By Terrence Henry
The adventures of A+S Farm began on a drizzly morning in the spring of 2008 with “The Great Chick Run,” as Amy and Shaun Jones—a newly married couple in their late twenties—set out from Houston to Fayette County to become sustainable farmers. In the car with them were 150 chicks in a cardboard box, kept warm by a heat lamp running off of the car battery—a move that resulted in a completely drained battery by the time they reached the farm.
First day of a new life, and the car won’t even start.
The Joneses had decided to make the transition from urbanites to farmers while living in Houston, where Amy grew up and the couple married. Shaun worked in web design, and Amy at the Houston Zoo, but the two sought greater fulfillment and purpose. “We started getting kind of tired of the city life,” Shaun recalls.
They began frequenting farmers markets where they were inspired by the dedication and ingenuity of people like Glen and Honi Boudreaux of Jolie Vue Farms and Bob and Darlene Stryk of Stryk Dairy. They read books by Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin and attended Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association meetings and the American Grassfed Association Conference, and soon there was talk of getting into sustainable farming themselves. Amy had inherited 20 acres of land in Flatonia from her great-grandparents—children of Czech immigrants in the Praha community—and without any agricultural background, the Joneses decided to leave urban life behind and start over as agrarians. “We just came to the conclusion that not only could we do this,” Shaun says, “we should do this.” And when they told their friends and family, all were excited and supportive. “At least to our faces,” Amy says with a laugh.
But it was a difficult first year. The new commitment included time spent living in a large canvas tent on the property with no electricity or running water. “It was crazy,” Amy says now. In addition to farming and ranching, everyday tasks like cooking and doing laundry became mammoth undertakings. After 15 months of preindustrial living, they moved to a house in town.
On the upside, the six sheep they’d invested in that first year were thriving. Because the Joneses had such relatively small acreage to work with, their new friend Boudreaux had suggested they raise sheep instead of cattle for a faster profit. After some research, the Joneses decided on the Gulf Coast sheep—a breed on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy’s critical list with fewer than 2,000 registered animals left in the world—which is particularly well suited to Central Texas. “They can take the heat, they’re resistant to parasites and they produce wool, which is pretty rare,” Shaun explains. The breed, valued for its mild flavor, is also included in the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste—a catalog of more than 200 unique and delicious regional foods in danger of disappearing.
The Joneses worked tirelessly to restore the previously overgrazed pasture that first year, as well. The first things to come up were weeds—nightshade, sunflower, all the bad stuff—which actually turned out to be good. “Luckily, our sheep eat it,” Shaun says. “They thrive on it.” And the couple quickly realized just how valuable Boudreaux’s suggestion had become to their small parcel of land. “To an ordinary cattle operation it’d be useless,” Shaun points out. “You’d have to plow it, plant grass and then hope it rains. It was literally clay when we got here.” But by embracing low-impact rotational grazing, the land is used and restored simultaneously.
Success with the sheep and pasture aside, the second year brought drought and chicken challenges. Hawks and vultures got to many of the original 150 chickens, and the broiler breed they raised was laborious to harvest and didn’t sell well. To rebuild their flock, the couple switched to laying hens—Molted Javas and Delawares, which are also included in the Ark of Taste. Hawks have been less of a problem with more sheep and farm dog Frank around. And the eggs being produced are exemplary—the sort of eggs that Amy’s great-grandparents likely ate when they lived there.
With youth often comes idealism, and the Joneses have committed themselves to a deliberate path: organic, local, seasonal, sustainable. The sheep are 100 percent forage-fed—mostly pasture and chemical-free hay in drier times. The chickens feed off the pasture as well, and are supplemented with non-GMO grains like barley and millet. Antibiotics are only used if an animal falls sick or is injured. “We give the sheep the same health care we would want in their situation,” Shaun explains. And they extend the courtesy of giving the sheep individual names with each new generation. “They’re giving their lives for us,” says Amy, “so we feel they deserve a good name.” The first sheep were named after herbs and spices and included Fennel and Peppercorn. This year they’re being named after songs. “They deal with drought, flood and predators with a positive disposition,” says Shaun. “We’ve been humbled many a time.”
The couple’s days start early, at first light—a bit earlier in the heavy heat of summer—with a set routine: move the electric paddocks and shelters, fill water and feed the hens. It takes a little over two hours, and the rest of the day is spent mostly working other jobs, which for Shaun, means building websites, and for Amy, juggling a series of odd jobs ranging from a gig at the local flower shop and manning a register at the liquor store to working at the Schulenberg Chamber of Commerce. “It helps me get to know everyone,” Amy says with a smile.
One of the biggest and most surprising challenges is that the Joneses don’t have access to fresh, seasonal, sustainable food in the middle of farm country; paradoxically, it was easier to find it in the city. They make monthly treks to Austin farmers markets, which lift their spirits. “It’s good for our morale to see people excited about food,” says Shaun.
Another difficulty for the two is youth: Amy is 30; Shaun 31. “We’re the only young people doing this out here, so we do miss being around folks more our age,” Amy says. “The longest we can leave the farm is for three days, so we aren’t able to go see friends or travel. And our friends from Houston can’t make it out to see us very often.”
They’ve also had to reset their mental clocks. “We had to switch to country time,” explains Amy. “The entire pace of life is different here.” Drilling their solar-powered well took much longer than expected, as did other contract jobs. But country time has its advantages as well—the farm is a refuge of tranquility: lambs bleat, chickens peck about and breezes soothe. From the top of the hill, you can see St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption—one of the historic painted churches of Texas. Some of the best moments, Amy notes, come at night. “The stars are incredible,” she says.
The Joneses are building a farmhouse in the high center of the pasture, near an old oak and with a view of the church. Amy’s 97-year-old grandmother lives in a farmhouse on adjacent land on her own. The sheep paid for themselves last year, the solar-powered well is paid off and the farm is running debt-free. They are near their goal of having 50 breeding ewes on the ranch, with hopes of obtaining more property and expanding the flock. The customer list is full, and the lamb sells out before it’s even harvested. By next year, the couple hopes to produce enough to sell at farmers markets. Once the farm is self-sustaining, they can let go of outside work.
Their advice to other young folks considering moving into farming full-time is to take it slow and start small. “Find a property to lease,” suggests Shaun, “and work out what you’re going to do there without the risk of a mortgage.” Amy adds that they were told, “‘Don’t quit your day job for the first five years.’ And we haven’t.” Also, get to know the locals. “Find a watering hole,” Amy suggests, “and buy a round of beers for everyone. Then start asking questions.” She adds that they’ll know where to buy feed, who can drill wells and the best place for replacement truck parts.
At peace with their new life, the Joneses are hopeful about their future. They’re busy restoring their family’s land while reviving old ways of living. “Life on the farm doesn’t go in a circle; it’s more of a spiral,” Shaun wrote to family and friends recently. “It grows greater each rotation, and we are never in the same place twice.” Perhaps as their work spirals on, the couple will inspire others in their generation to reinvent themselves in a similar fashion—forgoing smartphones and laptops for pitchforks and plows. For the Joneses, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
For more information on A+S Farms, visit goingtothecountry.com.