A Fork in the Road

Can the local food movement help Elgin reclaim its farming roots?


A version of this story ran in the February 2017 issue.

A Fork in the Road

Can the local food movement help Elgin reclaim its farming roots?

by Robyn Ross
February 21, 2017

Just east of the road that marks the boundary between Travis and Bastrop counties, the Austin Community College-Elgin building rises from the Blackland Prairie. Behind it, a 15-acre field set to become the school’s sustainable farm stretches toward the blocky two-story houses of a subdivision. Signs at campus entrances remind visitors they’re not in the city anymore: Poisonous snakes and insects inhabit the area. Alert: Bee hives on campus for academic purposes.

In late November, dozens of leaders in the Central Texas sustainable food movement braved those hazards and packed into a conference room in the building for a celebration of Elgin’s burgeoning local food scene. The occasion was a visit from native Texan Lillian Salerno, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) deputy undersecretary for rural development. She’d come from Washington, D.C., to announce that the city was one of 13 communities nationwide to receive funding from a USDA program that bolsters rural economies. The idea is to connect farmers with outlets for their harvest, including nearby restaurants and grocery stores. The recipient of the seed funding was the Texas Center for Local Food, an Elgin nonprofit formed in 2016 to solve related problems of rural Texas: the dearth of farmers, the loss of agricultural land and the uneven distribution of nutritious local food.

“We need to get to a place where people know there’s opportunity in rural areas,” Salerno told the crowd. “Sometimes we don’t recognize that our Texas roots are in agriculture — that’s where we come from, and it’s time to take it back.”

Elgin, at least, knows its roots. Founded as a railroad town and known for its brick plants and sausage, the city has been a farming hub since it was settled. Once dominated by cotton, area fields now produce corn, sorghum and wheat. But as housing prices in Austin, a half-hour west, squeeze residents to the suburbs, that soil is being paved over with subdivisions and strip malls. Elgin’s population grew by 43 percent from 2000 to 2010, and its current population of roughly 10,000 is expected to double by 2030.

Combine harvesters still shuttle across fields outside of town, but those fields are shrinking. Much of the land around Elgin is leased rather than owned by the farmers who work it. The landowners typically haven’t lived in Elgin for a long time and are hard-pressed to decline lucrative offers from developers. Meanwhile, low commodity prices coupled with weather problems make it difficult to earn a living through agriculture alone. The children of today’s middle-aged farmers are not, for the most part, following in their parents’ footsteps.

Elgin’s leaders have been thinking seriously about how the city can preserve its agricultural identity in the face of such drastic change. In 2010, residents voted to join the Austin Community College (ACC) taxing district, a deal that netted the city the shiny, LEED-certified campus. In addition to general education classes, ACC-Elgin offers specialized courses in veterinary technology and sustainable agriculture.

“When you look at a map of Texas, you see big cities, and around those are towns that have agricultural heritage that are becoming peri-urban or suburban bedroom communities and losing their community identity.”

Beginning in 2011, the city won several grants to study food as an economic development strategy. From these efforts emerged the Elgin Local Food Network, a few dozen residents who met for several years to find opportunities in Elgin’s food economy. The Texas Center for Local Food is the latest development. The project’s executive director, Sue Beckwith, wrote several of the grants and has been immersed in Elgin agriculture for the past 10 years. The center will help connect established farmers with markets for their products, help new farmers find land and resources, and offer expertise to rural economic development staff across Texas.

“When you look at a map of Texas, you see big cities, and around those are towns that have agricultural heritage that are becoming peri-urban or suburban bedroom communities and losing their community identity,” Beckwith said. “Where we are now with Elgin is a tipping point of being a regional center for local food and agricultural enterprise.”

Elgin farmer Alex Bernhardt sells his produce at local farmers markets and donates to after-school programs in Elgin elementary schools.  Jen Reel

On a warm winter Sunday, Alex Bernhardt is hawking his wares at the farmers market in Austin’s Mueller development. Napa cabbage and red peppers flank jars of daikon kimchi and cucumber-zucchini relish made with ingredients grown on his farm outside Elgin.

After 20 years in the food and beverage industry, Bernhardt got into farming when he and his wife moved to the family land to look after his aging father. Now his 6 acres produce table grapes, strawberries, shallots, endive, five types of kale, Star of David okra and a bounty of other fruits and vegetables. He also partners with the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts in Austin on a program that sends students to visit and work on area farms.

“Hopefully they gain an appreciation of all the hard work that goes into producing food locally and organically,” he said. “When they go on to become chefs, hopefully they understand the ups and downs of sourcing from local farms.” Small farms like Bernhardt’s are scattered throughout Travis, Bastrop, Lee and Williamson counties in Central Texas. Many have foregone organic certification because of the expense, but avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They sell at farmers markets or through community-supported agriculture subscriptions. This is the kind of farm the Texas Center for Local Food is most likely to help.

It’s a different model from the farming that dominates Elgin today: large-scale, conventional production of one or two crops at a time, often for animal feed. Farmers in both categories say the two circles don’t overlap much. But they face the common foes of harsh weather, irrigation challenges and the rising cost of land. “The value of the land has gotten too expensive for a farmer to even think about buying it and paying for it growing crops,” said Don Lundgren, 55, who grows conventional corn on mostly leased land. “When land goes out of production or changes hands, it’s not going to another farmer but to a subdivision.”

Having witnessed these struggles, the younger generation is not rushing into farming. Though Elgin High School annually enrolls more than 500 students in its roughly 15 agriculture courses, agriculture teacher and Future Farmers of America adviser Becky Maass knows few students who plan to return to the family farm after graduation. They are more likely to go into veterinary medicine, agricultural marketing or teaching.

“The grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” Maass said. “They don’t see farming as a money-making opportunity.”

And it’s difficult for adults like Bernhardt to make a midlife switch into farming. The up-front cost of infrastructure and equipment, plus the steep learning curve, can be prohibitive. That’s one reason city leaders asked ACC to start the sustainable agriculture program at the Elgin campus. Its curriculum is aimed at complete beginners and emphasizes hands-on experience in courses like soil science and small farm business planning.

Of course, even after they find land and learn the trade, farmers have to make a profit. That’s where Beckwith’s work comes in, one small, specific solution at a time. For instance, when produce doesn’t sell at a farmers market — because bad weather keeps shoppers away, or because every farm has a bumper crop of the same vegetable — the farmer loses money.

“If it’s the right temperature and all the stars align, every farmer suddenly has more cucumbers than they know what to do with,” said Bekki Callaway, who grows vegetables and raises chickens and pigs on 13 acres near Elgin. “You go to the farmers market and, ‘Wow, who do I buy cucumbers from?’ So farmers go home with excess product, and if they can’t do something with that, it’s going to the pigs. And you’ve spent a lot of time, money and effort harvesting it.”

But if extra or misshapen produce can be turned into a product such as a relish or jam, it gets a shelf life and diversifies the farmer’s income stream. Beckwith is coordinating a team that develops recipes, designs labels and calculates the potential profits from such products. One example is a spicy fermented cucumber relish that combined Callaway’s excess onions with unsold cucumbers from Bernhardt’s farm. Beckwith’s next step is visiting Austin stores to discuss the viability of selling such a small-batch product that’s only available sporadically.

The pilot project could help Elgin growers satisfy Austinites’ desire for local food products, Beckwith said, adding that many Texas-made relishes, jams and sauces sold with “local” labels are made from ingredients grown outside Texas. “If those products are not using Texas-grown ingredients, they are not supporting Texas agriculture,” she said. “They are supporting Texas small-batch manufacturing and entrepreneurism and small business development, and they bring in sales tax, which is huge for rural areas. But they’re not supporting Texas farmers.”

The sale of truly local value-added products would help recapture some of the food dollars that leave Texas. Beckwith compares the $25 billion in total Texas agricultural receipts with the $56 billion Texans spend on food each year. “Even if we could eat most of what we grow — which is not the case — we’re still leaking billions,” she said. “If we shifted just 3 to 5 percent of our food dollar to locally grown and made food, that’s money in the pockets of Texans.”

Sarah Jones uses local produce to teach children how to prepare food in an after-school class on local food and agriculture at Elgin Elementary School.  Jen Reel

The days are getting shorter, and the bright lights in the Neidig Elementary School cafeteria make the institutional space feel cozy compared with the darkening parking lot outside. A dozen third- and fourth-graders cluster around a table for their weekly after-school lesson about local food and agriculture. The leader, Sarah Jones, a former science teacher who gardens and keeps bees on 10 acres, asks for the group’s attention.

“I’m going to show you some ads, and you tell me what you think the ad is trying to say,” she says. She holds up a page, cut from a magazine, that advertises a canned pasta product. The photo is of a grinning youngster holding an oversize bunch of carrots, and the caption reads, “Behold the mythical veggie-loving kid.” Jones reads the copy aloud, then turns to her audience and asks, “Do you think this ad is written for kids or parents?”

“Parents!” the kids yell.

“I like vegetables,” a bespectacled fourth-grader named Leilani announces. “I don’t,” whispers third-grader Hussein.

Next, Jones passes out plastic chef’s knives and cutting mats, collard green leaves, carrots and chunks of cabbage. She demonstrates how to chop the carrots and cabbage and wrap them, burrito-style, into a collard leaf.

As Jones explains that the vegetables come from Bernhardt’s farm, Leilani absently tears off pieces of her collard leaf and pops them into her mouth. “It’s like Brussels sprouts leaves,” she says, and a few kids nod; two weeks earlier, the group had learned to chiffonade four kinds of leaves Bernhardt had provided. The arugula was too spicy for the children’s palates, but the Brussels sprouts leaves were a favorite.

The after-school program is one of several initiatives to connect the 4,300 students in the Elgin district with local food and farms. Neidig Elementary students also tend a school garden and learn to prepare healthy meals at mobile kitchen carts that can move from classroom to classroom. Older students learn about nutrition as part of chemistry lessons.

Getting more produce into schools is a hedge against the health problems that plague Bastrop County, where nearly one-third of adults are obese and more than 10 percent have diabetes. It’s also part of the school district’s effort to prevent hunger; 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Long term, the programs may also shape the perception of local food and who consumes it. The local and sustainable food movements can appear lofty and inaccessible. In a survey conducted by University of Texas students last year, longtime Elgin residents of color said they understood that local food was better for the environment but weren’t sure it was something they’d actually buy.

“There was that sense of, ‘Yeah, I see the benefits of local, but I don’t think it’s for me,’” said Kevin Thomas, an assistant professor of marketing and public relations at UT. Thomas co-taught the class, called Food and Urban Change, with Naya Jones; the two started the organization Food for Black Thought, which examines food justice through black experience. Respondents in the initial eight interviews suggested they liked the idea of local food, but found it to be expensive, less convenient and less likely to include foods they considered culturally appropriate.

Can Elgin shift the connotation of “local food” from consumer luxury to economic engine? One encouraging case study is the Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill, which opened in Elgin in 2007. The only certified organic feed mill in the state, Coyote Creek has become a key piece of local food infrastructure both for grain farmers who supply it and livestock producers who patronize it. CEO and General Manager Cameron Molberg said the mill sells about $1.5 million of feed in the Austin area each year, a figure that multiplies into $3.4 million of eggs and livestock sold by small family farms. Some area chicken farmers have started raising organic chickens specifically because they can get organic feed nearby. Molberg sources organic grain from a few farmers within 100 miles, but he says the opportunity is much larger, if he can find more farmers willing to transition to organic methods. The local food system is “a big spiderweb, and we’re missing a lot of the connecting points, but we’re getting there,” Molberg said.

Since adopting local food and agriculture as its small-town brand, Elgin has also seen the Elgin Agrarian Community break ground. One of the state’s first “agrihoods,” the 80-home development will be built around a small farm and include a brewery that uses local products in its beers. The city has attracted businesses including ATX Homemade Jerky and soul food restaurant Eva Mae’s with incentives. Companies that create jobs paying at least $13.50 per hour are eligible for city grants.

Local jobs are a game-changer for Elgin, where the majority of the workforce commutes to Austin on a toll road. In those circumstances, a $13.50-per-hour job is barely sustainable. But eliminate the commuting costs and time, and things start to look better. Stress decreases. Maybe there’s more time to cook. Maybe there’s money left over to shop at the farmers market.

“You become a part of the fabric of your own community,” Beckwith said. “There’s a distinct economic savings for the family, and there’s a distinct economic advantage and a community advantage.”

But working with small businesses is complicated. Pickle company Hat Creek Provisions moved its production to Elgin last fall amid great local fanfare. But less than two months after Hat Creek opened its new space, its attempt to scale up quickly left it with extra inventory and no extra cash — a common problem for packaged food companies trying to grow. The company’s CEO opted to outsource production to an Austin facility to improve efficiency. “I feel a ton of excitement about the potential of food manufacturing in Elgin, but it will take a united front of people that are committed to the economics of the cause,” then-president of Hat Creek Martha Pincoffs said. “It’s harder to make your own food. It’s more expensive and it’s more labor intensive.”

Sue Beckwith, executive director of the Texas Center for Local Food, at ATX Homemade Jerky in downtown Elgin.  Jen Reel

Such setbacks don’t deter Sue Beckwith, who attributes her optimistic disposition partly to growing up in Florida. “I was raised on Disney and NASA,” she said. “So there’s this idea that ‘We can do anything if we try hard enough’ — and I believe that.”

Beckwith was a project manager for the city of Austin before coming to Elgin in 2007 to help the team launching the World’s Best Eggs chicken farm and the Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill. After a stint in poultry farming, she became a grants administrator for Elgin, helping win money for the value-added product pilot and the Texas Center for Local Food.

Beckwith, whose warmth lies just behind a businesslike exterior, is respected at City Hall, on farms and throughout the Elgin community. But she can’t be everywhere, which is why she applied for the USDA grant announced in November. When combined with private donations, the $75,000 seed funding will let Beckwith hire a full-time “value chain coordinator” to expand the painstaking, deal-by-deal connection of Central Texas farmers to buyers and consumers.

“The average farmer and the average USDA employee is 60 years old. We need to act quickly to make the crossover to the economy we want.”

The USDA program is meant to bridge markets and suppliers, said USDA agricultural economist Jim Barham. A region might need more “hard infrastructure”: processing facilities, delivery trucks, all-weather farmers markets. But just as important is “soft infrastructure,” the people who know all the players and can connect them. “These people are generally undervalued in the food system,” Barham said. “They don’t have a truck, they aren’t the farmer or the chef, they are under the radar, but they’re actually the ones that make this all happen.”

Beckwith is already looking ahead to the next big project: the Elgin Local Food Center, a planned downtown building. The center will include a commercial kitchen and small-batch copacker, or food manufacturer, where staff will produce foods for multiple companies using those companies’ recipes and ingredients. The arrangement will serve farmers who occasionally have excess produce they want to preserve, but who can’t spend their own time pickling or canning. It will also benefit entrepreneurs who have outgrown their home kitchen but don’t yet have the volume to work with a commercial copacker. While the facility will serve Central Texas, it aims to be a prototype for other towns around the state.

“We believe we can bring back the farming middle class,” Beckwith told supporters at the November press conference, to hearty applause. But a note of urgency seeped into the celebration.

“The average farmer and the average USDA employee is 60 years old,” Salerno emphasized. “We need to act quickly to make the crossover to the economy we want.”

As the dignitaries left the ACC-Elgin campus, they followed County Line Road north. On one side of the road is the land that will become the student farm, mostly a Johnson grass-dotted field with a greenhouse and a small area in cultivation. After years of being used for only hay, the soil is leached of nutrients, and it will take a few years of active management for them to return. In the private land on the other side of the road, a sign in the cultivated field lets developers know the parcel is for sale.

This feature appears in the February 2017 issue of the Texas Observer. Read more from the issue or subscribe now.