Excerpts from a new book by Pamela Walker
Photography by Linda Walsh
Published by Texas A&M University Press • 800-826-8911 • tamupress.com
Pamela Walker takes a personal approach to describing the family businesses featured in this book. She weaves together biographical information, photographs and the details of farming, aquaculture, ranching, dairying, food processing, soil and livestock management and marketing techniques.
This is not a book filled with statistics or details of organic agricultural techniques. It is not a compilation of how to be a successful organic farmer or rancher. It does, however, tell the stories of men, women and children who make up the organic agriculture movement in Texas. All of us interested in Texas agriculture and rural life will gain from the experiences of the dedicated families whose lives are profiled in this book.
Editor’s note: Below are brief excerpts from three of the 10 biographical essays about 11 families in Walker’s book.
David Pitre and Katie Kraemer grow 150 varieties of vegetables each year on just five to six acres of their certified organic, 55-acre farm, Tecolote. The farm lies 15 miles east of downtown Austin on the western edge of what once was blackland, tallgrass prairie…. The farm’s name is the Nahuatl word for “owl” and was inspired by a pair of great horned owls who lived on the property when the family purchased it in 1993.
… Most of the vegetables that David and Katie raise are specialty varieties not available in even the best grocery stores and, by season, generally include not just one type of chicory, say, but as many as four, and not just one kind of bean or squash but three, and so on from one year to the next. David and Katie's delight in food is both deep and wide and suggests something of the venturous eating their customers enjoy. “My whole goal with every type of vegetable, whether it's a beet, a carrot, lettuce, whatever it is, is to find the tastiest varieties that can be grown here and grow them,” David says.
… During the fall and winter months when, by choice, David has nothing to harvest or market, he studies seed catalogs for new varieties to plant and test for cultivation requirements, productivity and taste. “The red beets we’re growing now are the best red beet I’ve ever found.” Other recent finds include an Italian head chicory, several French butter lettuces, Japanese radishes, and Korean cucumbers.
… The Tecolote CSA is probably the first CSA in Texas, and now the oldest. Its membership has increased from the original 13 subscribing households to 150, with 300 more on a waiting list. “We price our baskets to be accessible to grad students as well as CEOs,” Katie says, “and we really do get the range.” “It’s great,” David says. “I think of our CSA as a course in eating seasonally and learning new vegetables that mostly aren’t new at all, but old, rediscovered heirlooms…. ”
They celebrate this connection each year by hosting a spring potluck for their subscribers. Our visit, on a beautiful Sunday in late April, coincided with this event. Arriving early that morning—a clear one, and cool enough for a jacket or at least long sleeves—we walked and talked with David and the field hands as they harvested for Monday’s 50 CSA deliveries and stacked the produce in crates in the back of a small truck. More work followed in the washing and packing shed, where our conversation continued into the early afternoon. After that, we joined Katie in the house and helped prepare food and fresh lemonade for the party. The mid-afternoon arrival of guests took us back outside, to the live oak–shaded yard and a view of the vegetable field where we began the day, the source of most of the dishes lining the long, cloth-covered tables: beet salads, fennel salads, and salads of mixed lettuces, chicories, arugula and radicchio; pastas tossed with sautéed garlic and chard or other greens; dips of herbs, onions and garlic; and farmer Katie’s casseroles of red beets seasoned with fennel—huge, steaming hot and sweet to smell.
David Pitre and Katie Kraemer, Tecolote Farm
16301 Decker Lake Rd., Manor • 512-276-7008
Permian Sea Organics
Bart Reid grows shrimp in the desert. In Imperial, Texas, to be exact: a Trans-Pecos town of 300 people at the junction of farm-to-market roads 11 and 1053—55 miles southwest of Odessa and 30 miles north-northeast of Ft. Stockton. The sky is big here, and the land is flat and dotted with mesquite, tumbleweed, prickly pear and pump jacks. Named for the ancient ocean that once covered the area and left it rich in oil, Permian Sea Shrimp Farm is not a patchwork of fields but a grid of levees and ponds. Each pond is four feet deep and four acres across and capable of holding 16 acre-feet of water, about five million gallons…. The water comes from the Pecos alluvium, an aquifer tapped at depths of 30 to 200 feet by Bart’s three wells. It is as salty as bay water, about 12 parts per thousand, and consequently useless for people and livestock to drink, or for irrigating crops. But it is perfect for raising Pacific white shrimp, which Bart, a lean man with dark brown eyes and crew-cut hair, has been doing since 1992, stocking a varying number of ponds in May and harvesting during several weekends from late October into November. And the aquifer, with hundreds of millions of acre-feet of largely untapped water, is not being depleted. “All the water we bring up,” Bart says, “we put in a pond and, outside of what evaporates, it’s going to percolate back into the ground. We’re not using up what we pump out.”
… Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, and as overharvesting has depleted wild populations of shrimp and many other aquatic taxa, aquaculture has increased in the United States and throughout the world.… But conventional aquatic farming, both inland and coastal, relies on methods that damage the environment and pose some of the same risks to human health that wild-caught seafood does. Much as conventional dirt farmers regard the soil as nothing but a lifeless medium for delivering chemicals to plants, so conventional fish farmers regard water. They stock their pools densely, treat the water with hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and feed the fish mainly ground-up wild fish, or fishmeal, which only concentrates the levels of mercury, PCBs, and other toxins found in wild seafood…. “Conventional aquaculture is the equivalent of putting cattle in a feedlot instead of pasturing them,” Bart explains. “In an organic system, we don’t use chemicals and we don’t stock so densely that the pond can’t absorb the fish waste and convert it to fertilizer. We create and maintain a healthy pond environment so the fish produce their own natural flora to live on.”
… With the implementation of the National Organic Program (NOP) in the fall of 2002, the USDA allowed aquafarmers to qualify for organic certification by following livestock production rules, which Bart had been doing since 1997, and Permian Sea Shrimp Farm became the first seafood facility to be certified, in 2003. But in April 2004, USDA secretary Ann Veneman rescinded this policy, effectively removing aquaculture from the NOP for an indefinite period, and directed the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and an aquaculture task force to devise standards independent of those for livestock. Bart serves on this task force, which was charged with proposing standards not just for feed but for all aspects of organic aquaculture, including habitat, water quality, stocking densities and treatment of animals. The task force submitted its proposal to the NOSB in January 2006. The proposed rules are now subject to public comment and possible revision, with adoption into the NOP not expected for several years, perhaps as late as 2012.
The abrupt, unanticipated removal of aquaculture from the NOP in 2004 nearly ruined Bart and Patsy [his wife] financially. Having achieved organic certification the year before through Quality Certification Services (QCS), a well-respected Florida-based certifier accredited by the USDA, Bart was keeping production high, stocking most of his 16 ponds. He harvested more than 100,000 pounds of shrimp in the fall of 2003, providing the large inventory he needed to sell during the coming year at premium, organic prices. But the USDA blindsided him and forced him back into a wholesale market he thought he was finished with—the global, conventional market that is driven down by shrimp exported from Asia, where production costs are much lower than in the United States and many other nations. “That USDA decision cost us a fortune, because we had all this investment in organic product. We had the product. We had people—big wholesalers—ready to buy. We even had it on the way to some of our customers! And then when the USDA rescinded certification, these buyers wouldn't take it because it wouldn't have the USDA organic label. So we had to sell most of our shrimp for whatever we could get, just to pay bills,” Bart explains, his tone exasperated.
… Since this nearly fatal setback, Bart has lowered his volume of production, stocking four ponds in 2005, for example, for a maximum harvest of 6,000 pounds of shrimp per pond, or 24,000 pounds total, one-fourth of his previous peak volume for the certified organic market.
… Bart continues to stock four to six ponds, mainly with shrimp but also with some flounder and redfish. They sell their shrimp and fish to area restaurants and grocery stores and to individuals who come to the farm. Bart still plans to expand production when the national organic standards for aquaculture are established.
Bart and Patsy Reid, Permian Sea Organics
901 East FM 11, Imperial • 432-536-2216
Full Quiver Farm and Dairy
Since 2002, the Sams family’s main commercial product has been cheese. On the pastures of their 63-acre farm, located near Kemp, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas, they maintain a herd of 30 Holsteins and Holstein-Jersey crosses. Milking from 20 to 25 during any given period, the family makes mozzarella, cream cheese spreads and several aged hard cheeses. [Mike and Debbie, both in their early 50s, are the parents of nine children, ranging in age from 11 to 36. The five oldest have married and left the farm, and the four youngest remain.] They sell their cheese wholesale to the Wheatsville Food Co-op in Austin and to Central Market and Whole Foods Market in both Austin and Dallas, and they retail at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market in Austin. On a lesser but still economically significant scale, they also raise chickens, hogs and beef cattle on pasture and sell the meat at Sunset Valley.
“[At Sunset Valley Farmers Market] we’ve got two booths, one for cheese and one for meat,” Mike explains. “We’re side by side. [Sons] Josh or Levi, whichever one’s there, runs the meat booth, and I run the cheese booth. We pull out of here by four a.m. every Saturday and get into Austin by seven. Before the market opens, we go to two Whole Foods stores, two Central Markets, and the Wheatsville Co-op. By eight fifteen or eight thirty, we’re setting up at the market and selling from nine ’til two. And then we break our canopies and tables down and load back up. If traffic’s not too bad, we’re home by six.”
The trip to Austin is 200 miles each way. To simplify Saturday’s workload and save time, Mike could skip going to individual Whole Foods Markets and Central Market stores and instead rely on each company’s distribution system to get their cheese on the shelves. But he chooses to go the extra miles because he wants to ensure that their products are presented well and in a timely way. “We want our cheeses to be at their best when people buy them so they’ll know just how good they are and keep buying them,” he says.
… For the same reasons, Mike drives to Dallas every Thursday, about a 100-mile round trip, and delivers cheese to individual Whole Foods and Central Market stores there. Although the better part of their income is from their wholesale accounts with these stores and the Samses like their relationships with store associates, they enjoy the farmers market much more. “We know we’re giving our customers products that are in peak condition, and we can talk with them and tell them just what all goes into what they’re getting. And then, too, we hear and learn from them what they like, and that helps us stay on our toes,” Mike says. “Plus we get more for our product.”
“We get to make a living doing what we love…and we feel so blessed and grateful, because you’ve got to have some kind of business to survive in this world,” Debbie reflects. “But even if farming weren’t our business, even if Mike had to put on a suit and drive to work in Dallas every day, I’d still be milking a cow and making butter and cheese and digging in my garden and drying our clothes on the line. And we’d still be raising laying hens and meat animals, and all of us would still be working together and playing together and still be living what we love.”
Michael and Debbie Sams, Full Quiver Farm and Dairy
6238 FM 3396, Kemp • 903-498-3884