Back to the Future

Austin's agrarian past rises again

Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler at Boggy Creek Farm
Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler at Boggy Creek Farm (Photo by John Anderson)

Boggy Creek Farm

3414 Lyons, 926-4650

When Carol Ann Sayle and Larry Butler bought Boggy Creek Farm in 1992, they had never farmed commercially, but neither were they new to agriculture. Though they lived in Austin, they had purchased a small farm in Milam County 10 years earlier, in 1981.

"We wanted to grow our own food and live a rural life," Sayle remembers. "Larry and I wanted a farming life, but we couldn't economically figure it out, how to make a living at it. At H-E-B, squash was selling for 39 cents a pound, meaning we would be making 15 cents a pound. There was just nothing there for us. And we still had children at home to provide for. So we kept living in Austin and drove out to Milam County to grow our own food, for our family, for 10 years. We basically taught ourselves how to farm during that time. We never used chemicals, because we didn't like the idea of putting poison on our food. It wasn't a political thing, we just didn't want to put poison on our food because we were going to eat it!"

Then, in 1991, they saw the Boggy Creek property for sale. "We thought: 'Oooh! If we can buy this, we can farm right here in town. And we won't have to drive so far!'"

Boggy Creek Farm is truly a one-of-a-kind property. Originally a 50-acre tract, settled in 1838 by the well-to-do Smith family, it was a Republic of Texas showplace at the very edge of the frontier. At that time, the farm was 2½ miles from the village of Waterloo, which hadn't yet been selected as the capital. "Buffalo grazed; the roar of panthers and the war whoops of the Indians was heard around," wrote John Smith in an 1838 letter to his cousin, describing his new Boggy Creek home, which was protected by a wooden fence with "portholes" for defense. The farmhouse, built in 1838, is still standing and is one of the oldest and most gracious homes in Austin.

Over the years, the land had been subdivided and sold off until only 5 acres remained, adjoining the house. The property hadn't been farmed in decades and was in foreclosure by 1991, when Sayle and Butler were able to acquire it for $40,000. "It was 34 degrees the day we moved in here, and there was no gas heat," Sayle relates. "There were four junked cars on the lot, and the weeds were 10 feet high. The roof was caved in, and the chimneys were in the attic – it was bad. It was real bad. But of course, we were real excited and just thrilled to be here."

With the new Boggy Creek property, Sayle and Butler decided the time was right to take a stab at commercial farming. "Of course, there were no farmers' markets then," Sayle explains. "So we set up a card table in front of Wiggy's liquor store on West Sixth, and that was our first farm stand. And it stayed that way for a long time, because people were afraid to come over to East Austin."

They made around $100 every Saturday, and that was enough to keep them going. Eventually they began selling to Whole Foods Market. "When you are selling wholesale, you don't make money, but you 'churn' it; you keep it moving around," Sayle explains. "We figured it was exposure and marketing, and people would see the Boggy Creek name on what we grew, so it was very valuable. So we did Whole Foods, and we did the card table!"

It turns out that the time was right: Within six months, the farm was paying its own way. And now, nearly 20 years later, Boggy Creek Farm is the very model of a successful urban farm, with 10 employees and its own farm stand (Wednesdays and Saturdays, 9am-1pm). The farmhouse is restored, and the entire property is aglow with unforgettable beauty and abundance.

"With this event, this farm tour, we hope to inspire people to start a garden, to get into farming," Sayle explains. "The farms are all slightly different – different models of farming – though we are all raising vegetables and eggs. The big message is, you can make a living farming, even on property as small as this! If you choose your crops right and develop a market, you can make a living doing this. Maybe not a flashy living, but if you enjoy a quiet lifestyle, you can make a living."

Another important point occurs to her, and Sayle recommends that I emphasize it: "This event is rain or shine. If you are thinking about gardening or farming, and it is raining on the day of this tour, you come on ahead. You wear your boots, and wear your raincoat, and bring your umbrella, because this is the way it is! This is farming!"

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