Sustaining Our Farmland

Sustainable Food Center brings together more than 45 farmers and ranchers every Saturday at our two farmers’ markets: Downtown (422 Guadalupe St.) and Sunset Valley (3200 Jones Rd.). Walk the aisles on a Saturday morning, and you’ll meet passionate folks selling local oyster mushrooms, pastured eggs and the best heirloom tomatoes around. But behind the bustling faces of these thriving markets is the reality that farmland is dissipating in Central Texas at a dizzying rate. Travis County alone loses the equivalent of six football fields of cropland to development every single day. In a region with a rapidly growing population and a huge demand for local food, this data begs the question: where are our farmers farming?

According to a 2017 National Young Farmer Survey, access to land is the top challenge current and aspiring farmers face. Young farmers today are going back to the land after multiple generations of removal from farm life, which means fewer generational land transfers. Instead, beginning farmers are looking for land with traditional realtors, many of whom can’t advise their clients on the particular characteristics or amenities a property needs in order to accommodate farming.

I sat down with some farmers, who many of you know from your weekly trips to the SFC Farmers’ Markets, and asked them about their experiences on the land.

Middle Ground Farm is just under two years old, but it’s been owner Lorig Hawkins’ dream for many years. Although she’d honed her farming skills through work on area farms, acquiring and readying land for farming brought on new challenges. In addition to clearing brush, regenerating soil and building infrastructure, she has to wait three more years to apply for an agricultural exemption for her property taxes. It was only with the purchase of a second property that she started to make the business viable. Because this second parcel of land was already in agricultural production, Hawkins explains, “I was able to immediately start to produce and sell. It made the transition to full-time farming that much easier.”

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Nathan Heath had been farming at Phoenix Farms for nine years when, after dealing with arthritis for the latter part of his time there, he made the tough decision to find a new steward for his farm. He tried to find someone on his own so he could be sure the farm would remain a farm, but he was eventually forced to list the property with a realtor. The risk was that if someone came in and offered the asking price, he would have to accept the deal — even if it was a developer. Luckily, he found someone to carry on his dream. “We deeply wanted someone to continue to farm the land and when we found that person, we did everything we could to make sure they were able to buy the farm,” Heath says.

In spite of the national narrative that many farm kids are moving off the family land into big cities, Bradley Ottmers is bucking the trend. Oma and Opa’s Farm has been around since 1970, but in recent years, Ottmers, the youngest son of Marion and J.W. — known respectively as Oma and Opa — left his job to help turn around the family business. He also recently renamed the farm to Hat & Heart Farm as a part of the transition to the younger generation. Now Ottmers focuses on regenerative practices like rotational grazing and organic vegetable production, working alongside his partner, Katherine. “We’ll be opening up the property to more people with farm dinners, tours, retreats and glamping,” she says. “Bradley can’t picture doing anything else, and we can’t wait to build the farm to its incredible potential.”

Here at SFC, we know that farmland preservation anchors the farm economy, creates jobs, keeps money in local communities, supports the ecosystem and sustains traditions. In addition to helping our producers market their goods and providing a fun and consistent shopping experience for local customers and chefs, we also work at a systemic level. SFC is encouraging the City of Austin to turn some publicly owned land into available, leased farmland and recommending that land trusts lease small parcels to sustainable farmers. We’re engaging with state and local policymakers to advocate on behalf of the farmers in our network to increase SNAP benefits, illuminate issues with permitting in local health departments and expand restrictive cottage food laws. You can support these local farmers — and Central Texas farmland — by shopping at our two SFC Farmers’ Markets every Saturday, rain or shine.

By Amy Gallo • Photography by Katherine Nelson