Last December, the Austin Food and Wine Alliance (AFWA) awarded a total of $20,000 in grant funds to Argus Cidery, Tecolote Farm and the Connally High School culinary arts program to help them develop projects that give back to the community.
Over the last several months, the grantees have been honored guests at various AFWA culinary fund-raising events—connecting directly with the food and wine community as speakers or by serving handcrafted food and drinks to the crowds.
“The folks that are doing these things…we want to embrace them,” says Cathy Cochran-Lewis, AFWA’s president. “It’s not just signing a check. It’s so much more than that.”
Of course those checks are important, though. So how is the grant money being used?
At Argus Cidery in Dripping Springs, the state’s first hard cider producer using Texas-grown apples, owner Wes Mickel is preparing to plant an organic test orchard. Growing apples in Texas is a tricky business, according to Mickel, and with only a few growers in the state and no new orchards coming in, “there’s going to come a day when we have to have [apple] trees.” “Literally starting from the ground up,” as Mickel says, he’s learning to care for trees in our hot, dry climate and gaining knowledge as he goes. But he isn’t without help; Central Texas fruit growers Dan Rohrer of Rocky Hill Orchards, Baxter Adams of Love Creek Orchards and Cal Brints of Apple Country Hi Plains Orchards are all offering advice on tree care, soil amending and critter-control practices. So far, Mickel has learned that our hot climate is “one of the reasons why we get this super-sugar-dense fruit,” and that deer find baby apple trees to be quite the delicacy. Tall fencing may be in the orchard’s future.
Tecolote Farm’s grant is funding two projects: sourcing rare, heritage-breed hogs and providing subsidized community-supported agriculture (CSA) program baskets to low-income youth and families. “We’re super excited because these are projects we’ve wanted to do forever,” says farmer Katie Kraemer Pitre. The farm is home to 20 happy Large Black Hogs, who root and forage crops planted for them and feast on produce culled from the organic farm, spent brewing grain from Hops & Grain and unsold bread and produce from local shops.
Most of Tecolote Farm’s subsidized CSA program baskets are distributed in partnership with the Fresh Chefs Society—a nonprofit that teaches youth transitioning out of foster care how to cook, source local ingredients and “make smart food choices that are meaningful to them,” says program founder Shaleiah Fox. The CSA program model “expands people’s cooking horizons,” says Pitre. The kids getting the baskets are having fun learning to work with the produce, even sending photos of the meals they’ve prepared using “kohlrabi and Treviso radicchio and curly cress and endive—all this strange, Italian Old World stuff we grow.” Pitre explains that having fresh food and the security to choose what to cook and eat from the abundant baskets gives the families a “grounded peace in their lives.” A foster family with eight boys recently attended Tecolote Farm’s CSA program potluck and “they were amazing,” she says. “All these boys saying, I can’t believe all this stuff grows here!”
And finally, Chef Mike Erickson and students in his James Beard-recognized culinary arts program at Connally High in Pflugerville have used the grant money to team up with multimedia producer David Barrow to make TRUE BEEF: From Pasture to Plate—a documentary about raising pastured beef in Texas. The film, soon to be released, is shot through the eyes of the culinary students, professionals, chefs, agriculture students and the Texans who work with beef every day. It chronicles the agricultural arts of Texas ranches and stockyards both past and present, and sheds new light on livestock shows, feed lots, the origins of this precious protein and the industry built around it. Visit truebeefthefilm.com for release updates.
AFWA’s 2012 grants have helped three local food heroes bring their new culinary programs to fruition. According to Cochran-Lewis, grants will be given out annually each December, and the alliance hopes to raise even more money this year. “These folks are embraced [by] our community, and we want them to continue to be highlighted year after year.,” she says. “And it just makes the alliance truly live up to its name—aligning people and bringing them together to help support Austin as a food community.” —Christine Whalen
For more information, visit austinfoodwinealliance.org