Of Goats and Gardens

Taking a goat to a community garden plant sale is always problematic. It requires vigilance (all those plants to eat). And patience (all those two-legged kids begging to pet her). And endurance (four hours of navigating dogs on leashes, keeping those horns away from toddlers, and, of course, avoiding the hundred or so raised beds bursting with a free meal.averygoat

Our daughter Avery has taken on this thankless marketing task for three years now. This March ritual, like spring itself, always sneaks up and leaves us frantically rounding up whatever critter meets our fairly subjective criteria – small, tame, photogenic. (One year, it was too broad and we brought a suckling pig…but that is another story.)

By the time we arrived at 42nd Steet, the line of gardeners had stretched around the block, inside whose high fence contains the city’s largest and oldest community garden. This was an old Austin crowd for the most part – jeans and boots, laid-back attitude, and that shared love for the authentic, down-to-earth experience not yet usurped by concrete, over-regulation, or developer mindset.

I’m always amazed how a pair of horns in an unexpected place makes people loosen up and ask a bunch of questions to a stranger who would much rather be texting her friends than keeping our Lucky Lady out of trouble. What is her name? That’s always the first question and I knew Avery was a pro when, without pause, she named our anonymous goat on spot.

“Sheila,” she said, shooting me a quick smiled.

Like the rest of us, Avery stopped personalizing our goats about the time we lost count of how many animals were born, raised, and – yes – eaten on our two farms. The impulse to name is about as human as it comes. But something happens around year five. Raising animals, like any other business, becomes a chore; emotional investment gives way to efficiency and expendience.

Along with the goat, I brought a cooler of veggies to display and sell at the Green Gate table. Our employee, Christina, was eager to have these props to help promote our CSA and summer farm camp. Unlike animals, it’s not easy using vegetables to get attention from gardeners who have come to raise their own food. What draws them is the chance to get tips from a professional grower — what varieties we plant and practices we use. God knows anyone who has tried to grow vegetables in Central Texas – whether by the foot or by the acre – can surely use a support group.

Despite the challenges, most gardeners I know share the fantasy of moving out to the country, of casting off the constraints of a cramped raised bed and putting down roots in rows as long as football fields. Ah, to be free of community garden rules and petty competition. To be independent and live off the land. Or better yet, make a living off the land.

Long ago, a veteran vegetable grower deflated his students’ expectation by noting that only one or two out of a hundred actually go on to farm for a living. Many of us in his class had gotten our hands dirty in small garden plots such as these at Sunshine. We had outgrown our gardens and naively assumed that farming was the next logical step.

One of my favorite growing experiences was when I was stuck living in a Post Apartments complex in Atlanta. Post was experimenting with making gardens an amenity and I was one of the lucky lottery winners to soil my citified hands in 5 by 5 plots of pre-mixed dirt. I even had the services of an on-site professional gardener to guarantee I would reap what I sowed.

Having grown and sold vegetables as a farm kid, I felt a little silly playing pretend gardener. Yet Erin, my wife-to-be, says part of falling in love with me was witnessing the child-like excitement she saw when I pulled up the first carrot I had grown in more than 25 years.

After two decades of nourishing gardeners, who knows how many of Sunshine’s members have moved on to bigger plots. Two of its original founders – Tim Miller and Sharon Crow – did just that — start their own farms and sell their vegetables for income.

Maybe that’s why I don’t mind bringing a slice of the farm to downtown Austin. Sunshine Gardens plant sale is a much-needed reminder of the fine delight and undaunted hope that gets planted in these precious little islands of urban tranquility. Some passions are best served by remaining a hobby, an unfulfilled yearning whose potential to grow and consume one’s life is best left untested in the fields of commerce.

But then comes that lovely farm girl leading her goat and, once again, the call of the country gets awfully hard  to ignore.


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