Good for the Soil

by Published on

I have a vague childhood memory in which I proclaimed I might like to be a farmer. Though I grew up to be a committed urbanite, to this day I romanticize life on a farm. I grow herbs and vegetables year-round in a box garden. I occasionally keep chickens in my backyard. I promise you, before I die, I will acquire a pet goat or two.

Mostly though, I live out my farm dreams by reading books. I was glad to get my hands on a copy of Growing Good Things to Eat in Texas by Pamela Walker, with photos by Linda Walsh. The book delivers what the subtitle promises: Profiles of Organic Farmers and Ranchers Across the State. Walker isn’t an outsider looking in. She and her husband own a small farm near Schulenberg, and for years she helped organize the Bayou City Farmers’ Market.

In her introduction, Walker explains her process, eventually focusing on 11 farm families broken into three categories: fruit and vegetables, shrimp and meat, and dairy and cheese. Everyone makes a substantial part of their living (in some cases all of it) farming. Everyone uses organic practices, though only some pay for certification to prove it.

Which brings us to an interesting point regarding the business of farming. Sure, those of us who buy from farmers’ markets and other outlets for locally grown, organic food can enjoy our healthy, fresh veggies, meat, cheeses and herbs, and imagine the idyllic setting in which the foods were grown or raised. But the truth is, running a small farm, particularly an organic one, comes with so many risks, duties, demands and competition that the organic farmers have no time for romanticizing. Opting for certification shows how a good deal of time and investment is required on top of day-to-day chores.

Other pitfalls and challenges abound. Few have health insurance. Most had—some still have—outside work to supplement farm income. The business side of farming—from maintaining a Web presence, to working the markets, to dealing with wholesale accounts, to running “community supported agriculture” subscription services, to filling out government paperwork—means constant work, few vacations and not much in the way of savings to use if demand drops or the weather fails to cooperate.

Yet all the farmers profiled emphasize that a passion for raising crops and animals the right way drives them more than financial return. From Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler at Boggy Creek Farm to Bart and Patsy Reid of Permian Sea Organics—who raise shrimp in the desert—to the Bolton and Sweethardt families of Pure Luck Farm and Dairy, regardless of crop or herd, all have an intense personal connection to their work.

I confess I had a stereotype of “organic farmer” in mind when I began the book, one that involved hippie types thumbing their noses at the system. Walker spotlights several families who came to organic farming at least partly because of religious beliefs. Robert Hutchins of Rehoboth Ranch says, “We encourage biodiversity, but everything we do and the reasons for doing it are based on our Christian worldview.”

This book could serve as inspiration—or cautionary tale—for anyone contemplating trying out organic farming for profit, but another idea came to me as I read. I thought I might keep the book in my car as a sort of alternative atlas. Each section includes contact information for the farms, and I’m thinking, next time I’m nearby one, maybe I’ll call and ask for a little tour.

Spike Gillespie is a writer who lives in Austin and blogs at spikeg.com.