Down a winding country road surrounded by idyllic farmland, grazing cattle and the sounds of goat bleats and cricket chirps, lies Hat & Heart Farm. This 93-acre plot of hard-worked land nestled between Johnson City and Fredericksburg is home to hens, goats, turkeys, a border collie named Stetson and a bounty of organic vegetables.
Bradley Ottmers and Katherine Tanner recently took over this fruitful piece of land from Ottmers’ parents, J.W. and Marion, better known as Oma and Opa. As a sixth-generation farmer, it seems that farming is in Ottmers’ DNA. Before returning full time to the farm about three years ago, Ottmers was a welder and a fence constructor, providing him with skills that come in handy at Hat & Heart. “If something breaks down, he’s the one under the hood fixing it,” says his partner, Tanner.
For Tanner, who has a master’s degree in Geopolitics and Security and worked in Austria, Germany, Turkey and England before returning home to Fredericksburg, this agricultural lifestyle was less than expected. “It wasn't part of the plan, but I like a challenge,” she says.
She and Ottmers met at a farmers market, where she argued with him over the price of his eggs. He resolved the conflict by uncharacteristically offering her the dozen eggs for free, and the rest was history.
“We come from such different backgrounds, completely different worlds,” says Tanner. “But we both have the same hometown, and we’re both very proud Texans. We love each other very much, and we have enough grace to teach each other.”
Oma and Opa bought the farm property in the ’60s and put in decades of hard work and dedication clearing the land and bringing it to its current state. And though they are semi-retired, they still play a vital role at the farm. “When you do it this long, it's not a job. It's just what you do,” says Tanner.
Opa, the farm’s founder (and resident comedian) passes us on an ATV as we take our tour. When I offer an apology for stealing half of his work force for this interview, he replies, “Whatever burns your shorts!” before plopping himself into the field to pick okra.
Later I meet Oma, who has come to tend to her chickens. The farm is home to more than 500 laying hens, and every egg that leaves the farm has passed though her hands at one point or another.
This family farm does have a few part-time helpers, but Ottmers and Tanner are the full-time staff accepting the challenges and rewards of making it all happen, along with Oma and Opa’s help, of course. Throughout its history, the farm has passed through several evolutions prior to Ottmers and Tanner taking the reins. In 1997 sustainable practices were adopted, and in 2001 Oma and Opa began to sell at farmers markets.
Currently, everything produced on the farm exists in a cohesive loop of reciprocity. The chickens and goats are raised on pasture and play a vital role in the ecosystem of the farm. The hens take care of pest control, eating the grasshoppers and mosquitoes and fertilizing the land as they go along. And, in return, they get to enjoy any leftover vegetables that can’t be sold or pickled. “They fight over the tomatoes,” says Ottmers. Even their movable chicken coops are made with reused and recycled materials.
Their tribe of over 100 goats help clear and fertilize the land, and when the time comes to prepare goat meat, the Hat & Heart team lets nothing go to waste. Every edible piece of meat is brought to market, including livers and hearts; the hides are tanned and the bones are made into broth. Not only is this goat meat highly nutritious, but the use of the whole animal is yet another indication of respect for both the animal and the earth.
As they look to the future, Ottmers and Tanner light up over ideas for making the farm even more sustainable, hoping to eventually incorporate regenerative farming practices.
They also want to broaden their community impact. Tanner, who recently hosted a sustainability seminar at Fredericksburg High School, dreams of expanding opportunities to influence younger generations. Ottmers and Tanner hope to partner with higher education institutions to allow students to come and learn at the farm for accredited practicum hours and internships. They want to invite local chefs and service industry workers to experience and understand the land that yields the organic jewels decorating their plates.
But in terms of extending their commercial reach, Ottmers and Tanner are content. “We are not a big commercial operation, and we would never want to be, because we are at one degree of separation from the people that eat our food. We’re selling it straight to the customer or the chef, and that’s gratification that we can see,” says Tanner. “Farming is an ancient practice. There is something special about carrying on that tradition.”
Hat & Heart’s harvest can be enjoyed at some of Austin’s favorite restaurants including Odd Duck, Olamaie, Hillside Farmacy and more. You can buy their harvest at SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown, Pearl Farmers Market and Texas Farmers' Market at Mueller.
By Melissa Claire • Photography by Andy Sams