Riding Together Through the Night

A horse is only a horse, of course, but when you’ve grown up with one year after year and watch how visitors light up in its presence, you feel that much more diminished when suddenly your horse is gone.

White Socks, a 13-year-old American Paint, was Green Gate Farms’ first and only horse. That fact alone made her special. Pigs, sheep, goats and other barnyard livestock come and go without much fanfare or remorse, if only because they are legion and get lost in the maw of farming: you raise them, sell or eat them, and try not to get too attached.

Horses have a higher purpose, a more celebrated history; from battlefield to hayfield, from cattle drives to carriage rides, they give all they’ve got without demanding much in return beyond a caring master and a good field of grass.

I grew up with horses. My father started a fox hunting club. My mother taught dressage to beginning riders, her most remarkable student being Mike Matz, a fellow Pony Clubber who went on to become an olympic equestrian. My first — and only horse — was Popcorn, a fast and slightly crazed Appaloosa whose marbled eyes kept searching for low-hanging branches to knock me off.  I still remember the day my mother opened the gate and let me ride cross country on my own. Just me and my horse and the wide open fields. We flew over freshly cut alfalfa, sailed over jumps in the pine woods, galloped through a walnut orchard that today is a subdivision. I stayed on and came home a few inches taller.

My horse days ended abruptly at age 13 after my parents split up and sold our farm. My father had moved to another state so it was left to mom to decide who was sold and who we boarded at a rundown stable near the ranch house we had moved to. Our backyard had diminished from a hundred acres to a hundred feet, from hayfields and barbed wire to turf and chainlink fence. I didn’t feel much like riding in a tight crowded ring with strangers.

One by one our horses were sold, including Popcorn. Our well-worn riding tack — saddles, bridles, boots and caps — collected mildew in the basement. I never touched them again until we sold the house after my mother died at age 65.

Buying White Sox for my daughter Avery was a second chance, a long-awaited opportunity to rewrite the script. She would learn to ride and I would be her teacher. Heck, I might even get back on a horse myself. The big difference this time was I didn’t have my mother’s knowledge and patience. And White Socks was not the calm, older gelding she had relied on to teach young children. White Socks had been trained as a draft horse, pulling carts and wagons for special events. She loved to trot down an asphalt road but put a saddle on her and she became a trickster with a twitching tail and pinned back ears. I lost count of the ambitious, confident riders who took up our offer to exercise her for free, only to quit after too many times biting the Texas dust.

Avery and White Socks

In recent years, our sassy mare became more of a barnyard attraction, the centerpiece of city folk’s fantasies about farm life. And that, in and of itself, was enough to earn her keep. She nipped if you weren’t careful but she never kicked. She was coy and sneaky but never mean. Her most alarming stunt was leaning over the paddock fence, clamping down on a carseat handle and lifting a sleeping infant two feet off the ground before his distracted mother turned around and reclaimed her child. The mother was horrified; the child never woke up.

With no other horses to bond with, White Socks eventually convinced herself she was a goat and mother to the various kids who shared the barn. Let them out of her sight and she would prance and whinny as if her brood had been kidnapped.

That whinny is what I miss most. Each morning I opened the farmhouse door I was greeted with that persistent yet gentle call for food and attention. Annoyed as I often was to be reminded of my farmer duties so early in the morning, I was welcomed in the the evening with her soft pleading, that one constant recognition for the care-taking that is a farmer’s burden and blessing. 

That care-taking slipped several notches when we shut down our city farm this month and moved to the country. Amid the shuffle of pigs, goats, ducks, rabbits and cats, she must have felt as disoriented as the rest of us as we adjusted to our new home. Weeks of rain and cold didn’t help. On Sunday, as night was falling, Erin noticed that White Socks was lying down. Nothing fills a horse owner with more dread than a prostrate horse; or worse, a horse that wont stop rolling. Dehydration, a diet  change, eating sand — a combination of things had led to the dreaded colic that was blocking her intestine.

“No, not this. Not now,” I said to myself.

David Hebel is a cowboy’s vet and a cowboy, too. He knows horses inside and out, from the ER suite to the the high-stakes rodeo arenas of Las Vegas. We leaned on every word as he turned on his flashlight and examined our fallen horse. After checking her gums and heartbeat, Hebel recommended we load her up and drive her to the Elgin animal hospital. That was easier said than done. Two hogs had been loaded in the trailer earlier that day for a trip to the butcher the next morning. Standing in that dark muddy pasture after a long day of moving animals and equipment, I didn’t have it in me to attempt such a difficult swap. 

Option B began with pumping mineral oil down her esophagus, injecting her with pain medication, and forcing her to walk. That last task fell to Avery. She walked her horse alone, in the dark, late into the early morning hour. Reluctantly, she went to bed, knowing we had done our best and could only wait and pray that the blockage would pass and White Socks would be up and eating with the morning sun.

Hebel returned to the farm at 9:25 to a field still shrouded in fog and a horse that was not better but worse. I’ve made many decisions in my farming life over the fate of sick or injured animals. None prepared me for the difficulty of this one. It was still possible we could load White Socks and take her to the hospital, but the odds of a recovery were not in our favor. And there was the matter of money. Sensing we were never going to get off the fence, Hebel reluctantly shared what he would do if this were his horse.

This was not his horse, of course. This was White Socks — Avery’s horse, the lifeblood of our farm for the past decade. I looked at my heartbroken daughter, my tired wife, our patient vet. I looked over at White Socks who was trying to stand but couldn’t. Expecting the worst, Hebel had brought what he needed to make this ending as painless as possible. 

We gave him that terrible nod, finally, unable to look at each other, numb and dumb, staring at our feet. And wouldn’t you know, just then, White Socks got back on hers.

“Oh, Gal, you would have to do that,” Hebel whispered, hoping Avery wouldn’t hear. Opening his medicine chest, our overworked vet glanced at White Socks once more, unbelieving, and added something else:

“Days like this I’m glad I don’t have children.”

I may never have the heart to ask Avery what she was thinking or saying to White Socks as she hugged her there in the mud, the fog suddenly giving way to the sun as if it, too, wanted to offer one last moment of comfort. I stood beside Hebel as he drew the deadly potion into two god-awful syringes — so big they stuck out of his jacket pocket as he approached my daughter and her horse. Like a handgun, I thought, only silent and more deadly.

Hebel knew, as I did not, that euthanizing a standing horse is something you won’t get out of your head for a long time.  So unnatural,  so unhorse like, all four legs instantly cut out from under, all 800 pounds of muscle and bone and beauty toppling down like a tower of blocks. 

“She’s not suffering anymore,” he assured us. “Her heart has stopped.”

The fog had lifted as Dr. Hebel gathered up his things and drove away. Avery leaned on White Sock’s warm body, silently texting her boyfriend in Austin. Now we were left on our own with one last yet immense task. What most owners do with a deceased horse is call someone else to remove it. 

“Where?”Avery asked.

“Where what?”

“Where will they take her?”

Truth was, I wasn’t sure any more. The Alpo factory? The landfill?

“No!” Avery said firmly. “No!”

Her plea pulled me out of my stupor, reminded me of who we were. We were farmers. We bury our own. And so we did.

White Socks was our farm’s first horse. She may be our last. Yet surely she will be remembered by the countless visitors who stroked her mane, by the busloads of thrilled students who stretched their heads out and waved goodbye to a living breathing horse, to this emblem of the freedom and spirit and the making of the Agrarian Dream. 

And by me, too, she will be remembered. When I step out the farmhouse door, I don’t hear that whinny. I will one day — of that I am sure. When I do, I will smile again and know that this second chance to raise and love and share such a noble, trustworthy creature was worth the risk of an untimely goodbye.

White Socks was more than a horse, of course. Now I appreciate why.

The Cruelest Month — Good Riddance

April. Good riddance, you miserable El Nino-sucking record buster.

You came in like a lion and you left like one, too. You fooled us arriving and you made us look like fools leaving.

Go away and don’t come back.

Don’t you know when enough is enough? Didn’t anyone teach you that excess is a sin? Can’t you put yourself in a farmer’s boots for once and see what misery you are creating?

I can put up with mud. I can put up with rotting, bug-molested, weed-infested crops. I can even put up with smashed green houses and broken windows.

What I cannot stomach is your excessive force, your over-the-top ambition to get in the record books

.IMG_2411 IMG_2366

Listen, I agree that we humans need to be put in our place. So you beat us down and we were humbled. And thankful, too — that you didn’t make us hurt so bad we turned against you for good.

But why this destruction on top of destruction? In the dark, quiet hours before dawn, no less, scaring the living snot out of everything that breathes.

The dogs jumped into the bed. The horses and goats ran into the woods. And the pigs — even they are sick of you mudslinging messes. They hunkered down on the back side of that ancient Pecan, hid behind the massive girth of the mother tree, the reigning Queen of Wilbarger Bend.

And what did you do? You blew and you blew and you blew until the beautiful thing fell down.

The Queen is Dead
The Queen is Dead

The Queen of Wilbarger Bend in the evening
The Queen of Wilbarger Bend

There were so many other trees to choose from, some already maimed, some hollow to the core. But no, you set your sights on this most magnificent  specimen. Buffalo once grazed beneath it. Comanches rested in its shade. Generations of farmers reflected on its perfect symmetry, awed that something so grand could spring up from something so small.

The Queen gave this farmer strength and courage. She had endured  all, had withstood what other Aprils threw at her — freeze, drought, flood, wind. But not you with your El Nino excess. First you spilled a foot of water on the floor and then you body slammed her from behind, in the dark, while we slept.

The Queen fell at 5 a.m. on the last day of the cruelest month.

And you ran, like a coward, tearing up the rest of the farm on the way out.

IMG_2390 IMG_2394


April, cruel April, you are gone.

And soon forgotten.

Not our Queen.

Long live the Queen.

queen copy



Rain or Shine

Of all the slings and arrows nature throws at the farmer, mud is what wears him down most. It as if soil, which he so loves much, turns against him,  a hostile medium that rots instead of nourishes.rain2

Mud defeats farmers the same way it defeats armies — one slippery step at a time. You can walk in wet boots for a day, even two. Then skin starts to blister, muscles cramp, things rust.

A soggy head yearns for the dusty days of summer.

Yet the rain keeps coming, pouring down other aggravations — mold in the air, leaks in the windows, pickups stranded in dirt roads that turn into little rivers. Every inch of bare ground — from the outhouse path to the livestock paddock — reverts to  a swamp. Wood become a threatening jungle, thick with reptiles, mosquitoes and thorny vines. Even his well-tended fields turn against him; underground armies of ants swarm at his feet; weeds stare at him eye to eye.

And the rain keeps coming, red waves on radar swooping out of the Four Corners like some ghostly war party, throwing down lightning and high winds and hail. A farmer in Sequin saw his entire 10 acres of vegetables torn to shreds by 2-inch balls of ice. In Lexington, a farmer watched her rain gauge overflow in an hour, a mind-blowing torrent that drown chickens and transplants alike. And in Brenham, where more than a foot of rain fell, a farmer friend watched his roads wash out — pave roads, that is!

Not only from above but the farmer is hit from below as well. He notices a yellowing in the leaves of his crops. They wave in the stiff wind, flags of surrender, but the rain is both blind and blinding. Potatoes, onions, carrots. The skin on their feet is starting to blister, too. A slow silent decay.

The farmer was warned, of course. “Monster El Nino” was in the weather headlines all winter. Instead of cold and wet, the first half of spring was hot and dry and the farmer scoffed at this Monster Misforecast. As spring turned cooler and wetter, he considered a terrifying possibility — this could actually be a normal season; he would have a bumper crop; he would have nothing to complain about.

Then he woke up. This is Texas. When its dry, it’s not just very dry, it’s a drought. And when it’s wet?

This morning yet another wave approached from the West. The farmer didn’t bother putting on a raincoat — all his clothes and boots were already soaked. Fumbling and cursing, he entered the mud pits once more to feed animals and close up hoop houses. The wave washed over him halfway there. Head down, eyes stuck in the mud, he suddenly looked up as four figures emerged from the misty river bottom below. They were outfitted in rain gear. Waterproof binoculars hung from their necks.

They were smiling.

These die-hard birders had come to scout the farm as a possible site for the Greater Texas Birding Classic this Saturday. The farmer had warned them about the mud but they came anyway, arriving before light to experience the “dawn chorus.”

“This is the time when they wake up and announce they are ready for business (or something like that),” explained their leader.

The dawn chorus — waiting to be heard, rain or shine.

How had the farmer forgotten to listen?

The bird lovers smiled and waved and walked in the rain back to their truck.

The farm stood in the mud.

He listened.

Patterns in green and brown

Took these two photographs after the big rains yesterday. Only later, seeing them side-by-side, did I notice the exact same shape of the flower buds atop the cactus and the sand castles formed by the torrents of rain eroding a pile of sand and gravel. Take closer look at the sand castles. Those are pebbles that cap the tops — sitting precarious up there after their base was washed away.


IMG_2292 IMG_2294

Boonie, Back from the Brink

A Waldorf student taking a lunch break with her favorite farm animal
A Waldorf student taking a work break yesterday with her favorite farm animal

The vet said his chances weren’t good. The seizure had gone on for more than an hour. She administered valium and then we waited. He threw up something nasty and black. Poison, she guessed. It was late Saturday afternoon and the office was closing. Not a good time to get sick.

We carried him back to the truck in a stretcher. She handed me another dose, adding that his chances were even lower if he fell back into that stiffened, catatonic state that was so unnerving. Good luck, she said, locking the door behind her.

I drove back to the farm, thinking of the hundreds upon hundreds of visitors and friends who fell under Boonie’s spell. Here was our farm mascot, our kid magnet, our love machine, our loyal pet who could never get enough petting.

What was the farm without him?

I couldn’t begin to imagine.

I lay him on the warm grass in the sun beside the barn. And I did what everyone else did. I petted him. And petted him. He stood up, staggered like a drunk, fell down. The fall triggered another seizure. I saw it in his eyes first, that rigid, far-away stare. Then the legs shook, stiffened.

Do I give him the final dose now? And exactly how does one person alone administered a syringe from the rear end? And what was next if it didn’t work? Nothing. And no one to call. No one to help say goodbye to 10 years of pure dogginess.

So I did what everyone else did and I petted him, talked to him, maybe even prayed. Something worked. The demon beneath the fur let go.

I saw a tail wag. Never was a wag so wonderful.

The next day our resurrected Boonie was once again wooing newcomers to the farm. Getting his pets. Getting his love.  And giving it back — always giving it back.





A $2,500 Glass of Water — for Farmers!

Farm auctions are wideangledown-in-the-dirt affairs that stir up mixed emotions. You’re there to get a deal yet it comes at the expense of another farmer who is retiring or throwing in the pitchfork.

An auction FOR farmers is a horse of a different color. In fact, it may be unheard of; yet that’s what brought more than 150 guests to a night of good music, great food and some incredibly generous company.

The benefit was the brainchild of Talia Bryce and her brother Etan Sekons. These Austin musicians took it upon themselves to start a non-profit whose sole mission is to raise money for local farmers facing medical emergencies. Austin musicians have HAAM (Health Alliance for Austin Musicians). Now Austin farmers have Farmgrass.

Like musicians, farmers often must work second jobs to make ends meet. Our work is fraught with danger, yet many of us are uninsured or under-insured. Before Obama Care, our family went without insurance for years. As if farming wasn’t stressful enough.

When a group of farmers started the Growers Alliance of Central Texas, one of our main goals was to do what Farmgrass has accomplished. The problem is that farmers work so hard they don’t have the time or energy to put on fundraising events. And then there is the matter of pride. Farmers are notorious for avoiding outside help unless it’s their church – or other farmers.

As the first recipient of Farmgrass funds, I know how hard it is to accept money from others. I also know the fear of having an accident and stopping work for six months. Pride doesn’t pay the bills and a gift is not a gift until some one accepts it. Since then, several other farmers have received Farmgrass funds, including a husband and wife who were diagnosed with cancer the same year.

Through promoting Farmgrass and its annual fundraising events, I’ve gotten to know Talia a little better as reporters ask why she, a musician, decided to help me, a farmer. In addition to having a beautiful voice, she has deep appreciation for growing food. After earning a degree in environmental science, she worked on a small organic farm in Israel.

Talia welcoming guests
Talia welcoming guests

“I wanted to do something that would resonate with the organic farmers,” she told an interviewer. “In Austin everyone loves and supports local food growers. When we told people we were supporting the local farmers, they wanted in. And bluegrass and farms go well together.”

Farmgrass’ first fundraising auction was held at the Austonian. Talia admits it was ambitious and late-minute. She, Etan and handful of vounteers, including Red Fan Communications, did everything — making the food, playing the music, asking strangers to give money to other strangers.

Lucky for her – and us – she persuaded her friend, Andrew Bost, to run the live auction. Bost is a professional auctioneer who could sell a dime for a dollar; yet he, too, dedicated his time to the cause. He joined Talia on stage at Tillery Place last Thursday night as farmers mingled with guests over a dinner featuring barbecue goat – raised by Windy Hill Farm and prepared by the staff at Odd Duck.

The highlight of the event was the live auction. Green Gate Farm’s contribution was a $100 meat share – slim pickins’ compared to the exotic trips, handcrafted ukulele, and helicopter ride also on the table. But as Bost reminded us, this evening was about what was given, not received.bosh

To make his point, he started the auction by pouring a glass of water and holding it up to the crowd. Farmers can appreciate the value of water; they can’t grow without it. In the hands of Bost, that glass got more and more precious — $100, $200, $500, $1000. By the time he yelled “sold” to the anonymous bidder that glass was worth $2500.

The evening went on to raise $30,000 and to remind farmers that Austinites not only appreciate them but are at their side when the going gets tough.

Editor’s Note: On May 14-15, the Farmgrass Festival will hold its third annual fundraising at Simmons Farm. Shiny Ribs and Talia’s Lost Pines Band will be among those musicians playing at the festival. Find more at Farmgrass.org.

A Garden in Every School. A School in Every Farm

School gardens are a nationwide phenomena stretching back more than 20 years, beginning most famously with Alice Waters’ Edible School Yard in Berkeley. So you would think academicians should know by now if raising vegetables on school grounds can change student eating habits.

Apparently they don’t. Which is why the National Institutes of Health has awarded nutritionists at the University of Texas more than $3 million to study the garden effect on elementary school students. school2

One of the schools in the Texas Sprouts study is Decker Elementary, which neighbors Green Gate Farms. Two years ago, much to my delight, its students actually walked to our farm for a school tour. They got exercise AND a taste of organic food in the same trip.

Unfortunately, there are few farms like ours for schools to partner with. Which is both sad and ironic when you realize that most schools are built on land that was once farmed. As cities grow, the farms are pushed further out; they become quaint relics of an era that seemingly has no connection or relevance in our modern lives.

When I worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 15 years ago, understanding and controlling the spiraling obesity epidemic became a top priority. Back then, the possible benefits of linking farms to schools was never considered. Farms were so far down the food chain no one thought about inviting them to the table. Or maybe there wasn’t any room left once Big Food broke down the school doors and put their products in every hallway.

The year I left my job there,  CDC brought Michael Pollen to its campus for a high-profile obesity summit. They invited representatives from every stakeholder in the food system to pick his brain for two day. Everyone, that is, except the person who actually grows the stuff they had built their professions on. One of my proudest moments was crashing the meeting and taking a seat. My official job at CDC was speechwriter for the director but I introduced myself as an organic farmer.

Because of our education mission and close proximity to the city, Green Gate has been fortunate to partner with numerous schools as they grapple not only with obesity and lack of exercise but nature deficit and food illiteracy. Through the Sustainable Food Center (SFC), we have sold vegetables directly to schools (farm to school). We have hosted schools at the farm so students can incorporate their curriculum into the farm experience (school to farm). We’ve also partnered with the Dell Medical Hospital’s obesity prevention program to introduce adolescent patients, their parents and nutritionists to meals that include fresh organic vegetables (farm to hospital or prescription farming, you might call it).

More than one quarter of public schools now have gardens but they remain a niche rather than the norm, especially in low-income school districts. And surprisingly, only a few randomized controlled trials have studied their benefits. Smaller, less rigorous studies, such as SFC’s Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention have shown multiple benefits, including increased consumption of vegetables. The Sprouting Healthy Kids intervention consists of six components, three of which our farm was involved in — farmers’ visits to schools, taste testing, and field trips to farms.

As government-funded research slowly teases out the benefits of school gardens, a handful of innovative teachers are taking bold steps beyond the garden and into the farm.school

Today, for example, we had ninth graders from the Waldorf School for an orientation before they spend next week here absorbing themselves in the farm life. Tomorrow, fifth graders from the Austin Jewish Academy will be doing the same but taking their school-to-farm program to the next level: making the farm their classroom for an entire semester of Fridays and incorporating their subjects into the holistic and organic systems a sustainable farm depends on. And next week a dozen students from Tulane University will spend alternative spring break at our river farm.

From elementary school to university, the farm serves the students and students serve the farm. They experience hands-on learning that stimulates all the senses, that breathes fresh air into an education system that too often is as stifling, predictable, and sterile as the over-built environment in which it resides.

If what school gardens give students is a healthy snack, the farm has the potential to give them a full meal. Its time for NIH and CDC to get their heads out of the weeds and look around. There’s a whole new field out there waiting for research.