by Claire Cella
Photography by Pauline Stevens
It was one of the last places I expected to see a papaya—especially since the previous time I’d encountered the tropical fruit was on a food vendor’s reed table shaded by coconut palms on the whitewashed shore of Koh Samet, an island off the coast of Thailand. Yet there it was, suspended from a flowering tree deeply rooted in the dry clay soil of Central Texas where, I later learned, it thrives year-round.
The oblong fruit was clutched in the petite, bronzed hands of Maew Simmons—the co-owner, along with husband Harry—of Simmons Family Farms. And on that unseasonably chilly and overcast April day, it served as a fitting metaphor for the weather, the farm, and even Harry and Maew’s relationship as a pleasant encounter with the unexpected.
The couple first met in September 2005 at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant tucked down one of Bangkok’s many narrow side streets. Harry had moved to Thailand to study tropical horticulture and bamboo cultivation at Kasetsart University, one of the top agricultural universities in the country. Maew was a server and cook in the restaurant, and the two were introduced through mutual friends. As a result of Harry’s frequent visits to the restaurant, the two soon found themselves dating. And although Maew knew little English and Harry’s Thai was still intermediate, a deep connection was formed. “It was pretty close to instant,” Harry says, “but also not foreseen and very unexpected.”
Maew fell quickly for Harry, too—partly because of his overt kindness but also, she says with a wide smile and a giggle, out of a strong desire to take care of him. Harry proposed within a year and the two married in Thailand in December 2006, following Harry’s graduation from Kasetsart. Afterward, they returned to the U.S., along with Maew’s teenage daughter, Chutima, to settle in Austin.
Together, Harry and Maew founded and now operate the 130-acre stretch of land that is Simmons Family Farms in Niederwald. Although Harry’s name is behind the six-year-old business, a vast majority of the farm’s inspiration and incentive comes from Maew’s keen agricultural flair and the experience and practical knowledge she gained working on farms in rural Thailand as a young adult.
Agricultural acumen aside, Maew’s actual physical presence is an indispensable key to the daily operations. A neck injury from a college rugby match left Harry paralyzed from the waist down and unable to perform the physical field work he used to enjoy. “Maew does all the big work,” Harry confesses with a chuckle. She coordinates the planting and caring for the produce while Harry manages the bills, deliveries and ordering. They both run the weekly farm stand at the SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown. Maew also contributes a distinct style and integrity to the farming practice—the quintessentially Thai mai bpen rai attitude (roughly translated as, “it’s okay,” “don’t worry” or “never mind”). For instance, Harry says, if they have a freeze and lose their entire tomato crop, Maew will simply say, “It’s okay; we have more in the greenhouse.”
Originally, the couple planned only to grow vegetables for their family. But they soon realized that others appreciate and desire the type of food they grow: chemical-free, fresh and, often, distinctly foreign. And though not certified organic, the farm operates under the same principles and standards of organic farms, using only plant-derived orange and neem oils to control pests—a hugely significant choice because when Maew was just three years old, her mother died, allegedly as a result of pesticide exposure from working in Thai cotton fields.
The couple devotes plenty of soil space to classic Texas crops like kale, arugula, broccoli, green onions, spinach, tomatoes, okra and garlic, but Maew and Harry pride themselves on their diverse and striking range of produce that hails from Thailand. A stroll through the farm’s greenhouses and plots reveals rows of young papaya (malagaw) trees, crates of Thai eggplant seedlings (makhua phro and makhua phuang), pots of holy basil (grapow) and beds of delicate, fiery Thai chilies (prik kee noo and prik kiao). The fall harvest is expected to include much of the same, with the addition of lemongrass (darkrai), red shallots (hawm daeng), kaffir limes and lime leaves (magrood). Harry also devotes a portion of his time and acreage to cultivating specialty bamboo species from all over the world, including Thailand, China and Japan.
“Anything different or difficult to grow, I’ve found that people really appreciate it,” says Harry. People will call and ask if we’ll have certain Thai things, or come to the market specifically to find us for an ingredient. Some of our stuff you can’t even find in stores here in Austin.” The couple also provides produce to Austin restaurants like Thai Fresh, Barley Swine, Texas French Bread, Trace at the W and Dai Due, and supplies to Greenling and Farmhouse Delivery.
If there’s ever any confusion from buyers about how to use the more exotic produce, Maew is more than happy to share tips and ideas. One of her favorite Thai dishes is tom yum, a spicy, hot and sour soup with a broth that encompasses a range of their ingredients including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice and crushed chili peppers. When making Thai soups and curries, Maew suggests using dried kaffir lime leaves like bay leaves to infuse flavor into dishes. The lime’s peel can provide the foundational essence for many curries, such as the commonly recognized green curry paste (kaeng kiew wan). She suggests using diced Thai chilies to make fiery dipping sauces or chunky pastes and scattering them for decorative zest and bite. Red shallots can be roasted for a smoky flavor or fried to sprinkle on top of salads. Green or unripe papayas are shredded into long strips to make an array of Thai sweet, spicy and sour salads, including som tum. And holy basil is used to flavor gai pad grapow, a well-known stir-fry dish made with chicken, chilies, holy basil and fish and soy sauces.
Although Harry and Maew’s beginning may have been rife with the challenges of physical disability, language barriers and different religions, cultures and familial backgrounds, the couple has persevered to build a successful life and business that hum along with cooperation and harmony. Harry even says their partnership has been easier than some might have projected—yet another of the many pleasant surprises that surround the duo.
For more information, visit simmonsfamilyfarms.com