When A Green Gate Closes

How do you say goodbye to a farm that made a life-long dream come true? How do you let go of land that has fed thousands of Austin families? To a house that was built before cars? To a barn built before tractors? To a slice of Austin history – weird and wonderful — that is threatened on all sides?GreenGate_2color200

And how do you thank all the people who helped give this old farm a new life? Who planted their own dreams here, too? Who left with good food – for body and thought – and returned with goodwill and endless support?

These are the difficult questions our family is facing as we prepare for what could be Green Gate Farms’ last season here at the City Farm.

This spring, our former landlord – a corporate partnership of two local families who bought the 250-acre farm from Mrs. Carl Bergstrom in 1983 – sold the High Meadows/Hidden Valley complex to an out-of-town developer. Roberts Communities, based in Scottsdale, AZ, plans to add 500 more manufactured homes and 120 RV lots to the remaining undeveloped parcels here, including the 5-acre homestead where we have lived and farmed since 2006.

Erin and I always anticipated this sad day would arrive. We named this little oasis Green Gate Farms because we wanted to create a gateway to sustainable farming and green ideas – a new kind of farm for a new era, “cultivating healthy food, community, and farmers.”

The Gate is Always Open at Green Gate Farms. That was our motto, our radical method. Open the farm to everyone and see what magic happens in the fresh mix-up of people and ideas, work and play, city and country.

How open-armed have they come here to the urban fringe, the gritty, intensified edge between urban and rural. And how generously they have helped fulfill our dreams: of inspiring the next generation of farmers; of exciting the palates of food lovers; of providing healthy choices to the underserved; of awakening the passions and imaginations of thousand of schoolchildren hungry for a meaningful and authentic engagement with nature.

If you want to know what an oasis in a food desert looks like, zoom out on Google Maps and see how precariously 8310 Canoga Avenue is rooted in this rising sea of urban sprawl. What was once the Bergstrom place – one of the last remaining Swedish farms built along Decker Lane a century ago – has been transformed into a smash-up of RV lots, mobile homes, storage units, shipping yards and light industry.

Despite wear and neglect, the farmhouse stands intact and original. The same is true with the beloved two-story red barn where Captain John Bergstrom played with his cousins before his fateful entry into World War II. Scott Roberts, CEO of Roberts Communities, says the barn must be torn down, as well as the surrounding out-buildings. The farm house will stay, but repurposed as a gift house or sales office. When we had to move out of it in August, more than a century of providing shelter for farmers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers came to an untimely end.

During the past decade leasing this certified organic farm, we’ve watched the tide of development swallow up hundreds of acres of surrounding woods and farmland. Austin desperately needs affordable housing. And it needs affordable local food, too. Are these two needs compatible in this city? Can they live together and thrive or is this concept just an urban planner’s paper dream?

We believe a peaceful co-existence is not only possible but necessary for a city to keep its soul. So do the city’s leaders. Access to local food ranks at the top of importance for the Imagine Austin blueprint that will guide the city during this unnatural phase of rampant growth.

We believe, too, in this very unAmerican idea that money can’t buy everything. That no amount of Greenbacks can replace what is lost when an acre of prime farmland gets paved over, it’s history, along with its vital ecology, buried in a concrete grave.

I was reminded of this fact recently while mowing a lush field and finding an old cap that had flown off my head while I was running from angry bees. I loved this cap – its dark shade of green set against the logo of Kings Canyon National Park.

Two summers ago I bought it during a family visit to California. We were visiting friends struggling to farm amid California’s record drought and took a side trip to Sequoia National Park. There, in the birthplace of the modern conservation movement, our kids came face to face with those living giants. We owe this gift to John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt and the Sierra Club, because they cared enough to save the trees before the captains of industry cut the last ones down.

Can this historic farm site be saved? My own experience tells me it can.

I grew up on a 100-acre farm steeped in early Pennsylvania history. When my parents divorced in 1969, they sold it to a first generation German family who spent the next 30 years restoring and preserving the aging farmhouse and outbuildings. Before they died and passed it on to their children, they made an enduring gift to everyone who loved that farm: they sold the development rights to a land trust – the first of its kind in Berks County.

Today, uninspired housing tracts blanket the Oley Valley, but my old farm stands as undivided as it was three centuries ago when Daniel Boone’s family settled in a cabin next door.

All my life, I’ve witnessed our nation’s growing population march mindlessly into the surrounding landscape. Philly in ‘70s. Atlanta in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Austin in the new millennium. Progress, we say. Always more land. The American mythology. The Texas ideology.

They said that about the red woods, too.

Shouldn’t we celebrate Austin’s agrarian history? Honor these sacred places and ensure they are shared? Don’t we want living reminders of how we got here and where we might need to go. Of the craftsmanship, stewardship, and ingenuity that has weathered the march of time? Like this farm’s hand-dug wells and cisterns that still hold water. Like the iconic windmill that still turns with each breath of wind.

A Longhorn Dad, I’m inspired by our university’s celebrated motto – “What starts here changes the world.” But as an urban farmer, I have a more modest vision. The healthy food and good ideas that start here on this modest patch of ground aren’t meant to change the world. But if they can change a family, a neighborhood, a community – that is good enough for me.

We are encouraged to have a mayor, a sustainable food policy board, and outspoken environmentalists who say they want to conserve open spaces and restore health to our ailing food deserts.

So let it start here before it’s too late. The conversations. The compromises. The policies that promote smart growth by saving green spaces.

When the green is gone, the green gates must close.

Let’s make sure our green gates stay open.

Knowing Your Beef

Kay and her cowboys had already separated the heifers by the time I pulled onto Cross Prairie Road. The morning was still early and although it would surpass 100 degrees later in the day, the air down in the glen was still cool. I backed the trailer to the squeeze shoot and the two men, weathered from years of working cattle, slipped into the holding pen, clutching long prods and measuring their steps as they approached the young bulls. The Brangus heifers were jet black, muscular, and blowing hot air through their wet nostrils.cow

These were Kay’s babies, raised almost like pets from the day they were born. A year of hauling hay, moving them to new pastures, watering and keeping a watchful eye – all the caring was abruptly over and these boys knew it. They were scared at first. Then they were angry.

After we got the biggest one loaded and the squeaky door slid shut and the trailer shook and rattled with bull madness, the older cowboy interrupted our chatter. “You better get some air in him before he bursts.” He saw our confused looks and added: “You need to get on the road and cool him down.”

Yes, this was no time to linger.

“I told him he was going to the cattle auction,” Kay joked.

Staring at this beautiful beast, smelling the cud from his flared nostrils, watching his eyes searching for a way out, I could understand why she didn’t want to take him to the butcher. Her attachment had only grown stronger after the herd had survived the Bastrop fire. Just a few hundred yards up this hill the fire had finally died, but not before destroying her house and barn and surrounding woods

Like most Bastrop residents, Kay had to come to terms with the chard landscape and make a decision. To rebuild or move. To quit farming or trust that the drought would end soon. And now nearly two years later that black ghost still returned on days like today when a hot dry wind blew up in the afternoons. When suddenly yesterday was today and flames were rolling down like a wave and how in those precious few minutes before fleeing empty handed she ran to the pasture and opened the gate.

“You want to say a last goodbye,” I said half teasingly as I pulled the trailer past her.

“Noooo!” She forced a smile and then I heard in a quiet voice. Goodbye, Bull.”

The ride to Smithville Meat Locker is only 10 miles. In 20 minutes, I would be pulling to the rear of the yellow brick building, past stacks of split oak and the smokehouse. Everything in reverse now – backing up to the squeeze shoot, a sticky tag with the number 12 slapped on the rump, the squeaky trailer door reopened, and all 800 pounds of flesh swishing past me until another rusty gate closed. Even before I had pulled away there was the switching sound of the prod and the Heh Heh Heh of a man’s voice. A heavy door shut and all quiet outside. Just the smell of smoked beef floating through the shade trees and drawing my dog’s nose to the window.

I’m telling you the story of this beef because I want you to prepare it as best you can. This meat deserves no less. With those first delicious bites, close your eyes and listen to the sound of rain, of teeth ripping grass – that greenest of grass that covered the blackened fields. Think for a moment of the joy and sadness this animal brought its owners. And how all across this land, so profoundly diminished of its herds, the ranchers and the cowboys and their cattle need to be remembered.