A visit to Angel Valley Organic Farm
Reviewed by MM Pack, Fri., March 24, 2006
Just about the last place you might expect to see a lush, self-sufficient, certified organic farm would be among the scrubby hills and limestone cliffs of Jonestown, Texas. But you will: Angel Valley Organic Farm lies in an honest-to-goodness little valley nestled in the arid, hardscrabble slopes just west of Austin, not far from the shores of Lake Travis. It's a lovely 15-acre spread of flat, fertile farmland lovingly stewarded by farmers John and Jo Dwyer, who not only grow abundant and completely organic vegetables but, twice every week, they man (ahem, person) two lively farmstands, selling their gorgeous produce in North Austin and Jonestown to fanatically regular customers.
Beyond its unlikely geographic position, Angel Valley Organic Farm is just full of surprises and anomalies. Like so much of the land around Austin, it was originally part of a 242-acre family ranch, but now lies hidden within a "gated community" with mushrooming housing developments creeping ever closer. However, once inside the high deer fences enclosing the farm, it's hard to believe that the exurbs are a mere stone's throw away. On the cloudless, warm spring day that I visited with bees navigating the fragrantly blossoming crop rows, free-range chickens foraging officiously, and watchful hawks circling the surrounding hills it seemed a very long way from the city and, for that matter, from the 21st century.
The Farm That Car Parts Built
So, how did this unlikely little piece of paradise come about? Like other small organic farmers I've met, the Dwyers' path to Angel Valley was a circuitous one. Jo, originally from Indiana, and John, from Ohio, met at Ball State University, where both obtained fine-arts degrees. They wanted out of the Midwest and, after visiting friends here in 1980, decided Austin was the place for them. Within a matter of months, they were happily ensconced in Hyde Park. "We were 23 and tended to do things impulsively," Jo says. "Actually, we still do." John learned organic practices at the Sunshine Community Gardens, and "from the beginning, we had a big garden wherever we lived, but the idea of farming hadn't yet crossed our radar. And, believe me, there's a world of difference between gardening and farming."
In prefarm days, Jo worked as a legal assistant, and John cut his business teeth as part-owner of a successful auto body parts company. In 1995, the company was bought out, and John morphed into general manager. By then, the Dwyers had moved to the hillside suburbs of Jonestown overlooking Angel Valley and began kicking around the idea of a farm as "a business we could do together, at home, nothing to do with lawyers or corporations."
When they began searching for suitable farmland, they never dreamed they'd find it just down the hill, with rare deep, rich soil in an area known mainly for caliche. In 1996, they purchased their property on the banks of Bloody Hollow Creek. Jo cheerfully explains that farms traditionally are named for adjacent water, but the Dwyers couldn't quite reconcile that creek name with their vision of an organic farm, so they opted for the more peaceful-sounding Angel Valley. After installing the requisite deer fences and clearing the fields, they built their farmhouse, planted two seasons of soil-nourishing cover crops, and, by 1999, were selling certified organic produce at the Westlake Farmers' Market.
Today, it's hard to fathom the vast variety of produce that the Dwyers grow and sell, particularly considering that they rotate the fields and usually only two to three acres are in active production at any given time. In cooler weather, for example, there are carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, potatoes, turnips, winter squashes, peas, onions, spinach, beets, and many varieties of greens. In the warm and hot seasons, they grow 11 varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, summer squashes, various peppers and herbs, beans, melons, okra, corn, and more. They also periodically market honey from their three hives and free-range eggs (although if the new National Animal Identification System regulations pass, they feel they won't be able to continue to raise chickens; see "Feds' Animal ID Program Raises Ruckus Among Small Farmers," News, March 17, 2006; and "Food-o-File," Food, March 17, 2006).
Apples in Central Texas?
One of the bigger surprises at Angel Valley Organic Farm is the stand of 120 little apple trees, neatly espaliered in the European style along a 600-foot fenceline, meticulously pruned like grapevines to bear the most fruit in the smallest footprint. Apples? Yes, indeed: Gala, Crispin, Braeburn, Fuji, and Granny Smith. The trees will blossom in late March for their third season, and, if the experiment works, the proud Dwyers will have their first crop of apples by late August.
Baxter and Carol Adams at Love Creek Orchards in Medina have set an impressive precedent for Texas apples, and the Dwyers have high hopes for similar success. "Everything we do, we're pushing the envelope," says Jo. "Like ... planting apples in Texas, or getting the tomatoes to bear and ripen as early as we can. John is just full of ideas; when he gets time on his hands, he gets dangerous."
Along with all the crops, the apple trees are watered year-round by what seems like miles of drip irrigation that John devised and built. They also have an impressive rainwater-collection system: From the roof of the house alone, they can collect and process 2000 gallons from a single inch of rain. Of course, for this to work, some rain must fall, and, as even city folks know, it has rained very little for many months. "The creek's been dry all winter, which is very unusual," John says. "We've had to depend heavily on our well, where the water is unfortunately quite saline. This year has been tough." Another effect of the drought has been an unprecedented onslaught of destructive, vegetable-munching insects.
A big challenge to farming in Angel Valley is the winter cold. Although it seems counterintuitive to me (I thought the hills would protect the valley), John patiently explains the reality that cold air sinks; the valley routinely gets 20-25 degrees colder than the hills (or in Austin) and can have up to a 60-degree fluctuation within 24 hours. It gets particularly frigid when the air is dry and still; the farm's record this past winter was a shivery 11 degrees.
The Dwyers extensively spread filmy white row cover over much of their crops (supported by short PVC hoops) that is pulled aside for harvest. This protects the plants both from winter cold and summer insects, and encourages development of their flawlessly beautiful produce.
The Farmstands: Like the Neighborhood Bar
The Dwyers' life is a continually contrasting rhythm between work on the farm and their convivial market days twice each week. On Wednesdays, they set up their farmstand on Jollyville Road, and on Saturdays they sell near the library in Jonestown.
Although they clearly love their isolated farm life, it's equally obvious that both Dwyers look forward to market days and thrive on the contact and relationships with customers. Jo likens it to being "the neighborhood bartenders; customers want to tell us about themselves as they're buying vegetables, and we want to listen. Through the food, it's a real sense of taking care of people. The crowd is so diverse in both markets we have everyone from retirees to professionals to stay-at-home mommies. People find out about us mainly by word of mouth, or via our weekly e-mail newsletter [current circulation: 1,175], or just by driving by and seeing us there. We've been doing it for eight years, and that longevity and reliability count for a lot."
This fundamental sense of community is the defining factor when I visit the Wednesday farmstand in the Asian American Cultural Center parking lot on Jollyville Road. Under the big blue tent, customers scoop up lots of gorgeous winter produce, and John and Jo's two checkout lines stay busy despite the fierce wind that threatens to blow the vegetables right off the tables. "I'll call up the weather service and tell them to cut down on this breeze," one customer jokes.
As the regulars stream in, it's apparent that everyone's glad to see everyone else after a midwinter break. Neighbors gossip and swap news about houses, homecoming children, vacations, and pets. The hospitable Dwyers welcome customers by name and know their preferences. It truly is a diverse group: all ages, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese.
There are many anxious inquiries about when a particular vegetable will be back at the market, and much data is shared regarding recipes and cooking. "So glad you're open again." "Maybe my kids will eat these." "When will the mixed greens be back?" "What's the difference between spring onions and green onions?" "Arugula loses most of its spiciness when it's cooked." "I love beets, but I've never cooked them; my mom always did it. What should I do?"
Amy Wong Mok, director of the Asian American Cultural Center, steps out to ask John about obtaining seeds and starts of Asian vegetables her clients are looking for them. "I love supporting the farmers," she tells me. "When John and Jo came to me about setting up a farmstand in the parking lot, I didn't think twice. We want them here. The values of the farmstand meet perfectly with the values of the center. Fresh food is such an important part of Asian culture; what we eat is who we are. We believe in living according to nature, in harmony with the seasons."
Longtime customer Eleanor Newnan chimes in. "We have to credit these folks with helping us live longer. Their produce is just soooo ... [words fail her]. They're a blessing to this community. If you read the newsletters, you can learn what it's like to run a small organic farm; Jo really ought to make them into a book. We should start calling them 'The Constant Gardeners.'"
"Eating these kinds of pure vegetables is how I grew up," offers customer Maggie Smith. "On a farm near Lampasas. My parents had a fruit orchard, a big garden, chickens. I'm a retired teacher and I'm happy to spend my money on this good local, organic produce."
Aspiring Farmers, Take Heed
Last September, the hardworking farmers traveled to Sicily ostensibly for a vacation but found themselves researching small-farming methods there. "We can't help it," Jo says. "We have to look at farms and farmland. That's the most interesting thing for us."
John continues, "What did we learn? For one thing, just how valuable the land is. In rural Sicily, every possible square inch is farmed. We also got exposed to the political aspects of farming in Europe. It has a lot to do with the EU, which has done much to throw local agriculture out of whack. There are definitely political parallels to what's going on in the U.S. It always comes down to what's happening at the local level. Also, agri-tourism has really taken off there: Farmers supplement income by having visitors vacation on their working farms."
So, what's the hardest part about life on their farm? Jo says, "The fact that this very low, creek-bottom valley gets so cold. We didn't realize this when we bought the farm, and it's definitely a big factor in our life. And tell people who dream about farming after another career that this is anything but the retirement life. Which is fine if you love it, but it takes a tremendous amount of time and energy."
Considering advice to aspiring farmers, John says, "About land ... unless you've done it before, you don't really know what you're looking for. Before just jumping in, try working with a farmer for a while first and learn what it's about. And don't buy land in a valley: It gets too cold! But in the Texas Hill Country, all the good dirt is in the valleys." He adds, "Don't think you can go into this business on a shoestring. You aren't going to be making any money right away. And try to find a niche."
When asked about the vision regarding future expansion, without missing a beat John replies, "We're there now. We're where we want to be. We already work hard enough. As it is, we don't have time to breathe in June and July when we regularly put in 14-hour days."
Jo takes up the thread. "Our idea is to just continue expanding what we've already got. It's all about bringing more to market. For the most part, we struggle to have enough produce for all of our customers. And trying something new is the fun part."
For more information about Angel Valley Organic Farm or to subscribe to the newsletter, see www.angelvalleyfarms.com. Farmstands: In Jonestown, Plaza Center on FM 1431 in front of the Jonestown Library, Saturdays, 10am-2pm. In Austin, in front of the Asian American Cultural Center on Jollyville Road (between Oak Knoll and Duval), Wednesdays, 10am-2pm.
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