of an idea of what’s going on in the Austin community.” She completed her Citizen Gardener volunteer hours at Urban Patchwork, the local neighborhood farm nonprofit where she continues to volunteer. Additionally, she volunteers with Green Corn Project, where she completed the training to be a dig-in leader on gardening projects this spring.

Hillemeier loves Austin and the enthusiasm of the local food movement. When her AmeriCorps VISTA term with Urban Roots ends, she plans to remain here and stay involved with some aspect of farming or cooking education.


MARIE TEDEI, FARMER

Just over three years ago, Marie Tedei was an experienced landscape horticulturalist who owned 14 acres in Balch Springs (just outside Dallas), but knew nothing about farming. Then in 2007, at a conference in Mesquite, she met Brad Stufflebeam—owner of Home Sweet Farm in Brenham and then-president of Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA).

showing-off-snowball“Brad was the first person to point out that I really had a good opportunity,” she recalls. “He said ‘Why aren’t you growing food?’” He planted that seed, told her about CSAs and guided her toward resources, such as his own blog posts that outlined what he had planted on how much land for his 25-member CSA program. He sent Tedei instructional e-mails on how she could do the same. “He is my main farm mentor,” Tedei says. “He told me which cover crops to plant for sandy soil versus clay soil. He told me not necessarily which varieties, but quantities of vegetables to plant.”

In fall 2008, Tedei started her own CSA program called Eden’s Organic Garden Center. Eighty people initially responded to her call for members, and she had to turn many away. The first season was terrible—mostly because of weather—but Stufflebeam was there all along with encouragement.

Since her initial season and Stufflebeam’s mentorship, Tedei has come a long way. Focused on public outreach, she makes regular public appearances and offers farm tours and internships. She has an on-site farmers market, offers farmer-training classes, shows films about food sustainability and co-hosts events like Farm Day with the local library and Chefs for Farmers, which paired local chefs and farmers for a fundraiser meal. Currently, she’s looking into creating a memorial edible forest where people can donate a fruit tree in the name of a loved one.

“What started out as a good idea—a way to make a living—has really turned into something I’m passionate about,” says Tedei. “Most people would tell you I’m pretty passionate about trying to get people to be able to eat good, healthy, clean food. We need to find a way to make it available to them.” That’s one of the reasons she offers workshares. If people don’t have the money for a CSA-program membership, or they just want to learn how to farm, they can talk to her about a sliding-scale workshare membership.

“We need to teach the younger people how to farm, and we need to show them—like Brad did to me—how this can be a viable living,” Tedei says. “I mean, I’m not rich. I don’t have 200 people. I’m still struggling, and North Texas is not the easiest place to farm. Fertility is a huge issue, and water is a huge issue.”

Yet, the struggles are worth it for Tedei. “What I love the best,” she says, “is when I get a letter from a mom that says, ‘My kids are eating vegetables for the first time in so many years because they met you. They want to know if this dish in front of them came from your farm, and then they’ll try it.’ That really makes me feel good. This is a really fulfilling way to make a living. I’ve made a living a lot of different ways since I started working at 15 years old, and there’s been nothing to compare to doing this.”

RESOURCES

Austin Permaculture Guild: austinperm.com
Backyard Food Production: backyardfoodproduction.com
Break it Down: breakitdownaustin.org
Citizen Gardener: citizengardener.grouply.com
Edible Yards: edibleyards.com
Green Corn Project: greencornproject.org
Home Sweet Farm: homesweetfarm.com
Homestead Heritage: homesteadheritage.com
Johnson’s Backyard Garden: jbgorganic.com
Master Gardener classes: aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/mastergardener
Natural Gardener: naturalgardeneraustin.com
Resolution Gardens: resolutiongardens.com
Sustainable Food Center: sustainablefoodcenter.org
TreeFolks: treefolks.org
Urban Patchwork: urbanpatchwork.org
Urban Roots: youthlaunch.org/programs/seeds
Wildflower School of Botanical Medicine: nicoletelkes.com/classes.htm
World Hunger Relief, Inc.: worldhungerrelief.org
Yard Farm Austin: yardfarmaustin.com