Supporting Local Farmers and Ranchers Helps Everyone
Back to the soil
By Jessi Cape and Lina Fisher, Fri., March 5, 2021
After the devastating winter storm system that sustained freezing temperatures and knocked out power and water across Central Texas, regional farmers and ranchers experienced extraordinarily harsh conditions, which in turn affects our entire local food system.
Nora Chovanec, deputy director of the Texas Farmers' Market, explained, "Being a farmer in general is really difficult, but in Central Texas we have two growing seasons, and our markets stay open year-round (unlike in the Northeast, for example). So our farmers don't necessarily take a lot of breaks. They are used to dealing with inclement weather – we have freeze cycles and drought cycles; it really runs the gamut – but this was an incredibly unprecedented event. Usually when there's a flood or a freeze, out of our ag producers, we'll see a couple of them who are affected by whichever inclement weather was passing by at that point. This time around, everybody experienced it and experienced it really hard." Texas Farmers' Market operates two of Austin's large farmers' markets, both producer-only, at Lakeline and Mueller. Chovanec inspects to make sure they are growing the things they say they are growing, treating their animals humanely, using the sustainable practices they say they are using. "My job is to understand what's going on on the ground to best support our farmers and tell their story, and help people understand why they should support our markets, farmers and ranchers, and all our small businesses."
Speaking with producers firsthand means Chovanec has a clear grasp of the ongoing aftermath. She said, "Pretty much anybody who had anything out in the field, it's gone. That is really difficult this time of year because there are crops that we only get for a few months in Texas and they're so delicious – thinking about brassicas, like broccoli, cauliflower. Everything turned to mush in the field; there's no way anybody could protect them. It means that's the end of that season because those things were planted months ago. Central Texas experienced around 150 hours of freeze, which is the longest on record. Farmers [here] are used to dealing with a day or two of freeze."
Many farmers have built high tunnels – greenhouses, hoop houses – and some were able to save certain products. Others' hoop houses broke under the weight of the ice, or completely froze after the long power outage. "People don't think of farmers needing electricity, but to keep some of those crops going they spent thousands of dollars to build cold weather contingency plans, and those crops still disappeared."
This was not a matter of only preparation. "We're always aware, always prepared; we always know what the weather is at least five days out, so we saw this storm coming," she explained. "Our farmers worked the whole week prior doing storm prep, but it was just beyond what anybody expected." The sustained cold coupled with extended power outages meant that well water wasn't available and troughs were frozen. "We had a rancher who slept in his car for a week so he could, every few hours, knock the ice out of the troughs for his cattle. There are so many different levels that no one could have prepared for.
"It's been really heartbreaking for our produce farmers to see so much of their hard work for months on end just disappear like that. Our farmers are very resilient though, [and] everybody started planting this week. I don't know a single farmer who was like, 'I'm throwing my hands up because this is terrible.' No, they're like, 'Well, back to the soil.'"
Some farmers were able to harvest before the storm and save cold storage crops with generators, but as all of them lost power and water, many exhausted the fuel after several days and the storage froze. The producers with livestock worked incredibly hard to keep their animals alive. One goat farmer with 70 goats had to milk the animals by hand twice a day throughout the week, and because they had no way to refrigerate, they had to pass the milk. Chovanec said, "I have backyard chickens in Central Austin. It was so cold that we had to bring the chickens to live inside with us – and that was insane – but our farmers can't bring 500 chickens inside. They kept heaters and propane heaters going, and were able to insulate and keep hay on them. Pretty much none of them lost animals, which truly feels like a miracle with not having any regular resources. It's another layer that most people don't even think about."
Texas Farmers' Markets has an ongoing Ag Producer Support Fund that focuses on providing small grants to farmers and ranchers that experience year-round detrimental effects from incidents like freezing, floods, droughts, and medical emergencies. "A few years ago we had a farmer that was bit by a rattlesnake while she was farming and she was out for a number of months recuperating," for example. Many times a producer just needs "a small infusion grant to buy seeds to replant and be able to get that income going again. We've seen a really wonderful outpouring from the community – even other small farmers from around the country.
"We saw this week already that our farmers were already buying seeds and transplants and getting stuff into the ground because people donated and we could turn the funds around so quickly. We still definitely have a big need – we're still assessing the damage from what happened – and it really runs the gamut." Beekeepers, for example, lost dozens of hives. "Bee cans can be hardy and withstand, but in Texas we build a lot of infrastructure to withstand extreme heat, not necessarily the extreme cold, so the bees were shocked. For our ranchers who are used to their cattle being free-range and grass-fed ... when the grass is all frozen and under snow for a week, they had to buy massive amounts of alfalfa and grass to keep their animals fed, and that's thousands and thousands of dollars that normally they wouldn't have to incur, so we're supporting them that way as well."
The support is returned in full. During the well-documented rush on grocery stores, shoppers found mostly empty shelves because the large trucks couldn't travel due to road conditions. But the farmers' markets, which experienced record numbers of visitors the first weekend after the storm passed, had inventory because they are local and didn't have to travel too far.
In terms of current product availability at the markets, there is temporarily a bit less volume and variety, but the farmers still have plenty of fresh seasonal produce and the ranchers have eggs, cheese, honey, and other agricultural products. Chickens lay fewer eggs when they are extremely cold (or hot), so there were fewer eggs to sell, but they were available even when grocery stores couldn't offer them. Chovanec reports that their seafood vendor, K&S Seafood, did not really experience a production downturn and had fresh fish and shrimp even when the short shelf life meant grocery stores had to halt availability.
Chovanec also reminds us to consider purchasing the added value products that vendors offer, like pickles, kimchi, and pesto, made from fresh produce that they preserved. "I would encourage people to step out of their comfort zone. Maybe if they were going to pick up relish at the grocery store, try getting it from the farmer at the market instead this week. So even if you can't buy the fresh cabbage, you can support them by buying the fermented cabbage. Try something different from the farmer's table – maybe you'll get hooked on it and won't want to go back to the store-bought pickles."
Direct donations toward recovery are still very much needed as the majority of farmers and ranchers experienced hardship and loss, and the funds come full circle to make a huge difference in the food supply chain. "It's really one thing to say to our farmers, 'We're so sorry this happened,'" she explained. "But it's totally different to stand in front of them and say, 'We're so sorry this happened, and here's a check to replace those plants so you can start growing again, get back on your feet, and start feeding us once again.' It's really been difficult, but we're incredibly thankful. And we're all tired, but we see that spring is coming and we see the light from the community as well."
People can support farmers' markets across the city by visiting in-person and purchasing products, but also donating directly through the individual agriculture support funds:
Texas Farmers' Market is hosting a free virtual event with Antonelli's to celebrate International Women's Day on March 8. www.texasfarmersmarket.org/ag-producer-support-fund.
Barton Creek Farmers Market www.bartoncreekfarmersmarket.org.
Sustainable Food Center's Farmer and Rancher Relief Fund www.sustainablefoodcenter.org/farmer-and-rancher-relief-fund.
Amplify Austin Disaster Relief Fund www.amplifyatx.org/organizations/ilhigh-amplify-disaster-relief-fund.
TerraPurezza, a pioneering model of regenerative agriculture that has several campuses in Spicewood and Dripping Springs (as well as on Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch) suffered devastating losses as a result of the winter storm. Tina and Orion Weldon use a well pump to get water; "when you lose power in the country, you lose water automatically at the same time," Orion Weldon told the Chronicle. "And, you know, if we were just people living in the country, we would store water, we would shut off our well and drain the lines in anticipation – but we have animals to water, so we need to keep [it] flowing." The temperature got down to 3 degrees at one point, colder than Austin ever felt, due to the heat island effect, where cities retain 5-10 more degrees during cold snaps because of heat-retaining concrete and close-together buildings.
Compounding their troubles was the inability to drive to reach their other campuses and check on the animals. "Texas is not prepared as a state for this kind of weather," Tina explained. "So there aren't plow trucks and salt trucks out on the road to help you get out and drive to your animals." On the first two days, they managed to drive out and spread hay as ground cover for the pigs, but on the third day, the roads were so bad that when they tried to drive, their trailer snapped off of the truck and rolled into a ditch. But the Weldons know they were not the only livestock farmers that suffered; at the feed store after the worst was over, Orion overheard "grown men breaking down and crying ... when the cashier casually asked them how their animals did at the farm, they would just start crying. And [they] said, 'I had to use my tractor to dig a hole, and I had to shove them all in.'" Other exotic ranchers by the border lost 100% of their livestock; "They make good money, they were able to get all of the supplies, and it was still too cold," says Tina.
No one in Texas had the infrastructure to prepare for this kind of event. Luckily, Willie's property has more tree and brush cover, so the chickens and pigs there fared far better.
Eden East Farm
In a Feb. 23 Facebook post, Eden East shared before and after pictures of a snow-laden greenhouse and its tattered remains. "What a difference a week makes." The farm detailed the process of triage during the peak of the storm: "We kept our greenhouse warm using generators from our community as our power went out. We have already been able to salvage plants as our neighbors helped hand-carry water to our greenhouse to protect our future crops, as our well froze up even though we dripped water. We were able to deconstruct our damaged hoop house in record time due to our community's help. We then replanted that area." They credit community assistance with the survival of some of their transplants, and were able to emergency-sell crops to restaurants as well. As of February 22, they had replanted 17 new transplants. "When the sun came out and we assessed everything, we learned valuable lessons. One, some plants are resilient and survived the winter storm. Two, our community is strong and supportive."
They return to Flitch Coffee at 641 Tillery to sell springtime veggies on Saturday, March 6, 9am-1pm. Farm stand: 1910 Main St., Bastrop; Wed., 4-7pm & Sat., 9am-1pm. www.edeneastaustin.com.
Hat & Heart Farm
On Feb. 16, Hat & Heart Farm in Fredericksburg posted a picture of a frozen chicken egg. "It's hard to see the beauty in any of this snow through the pits in our stomachs, shivering animals, no running water, and no power for over 100 hours at the farm." Later that week, it got much worse; after nine days without power, they put out a call for a 15-kilowatt generator for their field well. "This is crucial to keep the few crops that did survive alive. Any leads of one for sale that's not back-ordered is appreciated." Their harvest schedule was delayed by eight to 10 weeks, and they still can't replant until they can guarantee irrigation. "The work is just beginning." By Friday, Feb. 26, that work had progressed into a more hopeful phase of replanting, a generator having been secured: "There is much work to be done, and when the electricity eventually returns, the downed trees are cleared, and the irrigation lines are complete again – the path (literally) will be open for all these seeds to grow into gorgeous, delicious food. But first, we hook up the big generator ... It's safe to say I know more about watts, volts, amps, capacitance, distribution lines, transformers, and kilowatt-hours than ever before."
Hat & Heart sells eggs, veggies, and goat meat at five different farmers’ markets, but during the pandemic they only operate at the Kerrville and Spicewood markets. Venmo: @Hat_Heart. 3961 N. Grape Creek Rd., Fredericksburg. www.hatandheart.com.
Urban Roots Farm Manager Montana Stovall says that although they prepared the same way other farms did, weatherizing equipment and protecting vulnerable transplants, one technique in particular saved them: "Because our crop plan includes succession planting every two weeks, we had enough seeds stored in the cooler ready to go once it warmed up ... [It's] sort of a built-in way to mitigate a crisis like this one." But despite their preparations, their hoop house collapsed under the ice and now has to be completely replaced. It served multiple purposes, "including as storage for our harvest bins, as a curing facility for onions and winter squashes, and even as a gathering place for youth on cold or wet days," says Stovall. "If there are more storms like this one in the future, we want to be sure that the structures we rely on are built to withstand them." Its replacement will take funds that Urban Roots didn't plan for.
Stovall says the best way to support is to donate to their Amplify Austin campaign. www.urbanrootsatx.org.
New Leaf Agriculture
New Leaf Agriculture, a working farm that employs refugees through the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, started planning for the freeze days before like so many others, turning off the irrigation system and twice covering the plants already in the ground. The row cover ended up doing its job, but the transplants in their temperature-controlled walk-in cooler weren't so lucky: "When the power went out, no one was out here to click those back on," says New Leaf Agriculture Director Matt Simon. They lost their window to plant winter vegetables in mid-February for an end-of-March harvest, so will only have baby veggies like arugula and kale for their community-supported agriculture boxes, with a four-week delay. "When you're farming, you have to think at least six weeks in advance, typically; looking where we're gonna be six weeks or two months from now based on our greenhouse losses was kind of sobering."
Luckily, says Simon, their CSA subscribers have been understanding, converting their refunds for the delay into donations to help New Leaf get back on its feet and coming out to volunteer at the farm for the first time. "[It's] really lifted our spirits in the past week or so ... just how much the community has really come together and shown up. Farming is kind of an isolating task sometimes, you know, you're out on your own land, toiling in your fields ... But I think all the farms that have CSA, the community has really gotten behind [them]; you probably had 15 CSA members who had joined our CSA but never actually been out to the farm to see where it was grown."
Farmhouse Delivery has a bird's-eye view of the Texas farming community and how Winter Storm Uri affected all different parts of the state: They deliver fresh produce and meat sourced from farms and ranches across Texas to Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio households. When the storm hit, they knew many would be trying to harvest as much as possible and offered to take "anything you need to get out of the ground. You know, I think in a normal week we take around 15,000 pounds of produce locally, and we increased that week to like 30,000 pounds," Stephanie Scherzer, the CEO and founder of Farmhouse, told the Chronicle.
Scherzer says farmers know that February is an erratic month for weather, so they were prepared for the most part; but this year, even the most prepared couldn't have foreseen the damage. Scherzer reached out to Foodshed Investors to assess the monetary damage to farms; out of the 18 they've polled so far, there is $300,000 lost, with an estimated $185,000 from just seeds and labor. "Some that were in South Texas [with] acres of romaine lettuce – they just peeled away, and they're gonna sell the romaine hearts. Strawberries, for example, we lost the whole crop, because it was already in the ground. But it seems like our citrus and avocado growers down in the valley did okay; they had reports of maybe four to six hours when it was below 29 [degrees]." She says other industries that one might not think of were hit harder, "like dairy – irrigation, water, a lot of piping involved in that. [When] the electricity went down and animals weren't able to be milked, they could get in danger of frostbite on their teats, because milk escapes and then it freezes. And that's just from the stress and the cold."
Farmhouse Delivery has a donation option on their website that will go to the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association relief fund; already, their customer base has contributed $10,000. Foodshed Investors is doing a separate relief program to disburse zero-interest loans to farmers based on need; you can apply or donate on their website.
Farmshare Austin, which has been operating a curbside produce delivery during the pandemic, advocates for equitable food access, teaches young farmers, and also grows veggies on their 10-acre farm in eastern Travis County. The multidisciplinary nonprofit published a Medium article on Feb. 25 describing the scale of devastation Central Texas farmers are facing from Winter Storm Uri, with ways you can help. "Operating a vegetable farm or fruit orchard requires large amounts of capital in order to purchase seeds, labor, soil amendments, and irrigation equipment. Replacing lost crops and damaged infrastructure will require months before a cash flow might return to pay for these costs." Farmshare is one of the 130-plus nonprofits that benefit from Amplify Austin's Disaster Relief Fund, but they recommend donating to the Sustainable Food Center fund, among others, "whether you're reading this from Austin or Shanghai."
3608 River Rd., Cedar Creek