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ORGANIC FARMS: Growing industry in Central Texas

1003
 2014


In their 40,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse, Central Texas Specialty Growers founders Wesley Kener, far left, and Sean Henry, second from left, are joined by seed specialist Ken Gall and harvest manager Lori Sellers. (Jay Godwin photo)

Sustainably produced food is popping up on specialized owner-operated land, and grocery chains are getting in on the action


By Kathy Warbelow
 
On a rural road in Manor, Sean Henry and Wesley Kener grow frilly lettuces, fragrant basils and other fancy greens in a 40,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse. Inside, workers harvest plants from trays set in shallow water and pack them in plastic clamshells for wholesale customers that include Whole Foods Market, H-E-B and Central Market.
 

(Sarah Beal photo)Alex Bernhardt picks pears from trees on his organic farm in Elgin. He and wife Donna grow a variety of fruit and vegetables on their six acres, then sell their goods at a weekly circuit of farmers’ markets.
Henry and Kener use no fertilizers and rely on ladybugs, purchased by the gallon, for insect control. The plants grow in water fortified with minerals and microbes; no dirt is involved. The water that flows beneath the flats is returned to an underground reservoir, meaning about 80 to 90 percent of it is reused, Henry said. The sun-filtering roof protects the plants from the harsh summer sun and fills their Central Texas Specialty Growers’ greenhouse on Hog Eye Road with a clear white light.
 
“They said you couldn’t grow lettuce in Texas,” Henry said. “It was a niche that needed filling.” 
 
Henry and Kener, both in their early 30s, are new faces in Central Texas’ community of organic entrepreneurs — growers and ranchers who avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and let their livestock roam freely. All are part of the region’s vigorous local food culture, which includes an expanding calendar of farmers’ markets, home delivery services such as Greenling, and retailers and restaurants that support local producers and highlight locally and sustainably produced food.
 
“In Texas, we have a really strong foundation” to support local producers, said Elizabeth Winslow, marketing and communications manager for the Sustainable Food Center. The Austin nonprofit runs programs to promote locally produced food and operates four farmers’ markets. “But there still is a ton of opportunities to continue to strengthen our local food system,” Winslow added, to ensure that small farms and ranches remain economically sustainable and that people have access to locally produced food. 
 
One missing element, she said, has been a food hub — basically, a wholesale facility where small producers can sell directly to restaurants and grocers. One started this summer in Austin: the Moontower Community Agriculture Co-op, which also aims to allow its members to buy supplies at a discount through group purchasing.
 

(Sarah Beal photo)At Pati Jacobs’ ranch, cattle roam free, munching grass and leaving the occasional noseprint on a window. She and six other family-owned ranches in area counties follow the same natural methods to sell their locally processed meat under the Bastrop Cattle Co. label. Jacobs’ favored cow, Sarah, left, will never leave the ranch.
In Bastrop, Pati Jacobs raises cattle on the 235-acre ranch her parents started in the 1960s. On a recent hot summer morning, cows ramble around the property, some strolling right up to her house and stopping beneath trees to chew their cuds. 
 
“I sometimes find a nose print on my window,” she said.
 
Her cattle eat only grass, including what she grows on her property, with no pesticides, and they are never given antibiotics or hormones. 
 
“I’m just very concerned about what is in our food,” said Jacobs, who sold her environmental consulting business to become a full-time rancher.
 
A few years ago, Jacobs organized a group with six other family-owned ranches — in Bastrop, Fayette, Washington and Milam counties — that follow the same sustainable practices, including humane treatment of the animals. Combined, the seven ranches sent more than 200 head of cattle last year to Willie Joe’s Processing in Schulenberg, to keep all parts of the process local. The cattle never are sent to feedlots.
 
Together, the ranchers market their beef under the Bastrop Cattle Co. label, selling both directly to individuals and wholesale. “I decided the only way that family ranchers could prosper is if they could sell the meat directly,” instead of taking the cattle to auction, Jacobs said. 
 
Customers include the Wheatsville Food Co-op, with two stores in Austin, and Greenling, which home-delivers weekly boxes of local and sustainably grown produce and other food in the Austin area.
 
“We try to make healthy, local food more accessible and give local producers another outlet” beyond farmers’ markets, said Aspen Lewis, regional marketing director at Greenling. The company seeks out farms and ranches that use sustainable practices but does not require formal organic certification — a costly and complicated process for small enterprises. To support local producers, Greenling sometimes buys up what is left at the end of farmers’ markets, she said.
 
Jacobs said the biggest challenges for small producers are marketing and distribution. Farmers’ markets are a preliminary step, she said, but more is needed to keep family-owned ranches viable.  Many have sold off their cattle because of the drought and can’t afford to rebuild their herds. Financing is a tough issue, she said.
 
The shrinking network of service providers for farmers and ranchers, such as people who know how to build fences and cut hay, worries Jacobs. It’s also hard to get loans. She would like to build a processing plant on her land but has had a difficult time finding the money.
 
With a stronger support infrastructure for small growers and ranchers, “we could be the Sonoma of Texas in terms of local food production and sales,” she said, referring to the California region famous not just for its wines but for its vibrant local food scene.
 
Henry and Kener chose the wholesale-only route for their company, which began with a much smaller hydroponic greenhouse in Waxahachie in 2009. Henry had worked at Central Market during college, and his connections there also opened doors at H-E-B. Whole Foods followed.
 
When they wanted to expand, he said, they looked for a location that would be convenient to both grocers. The Manor facility, built last year, is a 20-minute drive to Whole Foods’ distribution center in East Austin.  The grocer sells their greens under the Leaf Safari label.
 
Specialty Growers harvested their first crop in February; they were able to keep growing, even during the unusually harsh winter. They now have 10 employees, almost all of them from the Manor area. The community has welcomed them, Henry said; elected officials have visited the greenhouse, and the company has made presentations to community groups curious about their operation.
 
Henry and Kener were fortunate to find investors who have backed their venture from the start, including providing management services and even practical help in building the Manor facility, which includes a cold storage building where boxes of produce are housed before being trucked to customers.
 

(Jay Godwin photo)The specialty lettuces and herbs grown at Central Texas Specialty Growers near Manor flourish in a large hydroponic greenhouse. The plants’ root systems live in a water bath that feeds them nutrients. The company’s customers include Whole Foods Market, H-E-B and Central Market.
The Waxahachie greenhouse, still in operation, was “our learning experiment,” said Henry, who has a degree in biology from the University of Texas, where he and Kener were roommates.
 
Their greens are harvested while still small, at about three weeks, to assure tenderness and peak flavor, Henry said. The mix includes a type of mustard green that tastes like Japanese wasabi and lacey, incised lettuce. 
 
Their goal is to win formal organic certification next year.  They have their sights on expansion. But if they decide to pursue another market, they would build a facility nearby, Henry said. “We don’t want to be just a massive production facility.”
 
Alex and Donna Bernhardt have a different business model for their farm in Elgin, where they grow fruit and vegetables to sell at a weekly circuit of farmers’ markets. 
 
“Our strategy is to plant a lot of variety, not a lot of one kind,” which the wholesale model would require them to do, Alex Bernhardt said.
 
Alex’s dad, Larry Bernhardt, bought the land in the 1970s and later built a country house, where he retired. Alex and Donna moved there in 2007 to help Larry Bernhardt take care of the house and run a hobby farm. Neither has a farming background, although both worked in the bar and restaurant industry. Now they plan to farm for the rest of their lives. 
 
“We learned farming by trial and error, online and reading books,” Alex said. “The hobby farm grew and grew and grew, and we thought: We can make a living at this.”
 
They “really went full force” after Alex earned a business degree from Concordia University Texas in Austin in 2011, he said.
 
The couple cultivate about six acres of their land. Two years ago, they added a commercial kitchen, where Donna makes pickles, pesto, hummus and kimchi, depending on what’s available. That gives them something to sell year-round, instead of having to stop in August and during the winter, Alex said.
 
As for their organic approach: “We want to be good stewards of the land, with organic practices, being a good part of the community, treating our help well — sustainable all around,” Alex said.
 
He’s already thinking about expanding into aquaponics, raising fish indoors. The Bernhardts recently purchased two hoop houses – tunnel-shaped greenhouses that will allow them to grow high-value crops well into the winter, at least past the first freeze or two. One was bought with a grant from the National Resources Conservation Service, the other out of their own pockets.
 
“When no one else has strawberries and raspberries, we will,” Alex said.
 
 

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