With its vast open spaces and culture of possibility, Texas cries out to young farmers. The state has a way of getting under your skin, not to mention your fingernails. But somewhere between inspiration and perspiration, you’ve got to take the practical step: find some dirt you can dig in. And the reality is this: Land often looms as the largest up-front cost for new farmers. Here are four newbies who each found creative solutions to the land dilemma, from stitching together a patchwork of parcels to borrowing unused backyards.
TRADING WORK FOR DIRT
PHOTO BY THORPE GRINER
Rooted Heart Farm, Denton
Starting with yoga, lifestyle changes led Courtney Swearingen, 24, down the garden path to farming while she was getting her anthropology degree at the University of North Texas. “I got more interested in where my food comes from and wanted to take it right to the source: growing food,” she says.
A farm internship in 2013 at Cardo’s Farm Project in Denton ultimately led to a unique trade-out offer in December 2015. “It’s not about the money,” says Cardo’s owner Amanda Austin, also market manager at Coppell Farmers Market. “She leases for labor,” Amanda says. “I owned and operated the farm for six years, and Courtney worked four of those six years, first as a student volunteer, then as a [paid] crew leader.”
As the Coppell Farmers Market opportunity was coming together, Amanda wanted someone who would continue to nurture her urban plot. “Courtney was on my mind.”
Volunteering at Cardo’s “lit a spark,” Courtney says. “My goal in life is to own my own land.” But in the meantime, she started overseeing Cardo’s, seed to market, calling her half-acre venture Rooted Heart Farm. “I’d never done it from start to finish,” she says. “I’ve never run a business before.” She gets to sell everything she grows and recently took her first harvest to Denton Community Market.
She doesn’t support herself with farming—yet. She also teaches yoga and works at Audacity Brew House. The agreement with Amanda is for Courtney to work the land until Amanda returns to farming fulltime or until Courtney finds a plot or her own—“whichever comes first,” says Courtney.
Sells at/to: Denton Community Market, Hannah’s Off the Square, Barley & Board, Chestnut Tree (all in Denton). FB: Rooted Heart Farm
ALL IN THE FAMILY
PHOTO BY BEN FREY
Bois d’Arc Meat Co., Allens Chapel
I’m 34 years old,” says Thomas Locke. “I love farming the land, honoring the land…. This is where I want to be.” The land has been in his family since 1850, but farming wasn’t always on his radar. He was looking for something—he just didn’t know what—after graduating from Austin College. Farming started tugging at him while he worked in the nonprofit sector. “I think it was learning about Polyface Farms and Joel Salatin that first got me interested in sustainable livestock operations.” That, and a culinary curiosity about foods.
Locke put his interest to the test with farm internships in North Carolina, where wife-to-be Gillian was attending Duke University. “I quit my job to take a job on a winter-only vegetable farm,” he says. “I worked till the sun went down and didn’t get scared away by it.” Meeting Bill Mollison, the father of permaculture, further whetted his appetite.
“Gillian and I would have found land in North Carolina or Texas,” says Thomas, who started Bois d’Arc Meat Co. with his uncle Gordon Locke on the northeast Texas family parcel. The generations-old connection to the land made his and Gordon’s venture sweeter, he says. “I fell in love with sustainable agriculture, and…. I spent countless hours on the land as a child.”
When the Locke family came to Texas from Tennessee, the farm encompassed 600 or 700 acres, Thomas says. “They settled on the plot where the house is.” Over time, it was split up among subsequent generations.
“My great-grandmother Susie Locke put a lot of the original farm back together,” he says. It currently includes 160 contiguous acres, plus smaller isolated patches. Gordon owns the land with Thomas’ father. Thomas joined the venture in 2014.
Today, he and Gordon keep flocks of chickens, one for egg layers and one for broilers, whose houses on skids (designed by Gordon) allow tractoring from pasture to pasture. They also keep Red Wattle and Gloucestershire Old Spots heritage pigs, and they run a small herd of Angus-Hereford-cross cattle. “They are born on the farm,” Thomas says, “and all they eat is grass.” Adds Gordon: “It’s called ‘mob grazing.’ We have small paddocks, lots of cows and move them every day.”
“It mimics buffalo on the plains,” Thomas says.
Sells at: Dallas Farmers Market. FB: Bois D’Arc Meat Co.
BUY A USED FARM
PHOTO BY JANNA SMILEY
The Williams Family
Grow it Forward Farm, Edom
Former game and wildlife biologist Doug Williams, 42, has farmed one way or another since his high school days in Terrell. He started working gardens at houses, he says, in partnership with a big produce stand. Later as a biologist, habitat management was central to his job. “I farmed year-round,” he says, “whether for wildlife or people.”
The transition to a family farm for wife Dacia and their two kids started when Doug was farming part-time with David Henry in Athens. “We were farming for him, then found this farm in Edom.
The Walker Pea Farm sold peas on the floor of the [Dallas Farmers] market for years.” After the owner passed away, the Williamses stepped up. “We own 70 acres right here in Edom. Basically, I can walk to the city limits.”
They work a patchwork of other plots—some leased, some that friends let him farm for free. Because his primary parcel is bottom land (prone to flooding), he added higher ground for spring crops. Plus, other parcels give him better conservation options. “We’re non-conventional,” he says. “We farm organically.” His plantings range from cantaloupe and watermelon to peas, beans and tomatoes— and a small portion of sugar cane as the farm is in an area historically famous for its ribbon cane syrup. “A lot of old-timers tell me they remember loading up ribbon cane and going to the mill.”
The kids were a significant factor in the Williamses’ decision to quit their day jobs and farm full-time. Dacia was a teacher who now home-schools Hunter, 12, and Madison, 9, as well as keeping the farm humming. “The decision for me was them,” Doug says, “to be at home on the farm…. I dove off the Olympic high dive.
We had a little money saved and put everything we had into this land.” In addition to securing a mortgage, they purchased a tractor and implements and built a barn. “We just worked. Sometimes you have to take a risk. I think we’ve got a good thing going.”
Sells at/to: Dallas Farmers Market, Athens Farmers Market, Brookshire’s, Field to Meal. FB: Grow It Forward Farm LLC.
‘JUST ASK’ FOR SWAPS
PHOTO BY JOY ZHANG
Chandler Family Farm, Mabank
After a seven-year detour to other parts of the country following graduation from Texas Woman’s University, Jennifer Chandler, 35, is back home with a 3-year-old son in tow. “I grew up on a dairy farm in Mabank,” she says, “and after working 10 years in vet clinics, I decided I was going to move into horticulture.” Her dad was the dairy farmer and ran the dairy. “We still have the dairy,” Jennifer says, “but he no longer milks. He runs beef cattle now.”
She’s been able to use her father’s connections to set up some of her fields on other people’s land just for the pickin’s. “Dad’s an old farmer. He knows everyone. People have all this land that they’re not using, and [I] ask to use it in return for what they can pick for their family. We’ve got a two-acre watermelon patch behind one family’s house.”
Father and daughter makes their homes on the family land, where they also farm. “I’m very fortunate there’s land in the family,” she says. In addition to growing fruits and vegetables, she leases two pastures for her cows and raises calves to sell. She just joined two other farms to start Deep Roots CSA.
Despite the long hours and often lonely work, Jennifer loves farming. “I love being outside,” she says. “I love being in the dirt.” And she treasures giving her son a chance to grow up on a farm as she did. “It’s so important for him to know how to survive, where food comes from and how to grow it. For most kids, it comes out of a grocery store…. He also gets to know and understand hard work—working for what you want.”
Sells at: Good Local farmers markets. FB: Chandler Family Farm. Deep Roots CSA: deeprootscsa.net.
KIM PIERCE is a Dallas freelance writer and editor who’s covered farmers markets and the locavore scene for some 30 years, including continuing coverage at The Dallas Morning News. She came by this passion writing about food, health, nutrition and wine. She and her partner nurture a backyard garden (no chickens – yet) and support local producers and those who grow foods sustainably. Back in the day, she co-authored The Phytopia Cookbook and more recently helped a team of writers win a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook Award for The Oxford Encyclopedia for Food and Drink in America.