Back to the Future

Austin's agrarian past rises again

The value of the rich Colorado River bottomland east of Downtown Austin (née Waterloo) has been obvious to prospective farmers since the first immigrants from the American South followed Stephen F. Austin to Central Texas in the 1830s. Settlers with names like Smith, Tannehill, and Hornsby bought 10- to 15-acre rural lots east of town and planted them with wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton. In the first half of the 20th century, pecan and fruit orchards shared the prime land with big fields of succulent spinach that was shipped out of Austin by rail all over the country. Post-World War II development brought residential neighborhoods, warehouses, and light industry to the area. Most of the luxurious farmland was paved over and lost to cultivation. Here and there pockets remained – a big backyard garden, a small fruit orchard, a marching line of stately pecan trees – but the farms disappeared. Until now, that is.

The current East Austin farm renaissance began in the early 1990s. Determined to farm, Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle bought the last 5 acres of a Republic of Texas-era homestead; meanwhile, Glenn and Paula Foore were purchasing a city block around the corner on Springdale Road for their landscaping company with no idea that they, too, would one day become farmers. In 2000, Stephanie Scherzer and her partner, Kim Beal, found a cozy cottage surrounded by 4½ acres along Boggy Creek that appeared to be the perfect home for their landscape design business, the success of which enabled Scherzer to pursue her real passion for farming. Then last year, Eastside Cafe co-owner Dorsey Barger and her partner, Susan Hausmann, bought 2 acres on nearby Govalle Avenue to create the homestead of their dreams. These four properties are located within a few blocks of one another, and whether the plots were originally purchased as farmland or not, the land's very richness and its historic mandate willed out, inspiring these four couples to create distinctive urban farms that now feed their families and their neighbors. Chronicle contributor Kate Thornberry and I interviewed the farmers in preparation for this weekend's East Austin Urban Farm Tour. We encourage you to meet them, tour the farms, and experience a taste of Austin's past, the present, and an invaluable element in our future.

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