Austin transplants start fresh on old Burnet County farm
STAFF WRITER JARED FIELDS
On 36 acres along Hairston Creek in Burnet County, a young family prepares to celebrate their first anniversary as organic farmers on land that has been in operation for 169 years. The Bealls — Rob, Hannah, and 3-year-old Winnie — moved from Austin to Hairston Creek Farm on County Road 335 last July, completely changing their lifestyles and career goals.
The Bealls had a bike-share business in Austin, a baby, and a home loan with property taxes that quickly doubled. They were looking for a change when they discovered a friend in the Highland Lakes was looking to sell his organic farm.
First established in 1850 by Mary Jane and Ezekiel Hairston, the land had been owned and operated as an organic farm by Sarah and Gary Rowland since 1990. Hairston Creek Farm became the first state-certified organic farming operation in Texas by 1993. When Sarah died of cancer in 2012, she was lauded in her obituary as one of the “matriarchs of the area organic farm movement.”
Not long after losing his wife and farming partner, Gary began looking for a young couple to take over the operation. He asked the Bealls if they knew of anyone.
“When I heard about it, I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll keep that in mind if I know anybody,’” Hannah said. “I didn’t think of it for us.”
They soon changed their minds and dug right in.
Hannah enrolled in a farmer teaching program called Farmshare Austin. The 18-week program included working on a farm three days a week. The afternoons were spent learning the business side of growing food.
“I did that just to be sure, to let me get my hands dirty, before committing to Gary,” Hannah said. “It solidified me wanting to do this.”
Rob came to the operation with a sports management degree from the University of Texas at Austin. While his wife sees the farm in terms of the food it provides, he views it as a business that needs managing. He has some agriculture background through his family, who planted and cultivated wine grapes near Abilene.
Farming, Gary Roland reassured them, would come to them eventually. The business aspect was key to success, he said, though they would need more than that. Gary helped the Bealls through December as they transitioned from city folk to country farmers. He stressed that money was not the most important thing in life (especially working an organic farm) and said the focus should be on control — or rather, the lack of it.
“(My advice was) to pick their battles and try to let go of the things they have no control over: weather, rain, etcetera,” Gary said. “Make the most of the time you have, and to keep planting, as every year is different, and you never know which crop is going to thrive.”
Whatever crops are harvested each week, the Bealls load up on Saturday mornings and head to farmers markets on different sides of Austin. After a morning in the markets, they meet in central Austin to call restaurants they know and sell any extra produce to them.
Beside the farmers markets, the Bealls offer Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions. Individuals, groups, or restaurants can pay a fee in return for a certain amount of in-season produce. Subscription holders can chose how often they receive the vegetables — weekly, monthly, or otherwise — based on their needs and desires. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those business models aren’t the only ones the Bealls are exploring. Three large, old pecan trees in the middle of the crops provide a beautiful setting for events — a farm-to-table meal, for example. The creek across the county road from the house is waist-deep and shaded during summers. An open field is the perfect place for camping. The land even has a few RV hookups. The Bealls are open to new ways the farm can make extra money.
As they approach the end of their first year as farmers, the couple is confident their finances will work out. They are discovering for themselves the lesson Gary Rowland sought to teach them: Farming is more than making a living.
“In finding something new to do, I feel really good about doing this,” Rob said. “It’s local, it’s rewarding, it’s pretty gratifying — the instant gratification of putting something in dirt and then it comes up. When people eat it, they’ll say, ‘It’s the best I ever had.’ I’ll go, ‘I know! I feel that way, too.’”