Many of us have seen the films “Food, Inc.” and “Fresh,” read articles by Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman and heard about the practices of Dan Barber and Joel Salatin. Jordan Bednar is no different, and yet, he is. But why?
Bednar has been hugely influenced by the things he’s seen, read and heard. Not in the ways that many of us are as we adapt our lives accordingly (composting food scraps, building raised beds, avoiding middle aisles in the grocery store), but by taking the commitment a step further—by abandoning his previous life and the goals and dreams tied to it and pursuing different ones, new ones, under the name Tandem Farm Co. Now, instead of seeing, reading and hearing about sustainable farming, he lives it, along with his wife, Esther and daughters, Sybil and Hazel, on their livestock farm in Driftwood. And he’s still humbly learning it, too.
The rural and rustic lifestyle wasn’t completely foreign to Bednar, though. “I grew up in Montana, in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “I remember thinking, even as a young kid, that farming would be an interesting way of life.” And the imprint of that childhood exposure to, as he describes, “people doing things by hand or making things from scratch…dealing with life on a very basic scale…hunting, fishing, growing food” remained deep within him. When he was 15, Bednar moved to Austin and attended Austin Community College’s Fire Academy. For years after graduating, however, he struggled to land a job. “I found it was a really difficult profession to get into,” he says. He was close once, in 2011—65th in an applicant pool of 5,000. The Austin Fire Department was supposed to take 80 applicants, but in the end, only took 40. “Had they taken eighty, my life probably would be very different right now,” Bednar says with a laugh.
For a couple of years afterward, he worked a series of odd jobs, but nothing seemed to stick. The one thing constant in his life remained his faith, and it was at church in 2014 that he and Esther met another couple who shared an outgoing passion for livestock farming. After a few dinner conversations, an ambitious daydream became a reality and the two couples committed to starting a farm. They raised money to buy chickens, turkeys, a flock of sheep, two old cotton trailers and nesting boxes. A lucky encounter led them to acquire 52 acres, rent-free, from a couple that wasn’t using the land and appreciated the kind of farming Tandem would practice. By June of that year, a farm was born. “Commonly, you’re a chicken or hog farmer or cattle rancher,” Bednar says. “But you’re not all of those things.”
Yet, at Tandem, he is. And it’s because, Bednar says, it’s good for the land. Symbiotic farming replenishes his farm and diffuses bad bacteria and microorganisms. In fact, everything works in concert for the overall benefit of the land. Bednar loves that his animals—currently 250 laying hens, 1,200 broilers, more than 40 pigs and four sheep—live a life that is more natural to their instincts and behaviors. “Pigs get to roam around and churn soil up with their noses instead of being in a barn in a muddy pit of their own manure; the chickens move in after the grass has been regrown and can run around and peck.” When Bednar gets cattle, they’ll be introduced into the cycle, too. “It’s neat to see the outcome: where the pigs were six months ago becomes green and lush again. You see things come back to life.”
It’s not always easy to take what you read and just start doing it, though. Like most things, real learning comes through trial and error. For instance, some of the techniques sustainable food movement guru Joel Salatin uses at his wholistic farm in Virginia don’t work in Texas. “He doesn’t have 100-degree weather and he has an army of interns to do the manual labor,” Bednar says with a laugh. To troubleshoot, Bednar bought two massive hoop houses that can hold up to 600 chickens and be moved throughout the pastures. At first, the houses worked—giving his hens room to roam as well as a much cooler spot in the summer—but the feeling of triumph didn’t last. Bednar didn’t anticipate the severe storms that battered his farm and Central Texas this past March. “It wasn’t just the flooding,” he says of the devastating incident. “The issue was the winds in excess of fifty to sixty miles per hour.”
That March night, the winds tore the hoop houses away, exposing the entire flock to violent weather. “They’re not hardy animals,” Bednar says. Tandem lost 400 chickens that night, and it set them back about five weeks. They’re just now getting back to normal—thanks to the generosity of neighbors, customers and friends. A GoFundMe page was established (gofundme.com/tandemfarmco), and Slow Food Austin held a happy hour fundraiser at Barley Swine in addition to support from Austin Foodshed Investors. “You don’t realize how important the farm is to people until you see something like this happen and their response,” he says. “Sometimes you can feel like, ‘Is this what I need to be doing? Do people care about this kind of food and farming?’ To see the support gives us the answer.”
For more information, visit tandemfarmco.com or call 512-517-4003.
by Claire Cella | Photography by Andy Sams