By Nicole Lessin
Photography by JoAnn Santangelo
Next to a bait-and-tackle shop, amidst the challenging caliche and limestone terrain of the Hill Country in Canyon Lake, Larry Smith has spent most of his days for the past 17 years cultivating a one-acre patch of land he jokingly refers to as his “oversized garden” or “micro-mini farm” in the way he prefers best: solo.
“In the past,” he says, “I did hire teenage boys to help me. But half the time, if I wasn’t keeping my eye on them, the next thing I know is they would have their headphones on and be off dancing to the music or something," he said with a laugh. " I think I’m the only one who can do it the way I want it done.”
And the way this retired United States Navy Submarine Force veteran wants it done is simply. He picks a few of the things loyal customers of his Harvest Time Farm Stand want to eat the most (such as sweet peppers, tomatoes and eggplants in the warm season; assorted greens, cauliflower and other Brassicas in the cold-weather months) and grows many different varieties (like nutty-tasting Zephyr squashes and flavorful Celebrity tomatoes)—all without the use of toxic pesticides.
While Harvest Time Farm Stand is not certified organic, Larry only uses products listed by the Organic Materials Review Institute for pest control—including neem oil and Spinosad, as well as composts and other forms of organic fertilizer. This kind of farming just makes sense to him. “Why on earth would you put poisons on vegetables that you’re going to eat?” he says. “My four-year-old grandchild, when she comes out in the garden with me…I don’t have any problem with her ripping a tomato off and starting to eat it. You know, I don’t have to concern myself with Oh no, we have to go wash this. It’s got poisons on it, because there are none.”
Larry’s wife Gail may not be out there tilling the soil with her husband, but she certainly contributes to the family business through her preserves-making enterprise, which grew out of selling different farmers’ produce at a roadside stand many years ago. “I had bought Fredericksburg peaches that first summer, and of course it just killed me to have to just toss them,” she recalls. “I had asked my mother-in-law if I could bring some peaches along with me so she could teach me how to can…she said, Oh, sure. And when we drove up with four bushels of peaches and she kind of dropped her mouth open. It took us two or three days, but it was fun.”
These days, Gail sells a wide range of preserves, including “Cowboy Candy” made with homegrown jalapeños, as well as others she crafts from many locally sourced fruits, such as peaches and pears from Lightsey Farms and blackberries from Engel Farms. In fact, Gail’s Austin-grown fig preserves are so in-demand that they’ve been featured in a whiskey cocktail at Jack Allen’s Kitchen, and paired with grilled mushrooms at Barley Swine. Gail says she likes to source locally whenever she can because the product is fresher and because she wants to support Texas food producers. “I want to help my fellow farmer out because we know what it’s like to grow and then not sell it,” she says.
Though Larry says he enjoys working the land, a major perk of this operation is seeing his regulars at the Sustainable Food Center’s downtown market each week. On a recent Saturday morning, David Claney, the executive chef at Taverna, was drawn to a box of lime-green Romanescos, which, Larry explained, are a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. “I had some math students look at that and say, Wow, it’s a fractal,” said Larry. “It looks like an alien spaceship,” remarked Claney before buying the remaining few, which he planned to blanche and sauté with garlic and olive oil as a side dish for either a meat or fish special that evening.
For Larry, these kinds of exchanges are a highlight of the workweek, which often involves six straight days of labor during the growing season. Not that he’s complaining, though. “I find great joy in going to the farmers market and interacting with my customers,” he says. “It’s a two-way street: We have to have the customers there to support us, and I hope we’re supporting them by giving them a good, clean product that they want and is good for them. It’s a gratifying, rewarding business to be in.”