URBAN LEGEND: How a Navy veteran became a successful urban farmer in Austin

by ADA BROUSSARD / photos by RALPH YZNAGA and SARAH McCONNELL

Tif 1Picture a farmer in your head. Tiffany Washington, owner of Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm, may defy that picture. For example, Washington doesn’t really like bugs and is unsettled at the thought of most critters. Her husband, Roc, gave her squeamish alter ego a name: Nancy Farm Fancy (which is also now her Instagram handle: @nancyfarmfancy.) Washington has four children, is a Navy veteran and grew up right here in Austin. And if all this isn’t extraordinary enough, she also says that she is the only Black female farmer in the City of Austin.

 

It would take an article as long as a new role of drip tape to tell the story of why this is so. Farming requires land, and land grants given at the end of the 19th century were only given to white families, and most often men. Other institutionally discriminatory systems made it difficult for Black families to hold onto land they legally owned. Despite this, agriculture became an important economy for Black Americans, and, by the 1920s, 14 percent of farmers were Black. Today, this number is below 2 percent, in part due to discriminatory lending practices by the USDA, which withheld loans, insurance and general support to Black farmers across the country. In 1997, a class action lawsuit was filed by Black farmers against the USDA and resulted in them winning $1 billion. And yet, over 20 years later, Washington says Dobbin-Kauv is still the only Black-owned farm in the City of Austin.

 

Washington found farming through a peculiar path. When she re-entered civilian life after serving in the U.S. Navy, she was pregnant with her daughter, Raeghan, and suffering from PTSD. She remembers the heaviness. “I was like, I just need to figure out what’s going on. This is not what my life is supposed to be looking and feeling like,” she says. Washington sought the aid of therapy animals, but because she isn't really a dog person, she adopted the next best thing: three tortoises named Pepernacky, Sheldon and Quagmire. This testudine trio required a vegetable-rich diet, and Washington eventually grew tired of buying produce and started to grow her own. She began with lettuce. She tells of a call she got from her husband one afternoon, letting her know he’d just made a salad with the lettuce she grew. She caught the gardening bug and began to grow more than just tortoise food.

 

Soon Washington had requests from her family to transform their backyards into edible landscapes. Cantaloupe and okra blossomed at her mom’s home, and tomatoes and onions grew at her grandma’s house. She needed more space, and a lightbulb went off: Washington realized she wanted to learn to farm. In so many ways, it just made sense. “I think that’s where it translated for me, being a veteran and going into farming. It was a way for me to continue my service. It’s boots on the ground.”

 

Tif 2In the spring of 2018, Washington completed Farmershare Austin’s Farmer Starter program, which involves equal parts classroom education and time in the dirt. There, Washington met Lorig Hawkins, who was working as farm manager (and now owns and operates Middleground Farm). After Farmshare, Washington completed a VA sponsored program called “Battleground to Breaking Ground,” which required a 100-hour farm apprenticeship. Under Hawkins’ mentorship, she invested sweat equity into a worthwhile project — the founding of her own urban farm. She named it Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm after her ancestors who helped found Antioch, a freedman farming community near Buda.

 

Dobbin-Kauv sits on the corner of Roggie Lane and Manor Road in northeast Austin. When Washington first visited the plot, it was a two-acre meadow — full of biomass and potential. She dug around in the dirt under her feet, discovered worthy soil and signed the lease. On the day of the interview, a fresh mountain of mulch was delivered. Upon seeing the mound, Washington's kids, specifically her youngest, Brayden, b-lined to the mountain, flicking off his flip flops without missing a step. While he conquered the mulch mound, Washington’s oldest daughter, Raeghan, happily heeded her mother’s request to waterthe eggplants. It was abundantly clear that the kids were at home in the soil.

 

Dobbin-Kauv is the epitome of what it means to be an urban farm; the corner it sits on is busy. There is a T-Mobile store across the street, but Washington remembers when the building housed a Mrs. Baird’s Bakery — a spot she visited on field trips as a student at Winn Elementary. Cars and busses whiz by, and Washington is frequently greeted with lots of friendly waves and hellos. It’s easy to see that Washington is making a name for herself in the neighborhood. Always the positive role model for her family and  community, Washington observed a street disturbance and wryly exclaimed, “Urban farm news now! We’re on the case!”

 

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But of course, she wasn’t really joking. Sure, Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm is a space for Washington to flex her organic farming knowledge and grow specialty eggplant, but her presence on the block is more profound than that. Along with providing for her family, Washington is committed to making difference in the lives of this vital neighborhood.

 

“The issues that I see every day continue to tell me that this is something that I have to do … I gotta feed my community,” she says. “They’re hungry. They need healing.” Washington keeps an eye out for her neighbors. Her farm acts as a grassroots food pantry and an agricultural information hub to any curious passerby peering over the fence. Though we owe our thanks to a troop of tortoises for Washington’s initial interest in farming, her devotion to her community is familial. Her grandmother, Dorothy Turner, was a renowned civil rights leader active in Austin during her lifetime. Many of the community programs she helped champion were boots-on-the-ground initiatives, providing real value to the community they served ... not unlike the impact of Dobbin-Kauv.

 

Tif 3When asked what motivates Washington to keep farming, she says, “For me, it’s just in me. It’s just what it is that I’m here to do. It’s liberating — for me it’s about taking back my heritage, my rights to this land.”

 

With the help of a crowdfunding campaign, there are two new picnic tables at the farm just begging for a potluck. But the tables are just the beginning, and Washington isn’t holding back her ambitions for the space and her future as a farm(h)er. In addition to expanding production on her current plot, she wants to transform nearby abandoned spaces and create a network of urban food production.

 

Washington hopes to eventually own the piece of property she currently farms, converting the house on-site into a commercial kitchen and co-working space for farmers and food entrepreneurs. Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm’s story is just beginning. Follow along on Instagram (@dobbinkauvfarm) or on Facebook through the Dobbin-Kauv Garden Farm page.