Lessons from the Past: A Trip to Slate Run Farm

Childhood memories are often fuzzy vignettes distorted by that magical quality of a child’s imagination.  Example: believing my neighbor’s sheepdog was really Barkley, the orange shaggy pet from Sesame Street. Or recalling with absolute certainty that when I was four I jumped from five steps up on the staircase onto a waiting mattress below and had actually managed to defy gravity and fly.  Looking back, I have to figure that these memories simply cannot be true.  So when I recently revisited a beloved place from my childhood while in Ohio, I was delighted to discover it is just as magical as my more easily-enchanted younger self thought it was.

A simple swing, a half dozen sets of wooden stilts, and a hoop and stick are enough to keep kids--and adults--entertained while wandering through Slate Run Farm

Slate Run Living Historical Farm, located in Canal Winchester, is modeled after an Ohio farm in the 1880′s.  While there you may see a farmer dressed in period costume plowing the fields with the assistance of a draft horse.  In the farmhouse the wood-burning stove is blazing and the women are busy canning and preserving the summer harvest.  It is a popular destination for school field trips and family outings, not only because it is full of interactive games and farm tasks, but because it inspires excitement about our agricultural heritage.  Everything on the farm is run as it would have been in the 1800′s, save for the care given to the animals who receive visits from the vet and are fed a modern and very nutritious diet.

Upon doing a bit of investigation, I discover that living historical farms can be found all around Texas, and are featured as centers of both education and recreation.  There is the Barrington Farm in Washington, Texas, where visitors are encouraged to explore and participate in many of the daily chores, such as driving oxen, planting and harvesting, and making soap.  Right here in Austin we have Pioneer Farms, where guests visit 5 different historic sites, from an 1841 Tonkawa Encampment to an 1887 Cotton Planter’s Farm.

Piglets snuggle for warmth in the hog shed

The interactive nature of these farms helps educate a generation that is oftentimes detached from agriculture and the food they eat.  It is, in a way, food transparency on a very basic level.  Living historical farms not only enlighten visitors to farming methods of the past, but for many people, introduce them to farming altogether.

Cuts of meat hang in the smokehouse

While at Slate Run Farm, my family and I take part in everything I remember from my visits as a child.  The stilts and horseshoes are still there.  We are handed a pail of eggs while walking through the farmhouse and are instructed to feed them to the pigs in the hog shed.  On the way over we visit the horses in the barn, but my brother still sneezes from the hay and has to leave the barn ahead of us.  I find him in the smokehouse, enjoying the rich smells of the cured meat.

These experiences are timeless, but not limited to historical farms.   Nearly every farmer I have met with during my time in Texas has encouraged folks to see the farm firsthand.  Many farms offer volunteer days as well, sometimes in exchange for a reduced price on produce. For both the young and the young at heart, it’s time to get out and get farming!

A hand-stitched side table cover brightens up the farmhouse decor

Legacy Outdoor Market in San Antonio

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of traveling south of Austin to San Antonio to visit the Legacy Outdoor Market. Joined by a couple of friends visiting from San Benito, we strolled from vendor to vendor, enjoying the sunny skies and the great bounty of fresh vegetables and delectable preserves the market has to offer.  The market runs every Sunday from 10-3pm and is located at the northeast corner of US Highways 281N and 1604. If you are feeling like your fridge is overloaded with kale and turnips, there is still reason to stop by this charming weekly event.  Legacy Outdoor Market features art and local music as well as handmade crafts such as candles, soap, and jewelry.  Here are some snaps from the day.  Enjoy!

A farmer from Estrada's Farm offers a sample of spicy black radish

Decorative succulents from Backyard Herbs. Other goods include herbs and vegetable seedlings

Market-goer Sarah Ropp marveling at some particularly stunning kohlrabi

HausBar Farms: Imagine the Compostability!

Dorsey Barger pries the top off of a 4 foot tall waste container and steps aside.  A subtle odor carried by the pre-storm breeze slithers out and wriggles into my nasal cavities.  Decomposing meat.  Not offensive, necessarily, but instinct drives my reaction.  My smile stays obediently in place while my nostrils twitch and my insides squirm. Black wasp-like insects bat about, and wriggling larvae snuggled between feather and bone catch the light from above.  Barger grins from ear to ear. “I can’t stand to throw anything away.”

One of HausBar's two donkeys stops grazing just long enough to pose for a picture in front of the hand-dug garden beds. No gas-powered tools are used on the farm, meaning each of the 51 garden beds was dug with pitchforks and shovels.

What I’m looking at is black soldier fly compost, a method of composting that uses black solider fly larvae to breakdown matter that cannot be added to traditional compost, such as dairy and meat waste.  When a black soldier fly detects a food source, she flies to the source and lays her eggs which hatch on the food and start eating, eating, eating.  When nature tells them it is time to become flies, they crawl out of a channel that is built into the compost bin and fall down a tube.  At the end of the tube the insects are scooped up by chickens who are waiting for the tasty treat.

“It’s almost a 100% conversion of protein,” she explains.  “It’s really an amazing little life cycle.”  I am touring HausBar Farms, an eco-conscious operation owned and run by Dorsey Barger, former co-owner of Austin’s Eastside Café, along with her partner Susan Hausmann.  They supply eggs, chicken and vegetables to Austin restaurants and food artisans.  It is a relatively new addition to the Eastside, but a welcome replacement to the crack houses that only a few years ago marred the now verdant 2 acre lot.  And just as the landscape of 3300 Govalle Avenue has changed dramatically, so has the path of Barger’s life.

Laying hens, taking a midday dirt bath to get rid of mites

“When we started Eastside Café, I didn’t even know what a vegetable growing out of the ground looked like,” she claims.  Barger has clearly gone through a huge transformation in the past 20 years, from a number-crunching restaurant owner to an impassioned urban farmer with a healthy obsession with composting.  When she was put in charge of the garden behind Eastside Café in 2007, something clicked.  “As soon as that happened, I fell madly in love with gardening and chickens.”  She had 3 chickens to start with.  Within a year, that number grew to 300.  “It was just something I fell so in love with.”

But it is Barger’s passion for recycling that truly drives the way HausBar functions.  Besides the black soldier fly composting used to handle the leftovers from the chicken butchery (of which there is not much!  They use nearly every bit of the chickens–brains, eyes, gizzards, feet, etc.), the farm uses three other methods that convert would-be waste into nitrogen and vitamin rich soil.

Kale, kohlrabi, lettuce and radishes spring up in the garden beds

The first method puts the chickens, donkeys, and goat to work.   Mulch from a tree trimming company is spread out on the ground where the chickens and other animals like to peck around.  Between the scratching, eating, and pooping, the mulch is quickly turned to compost that is then put through a screener and used on the garden beds.

Crumbly worm castings assure Dorsey Barger that her soil is rich and healthy

The second method is vermicomposting, which uses worms–usually red wrigglers–to break down organic material into nutrient-rich worm castings. Barger keeps the worms and food scraps in an outdoor bin.  When the worm castings are ready for use in the gardens, she places bananas in a corner of the bin, drawing the worms to migrate to that one area and leaving the rest of the bin clear for harvest.

The last method is fairly common and requires very little to start up.  Thermophilic (heat) composting uses moisture and oxygen to fuel naturally occurring microbes that break down organic matter.  It is the biological action of the microbes consuming the waste that heats up the compost pile, and all that is required to keep this heating and decomposition going is the occasional turning of the compost as well as the introduction of water.

By utilizing all of these composting techniques, HausBar not only recycles the waste created on the farm but also organic waste from local landscaping companies.  The reuse of these materials greatly benefits the earth by diverting organic matter from landfills where it would go through anaerobic decomposition, releasing methane gas into the atmosphere.  It is also a boon to gardeners who are able to return nutrients to the soil, benefiting the health of their crops.  Barger points out one very special product of her compost operation, feather meal, which is a nitrogen-rich powder made of broken down and ground up feathers.  It can be a fairly expensive addition to gardens, but that is a non-issue at HausBar Farms where the waste-not want-not attitude prevails.  “We get our feather meal by taking our own feathers and turning them into compost.  All these little things are so exciting to us!”

Multi-colored eggs, so fresh they are still warm to the touch

Barger is in constant exploration of new and more efficient ways of running her farm.  She builds, experiments, tests, fiddles and makes things up on the spot.  One of her successful undertakings is a mobile feed house that allows chickens–and only chickens–to wander freely in and out throughout the day with constant access to their food while keeping out curious donkeys and goats.  Right now she is experimenting with ways to raise rabbits outside of a cage, a trial made difficult by predatory hawks.

A newborn rabbit, eyes still closed

After nearly two hours of guiding me through her farm, Barger says it is time to get back to work.  It takes me a moment to regain my role as interviewer, as I have gladly fallen into the part of eager student and lost all sense of time.  She extends an open invitation to return and explore further, and I gobble it up hungrily.  Dorsey Barger has led me through an inspiring and educational day, the kind of day I hope to return to over and over.

Dai Due Butcher Shop

This past week I stopped by Dai Due to talk with chef Jesse Griffiths about his seasonal and locally-sourced menu of sausages and charcuterie.  Roxanne Rathge, my fellow intern at Real Time Farms, teamed up with me as we toured the operation.  Enjoy!

“Dai due regni di natura, piglia il cibo con misura”

“From the two kingdoms of nature, choose food with care.”

A Glimpse at 5 Mile Farms

5 Mile Farms is doing something very different, and people are taking notice.  This week I met up with the founder, Randy Jewart, to talk about his goals and hopes for the farm and what makes it stand out from the crowd.

Randy Jewart takes time during the HOPE Farmers Market to discuss the many facets of his decentralized urban farm

Five years ago, Randy and his friends started building a 4 foot by 4 foot garden behind his apartment building.  When construction began, neighborhood kids came out and started helping, and all of a sudden the entire community was involved in his modest garden project.  “I thought it was some sort of miracle,” he says.  “It was like a once in a lifetime happening, but as it turns out, every time you build a garden the same thing happens again.”  And so the idea for 5 Mile Farms took root.

Two years ago Randy started a pilot project with 3 yard farms to see how he could bring farming into the community through backyard farm space, and in May of last year 5 Mile Farms was officially launched.  The team constructs gardens in homeowners yards to be used as land for the CSA program, and now 16 yard sites are in full operation.

“The heart of what 5 Mile Farms is about is not about running a CSA,” Randy notes.  “If we wanted to run a CSA we would just move outside of town and build a big farm.  What we are trying to do is really a community building project.  It is about relationships between people.”

The business model can be broken down into three parts:

  • Picking up produce, just like a traditional CSA program.
  • Education.  This includes workshop series and volunteer opportunities.  Topics range from gardening and landscaping to pickling and butchery.
  • Eating together.  5 Mile Farms’ “Farm Feast” is open to the public and incorporates educational discussions with a dining experience that makes people engage on a deeper level than the comparably isolated experience of eating at a restaurant.

    Outside of the "barn" at Resolution Farm, one of the sites for 5 Mile Farms

    “Because people are helping and doing all these things–making things and growing food and exchanging money and produce, you’re building this little community of people,” Randy explains.  “We’re building something that’s too real to fail.”