Back to the Future

Austin's agrarian past rises again

Rain Lily Farm

914 Shady, 386-7633
Rain Lily Farm
Rain Lily Farm (Photo by John Anderson)

Rain Lily Farm is located just a few blocks from Boggy Creek Farm, sharing the same rich alluvial soil deposited by centuries of flooding on the Colorado River. The farm itself is shaped like a very long, thin triangle, bordered on one side by the ill-conceived concrete drainage ditch that houses the remains of Boggy Creek. The bottom of the triangle faces Shady Lane, where the 1940s bungalow farmhouse and circular driveway give the impression that you are looking at just another residence. The farm itself is barely even visible until you walk past the house and into what you think will be a backyard. Only then do you see the rows of lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, and herbs stretching back along the waterway. At present, roughly 2 of the farm's 4½ acres are under cultivation.

Stephanie Scherzer, Rain Lily's primary farmer, worked as general manager of the Natural Gardener for six years during the Nineties. "John [Dromgoole] was my mentor," she explains. "I helped him start the Lady Bug brand. I was there when it was Garden-Ville, and I helped them with the transition over to the Natural Gardener." In 2000, she and her partner, Kim Beal, started Rain Lily Design and Landscaping, a company that has achieved a good deal of success – enough success, in fact, to allow Scherzer to pursue her growing passion for farming.

"We bought this property eight years ago," says Scherzer, gesturing to her verdant acreage and greenhouse. "Up until then we were just renting. I had never really had an opportunity to grow vegetables; I didn't have the sun, and I didn't have the space. When we bought this place, it was a total dump. I don't know if you know its history, but it had been a rental for years. The house was in pretty good shape, but the land! It was all overgrown, all hackberries and garbage and poison ivy and cars.

"To clear out the trash, trees, and brush," continues Scherzer, "we worked with dairy goats. They are my first team in!" she chuckles. "They chew just everything down to the ground, even hackberries. We moved the goats from area to area, building and planting in their wake."

Because the available acreage is so small, Scherzer's approach is intensive: Bright red lettuces are planted right up to the rim of Boggy Creek's concrete ditch, and not a square inch of soil is wasted or overlooked. "I grow very intensively, and all by hand; we have never put a tractor to this land," Scherzer boasts. "Size is my biggest challenge. Even when all of the available acreage is under cultivation, I will always have to be very intensive – there just isn't that much space!"

This type of farming requires a lot of compost, but fortunately Scherzer has massive compost piles working at the back of the property. "We have over 400 yards of compost back there," she smiles. "We've been bringing all our landscaping waste back here for the last 10 years!" In fact, such recycling and reuse are deeply integral to the Rain Lily aesthetic; much of the greenhouse, chicken-yard, and incidental landscaping at Rain Lily feature the reuse of urban materials, from bicycle wheels to busted-up concrete.

"Originally, I wanted to put all the land into blackberry cultivation, but it just didn't work out," Scherzer continues. "So I started trying different vegetables, and then, I just – I got hooked. One row turned into two, the next year it was four, it just started this passion, and I couldn't stop it. It didn't make sense! Here I was landscaping for a living, and farming was just this really expensive hobby."

Occasionally Scherzer would recoup some expenses by selling produce to friends, but she never thought of it as a real business until she joined forces with Elizabeth Winslow and began Farmhouse Delivery, which gathers produce from Rain Lily and other small farms along with grass-fed meats and local artisan cheeses and breads, and then delivers to subscribers whatever groceries they order. "In just one year, we are up to supplying 250 households a week," Scherzer says.

At present, the dairy goats are working on the remaining acre, the one farthest from the house. "Once that's clear, I am thinking of using it for an orchard," Scherzer muses. "I planted a hundred artichoke plants last year, and I'm thinking about more asparagus beds ... exploring more fruit trees, capers – I just ordered some caper bushes. I want to play with some olives, Asian pears, apples. ... Apples actually do quite well around here."

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