By MM Pack
Photography by Justin Butts
Even for a farm dog, Bando has a complicated job description and he takes his work seriously. He’s responsible for nightly patrols here at Four String Farm, guarding chickens and ducks from predators, exterminating gophers, running off deer, herding frisky pigs home if they escape and alerting farm owner Justin Butts with specialized barks about problems he encounters like snakes, hawks, wild hogs and alligators (yes, alligators).
He’s the farm’s official greeter, as well—dispensing wags, licks and gentle head bumps to visiting humans. “I couldn’t make farming work here without my dog,” says Butts.
Bando isn’t the only hardworking body on the farm, though. Four String Farm (named for Butts’s stand-up bass) is located near Rockport on the sandy, windswept Live Oak Peninsula between the Aransas and Copano Bays on the South Texas Gulf Coast. Less than a mile from bay waters, the 39-acre site is a place of wild beauty and major challenges to raising food crops. A small freshwater lake stocked with catfish, bass and perch bisects the property. Farmland occupies one side of the lake; on the other, Butts maintains a wildlife preserve that’s home to coyotes, raccoons, opossums, skunks, hawks, ospreys, falcons, deer and “every kind of snake that lives in South Texas,” he says. This forest tract abuts a former dairy farm that, for decades, dumped manure and dairy waste that fertilized the trees. Now it’s the tallest stand of oaks on the peninsula, inhabited by a colony of great blue herons and another of sandhill cranes.
Butts purchased the land in 2000. “Originally, I just wanted seclusion in the woods,” he says. “My interest in growing food developed gradually over time.” He was a sales executive for Coca-Cola, a job that took him across the country and around the globe 25 days a month. “Wherever I went, I started visiting farms, asking, ‘How do you grow vegetables without chemicals?’ By talking to farmers, I learned so much and saw so many cool, interesting methods and practices.”
A life-changing experience was a monthlong hiking trip in northern India, stopping at Himalayan farms. “These were places where you could get frostbite and sunburn at the same time,” says Butts. “I saw people farming under the most extreme conditions. I thought, ‘If they can grow all their food for a year in five months under these conditions, I can do it in Rockport, Texas.’”
So Butts began clearing garden plots and amending the saline beach sand that passed for soil. Eventually, he left his corporate job for good to farm full-time—supplementing his income by playing music at night. Today, farming is his sole occupation, assisted by his nutritionist wife, Kayla Butts, his daughter Nati and Bando the multitasking dog.
Butts practices what he calls “successive, intensive companion planting,” and the pastured pigs and chickens he raises are thoroughly integrated into the system. He’s developed large garden plots with the same dimensions as his mobile pig and chicken pens. Once a plot is harvested, he sets up the fences. The enclosed chickens get first dibs—scratching up and eating remaining vegetation and bugs for a couple of weeks. Then he moves the chickens out and installs the Berkshire-Yorkshire pigs. “You want to see pure pig joy?” asks Butts. “Watch when I let them into a garden plot.” The pigs snuffle down 12 to 16 inches into the loose dirt—turning the soil, consuming roots and nematodes and contributing rich fertilizer. After the pigs’ processing phase, the plot is ready for its next planting.
Butts plants vegetables in five-foot-wide rows, covering every inch of ground. Winter plots include broccoli, kale, spinach, radishes, lettuce, mustard, chard and cabbage—all densely mixed together, the way he observed in the Himalayas. “This confuses predators,” he says. Spring and summer crops are densely planted successive cycles of interspersed beans, squashes, corn, tomatoes and melons. Partial shade protects the plots from harsh sunlight and 20-foot-tall sunflower hedges shield them from drying coastal winds. Butts is proud to say that the farm has produce available 365 days a year.
“Except for cut ants [an invasive species from South America with no local natural enemies], all my pest control is using native predators,” says Butts. “Cut ants are the most devastating pest here. The best remedy I’ve found is molasses and water poured into the nests. Anything you can do with a chemical, you can do with a heritage method for less money. Besides the health and environmental implications, gardening with chemicals is inefficient, expensive and ineffective.”
Four String Farm has loyal customers for its produce, pork, broiler chickens, ducks, eggs and seasonal turkeys. “The number one reason people know us is because of taste,” Butts says. “We’ve developed our market one customer at a time, but we’re becoming a known brand in the area.” Butts sells his products to Glow Restaurant and Coastal Bend Health Foods in Rockport. Edelen Farms, in Alice, purveys Four String pork along with their own grassfed beef at several South Texas farmers markets.
“Farming is a hard life because of factors you can’t control, like hawks, drought and cut ants,” Butts says. “It takes a certain temperament: patience, determination and balance. We’re usually hardworking people who like to have our hands in the dirt.”
For more about Four String Farm, visit fourstringfarm.me