By Jessica Dupuy
At first glance, Elgin is one of those quaint small towns east of Austin with a historic district and a laid-back feel. And thanks to companies Meyer’s and Southside Market, it’s known as the sausage capital of Texas. Yet, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover Elgin’s identity is deeply rooted in the soil as a vibrant farming community. With an ever-encroaching Austin skyline from the west, though, and developers eyeing the fertile landscape for suburban development, the potential threat to Elgin’s farming community grows palpable.
How can Elgin preserve its proud heritage and keep a spotlight on farming as the seeds of change approach?
It starts with key leadership and a combined effort from local farmers and producers. About a year ago, the Elgin City Council began to reevaluate the town’s core strengths and identified farming as one of its greatest assets—particularly because of the rich soil and open land. Having witnessed other small towns in the area fall prey to the asphalt roadways of planned residential communities and strip centers, the City of Elgin set forth with a new initiative to help preserve area farms, create a forum for farmers and purveyors to leverage common strengths, and encourage growth in the direction of sustainable, and eventually, organic farming. For the City of Elgin, this new initiative is solely about securing and bolstering the identity of the town.
“We had to be very deliberate in identifying what we need to preserve,” says Mayor Marc Holm. “We’re at a crossroads right now, as we’ve traditionally been a small town. But now we’re becoming a small city, which means we have to pay attention to how we manage growth. Whatever we do now, we’re doing for ourselves and our future generation, so it’s really upon us to develop and preserve at the same time.”
In conjunction with the new initiative, Elgin has recently welcomed to town the new headquarters for the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (TOFGA). TOFGA’s primary mission is to support organic and sustainable farmers, ranchers and gardeners across Texas, and the association chose Elgin for its central location within the state and for its active community support for farming in general. TOFGA president Sue Beckwith runs her own egg and poultry farm in eastern Bastrop County, Shades of Green Farm, just a few miles from Elgin. For Beckwith, engaging with the City on how to strengthen and preserve area farms has become a central focus.
“Nationwide, only one percent of family farms, whether organic or conventional, can make a living without having an off-farm job,” Beckwith says. “So we have to come up with innovative ways for farmers to make a living so consumers can get healthy, clean food at a price they can afford. If land prices go up much higher here, that’s going to become a barrier for our farmers. So we have to look at it from a total community system perspective.”
Beckwith is currently working with Community Development Director Amy Miller to apply for grants that will assist Elgin’s development of agricultural-valued practices, which will in turn help farmers achieve the goal of selling their goods at an affordable price.
In recent months, city leaders such as Mayor Holm and council member Stacey Van Landingham have met with Beckwith and Miller to determine what the general farming community needs in terms of support. These meetings have included multiple round-table discussions with local farmers who use both conventional and organic methods.
“We have to be mindful of the number of conventional versus organic farms in the region and understand that making the transition to organic may not be economically feasible right now,” says Mayor Holm. “We have to address this as a locally grown movement; something that people in the community can get behind as we make them more aware of it. If the demand for organic foods continues to grow as it has in Austin, then eventually that will dictate what is successful for our farms. It will be a progression, but we’re learning that we have to start with what people understand. Our goal as a city is to facilitate that progression as much as possible.”
In addition to holding forums, the City has worked to promote the River Valley Farmers’ Market, which encompasses three separate farmers markets in Elgin, Smithville and Bastrop. It has also planned community outreach initiatives such as a summer viewing of the documentary Fresh, which included a post-film discussion panel featuring city, farming and sustainability leaders and drew more than 70 members from the Elgin community. And the City is working with Austin Community College (ACC) on a plan for a new Elgin campus in 2011. With community approval, ACC has committed to adding an agriculture and veterinary sciences component with a focus on sustainable agriculture to its curriculum in an effort to encourage younger generations to engage in the farming community. In early November, the City passed bonds that will move the ACC project forward.
Finally, there are plans to purchase and develop the Mary Christian Burleson homestead—which includes the original 1847 farmhouse and 23 acres of land—to create a community park, a historical preserve, a working farm with a community garden space and areas dedicated to agricultural education and projects for the local Future Farmers of America chapter and other school affiliates.
Also leading the charge to bring attention to the farming front are successful producers like Jeremiah Cunningham of Coyote Creek Farm and Wayne Lundgren of Lund Produce Company. For the past 14 years, Coyote Creek Farm has produced organic grassfed beef and eggs from pasture-raised chickens (the eggs are sold exclusively to Austin’s Whole Foods Market). Cunningham also originally processed organic chicken feed for his own use, and, after a number of requests for feed from neighboring farmers, he opened the first commercial organic feed mill in Texas in 2007 (see story in Spring 2010 issue of Edible Austin).
“My mission is to help restore rural middle-class families,” says Cunningham. “I’m 74 years old, so it’s a time of life where I need to give back to the communities and make a difference for others.”
One of Cunningham’s grain suppliers is Lundgren, who has more than 130 acres of land dedicated to organic grain crops, and another 15 acres of organic farmland for vegetables, which he supplies to Austin’s Greenling Organic Delivery and Farmhouse Delivery. Lundgren is a fifth-generation farmer who sees his transition to organic farming—which he began in the late 1990s—as a step back to a time before industrialized farming with herbicides, oil-based fertilizers and pesticides became the conventional way. “This is how my family did things before World War II, when all you could do was farm naturally,” says Lundgren. “I do it for my own personal health, and for the well-being of my neighbors and customers.”
Cunningham and Lundgren aren’t alone. From Yegua Creek Farms pecans and Shades of Green Farm eggs and chickens, to L & M Produce and the new Sharp Goat Ranch, farmers within the Elgin and Bastrop County area are beginning to transition to a more sustainable way of farming. Within this region of Central Texas, there are at least 100 organic farms, according to research by Karen Banks, a University of Texas graduate student who is conducting a food assessment survey for the entire region.
Beckwith and local resident Susie Medford also have a business plan in the works for what Medford calls a “mobile poultry-processing unit.” The concept would literally be a 40-foot long gooseneck trailer unit pulled to different areas of Central Texas by a pickup truck. The idea is to give smaller family farms a more convenient location to process their poultry and sell it on the local market. The plant would process birds raised on conventional and organic feed separately.
“Most people in Central Texas have to drive four to five hours to a large commercial processing plant to get their poultry on the market,” Medford says. “But that takes a lot of time on the farmer’s part, and if a larger stock of chickens comes in before them, then they have to wait for their smaller stock to get processed. That’s stressful on the farmers and the birds.”
Medford’s would be the first mobile poultry processing plant in Texas, but there are a few hurdles to overcome with financing, USDA regulations and having the unit physically built. “My main goal is to make it so the farmer can make more money with the sale of their poultry, stay in business and even increase their production,” she said. “It would allow them to save money and make it more affordable to process organically.”
Sustainability is definitely at the heart of the effort to help save and support Elgin farmers. The City continues to seek ways to encourage sustainable farming—which it hopes will beget organic farming—but the reality is that it could take a long time before the majority of Elgin farms use organic methods. The region is, after all, a hub for conventional farming and ranching. Redirecting policy and facilitating community discussion won’t eliminate all of the challenges involved. Elgin’s initiatives are still in their infancy, and as Cunningham and Lundgren affirm, there’s an uphill battle to reach the end goal. Financial concerns, lack of awareness and education on making the transition to organic and worries over consumers’ willingness in the region (Austin aside) to pay the premium on organic food production all play a part in slowing the process of transition. Perhaps most alarming, though, is whether or not a new generation of farmers will even be around to further the industry. For Mayor Holm, the challenges don’t outweigh the importance of making the effort.
“We’re still at the very early stages of addressing this goal,” Holm says. “We are working to identify each obstacle and find a way to overcome them so that we can figure out a way to participate in making a more progressive and viable farming community.”
As with any new direction for city, state or federal government, there are always pros and cons. What Elgin has going for it is a strong foundation of community leaders and producers who are willing to face even the most daunting challenges to preserve a heritage that has been more than a century in the making. They say it takes a village to raise a child. In Elgin’s case, it takes a whole city to protect the future of one of its oldest and brightest assets.
“We already have some amazing key players in place to get the ball moving in the right direction,” Beckwith says. “Because of that, Elgin is poised to become a town of the new millennium; a town that can feed itself and its neighbors with organic, sustainable foods.”