Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma might have changed my thinking about food, but it sure didn't produce any big changes in my actions. Oh sure, there was plenty of stomping around self-righteously for awhile, spouting big talk about joining a CSA and buying hens for the backyard and only eating at locavore restaurants, but let's face facts: A CSA would probably deliver nothing but yellow squash and zucchini; chickens probably produce more noise and stink than eggs; and there aren't many, if any, true locavore restaurants in DFW.
In other words, my behavior is just like that of a lot of people who've read Pollan's work: There's this need to feed my new self-image as a local-eating, nose-to-tail, sustainable preservationist -- unless it's too much work. So when I heard about Cardo's Sprout Farm Project, a vegetable and egg farm in Ponder that offers workshops on sustainable agriculture practices in exchange for volunteer work, I reached out, signed up for an afternoon of hauling mulch and talked with the farm's managers.
Dan Moon, the farm manager, and Amanda Austin, the assistant farm manager and community coordinator, are part of an emerging group of people in their 20s who, propelled by a passionate interest in sustainable agriculture and local food, have chosen farming as a career. Moon, 24, grew up in New York and later earned a degree in agricultural sciences from McGill University in Canada. Austin, 23, is a North Texas native who graduated from the visual arts program at the University of North Texas. They met while completing a summer 2010 farming internship at the Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York.
Last November, looking for a place to start a farm project, Austin brought Moon to Denton for a visit. He says that his preconceived notions of Texas, "cactus and tumbleweeds," were dispelled right away. Instead, Moon described himself as being amazed at how progressive the community is. "The downtown square is filled with local businesses instead of chain stores. That's rare in New York. So your local spirit was alive and flourishing, but I was amazed that there weren't many local farms supporting a local food movement."
That's where Rick Cardo came in. Cardo is the owner of the farm and the benevolent sponsor of the farm project. He bought his 9-acre property 25 years ago and has been farming it off and on ever since.
"This place was being run like a garden, not like a farm. So I knew there was potential here," Moon said. It also turned out to be a good opportunity for Moon to put his academic experience to work. "This is a good incubator for young farmers who are trying to learn. The risks are low as farm manager, because it's not my money or capital, which is a big barrier to entry for farming. Still, a lot of young people are getting into farming and trying. The internship programs in the Hudson Valley are attracting people from across the country."
Austin described their mission: "Basically, we're teaching people about sustainable agriculture in exchange for volunteer work on the farm. We want to grow and sell healthy food to Denton. We have a lecture series we're doing this summer, a series of children's workshops, adult workshops like processing chickens..."
Asked for clarification, Austin drops her euphemism: "That means the harvest. Kill the bird, clean it out, get it ready for cooking. The whole 10 yards, which I'm new at and still don't enjoy."
Not that Austin is a vegan. She just prefers to get better acquainted with her food. "I eat some meat. I've got to know the source," she says.
For their first year, Moon and Austin are farming only one acre. That might not sound like a lot, but as they walk through the different parts of their operation, it becomes clear that this is a considerable burden.
The first stop on the tour is the stiflingly hot greenhouse. "We use this area to extend the season and to start the seeds. In late December, we start sowing seeds for planting in the spring," Moon says. It starts with the soil, a hand-made mix of peat moss, compost and native soil with dashes of perlite and vermiculite. Seeds are sown into 3-inch pots. When the sprouts get about an inch high, they are separated into individual growing containers. Looking at the dozens of tiny sprouts in the pot he hands over, it's hard to imagine re-planting them one at a time. "It's incredibly meticulous," Moon says with a smile.
And in February, it all got wiped out. "We had some severely cold weather, and when some of the plastic sheeting came loose, it killed almost all the seedlings." So they had to start over. This time, Moon built his own radiant heat system on the floor of the greenhouse, using an aquarium pump, a timer, and some PVC pipes. By putting the seedlings in their pots on top of the pipes, he could make sure they survived another cold snap.
The last six weeks have been a frenzy of activity, taking almost everything out of the greenhouse and transplanting it into the fields. How are the two of them are managing this on their own?
"We couldn't do this without the volunteers," Austin says. Moon agrees: "People here are amazingly friendly. It's unlike anything I've seen in New York. People would never volunteer to come to a farm and work like this. It's a very warm and supportive community, just because they're interested in what we're doing here."
Volunteers help, but another key element to Moon and Austin's success is their commitment to letting nothing go to waste. This is highlighted when they show us the sprout-growing operation inside an old rail-shipping container, watched over by Duke, the sometimes-chicken-killing farm dog. Inside, wheat grass and sunflower sprouts are grown on large soil mats under lights. Each week, most of them are harvested and sold to an organic café and a coffee house. During the delivery, they pick up a week's worth of coffee grounds and food scraps for the composting operation. Some of the mats are given to the chickens to scratch at and eat. Those mats, along with the chicken's manure, are added to the compost as well. The compost piles, outside the main vegetable area, are easily 5 feet high and 8 feet across. Hold your hands within a foot of them and you can feel the heat produced by decomposition radiating from them.
The compost helps the 1-acre vegetable plot thrive. Growing in abundance is everything from asparagus to kale to radishes, along with a bewildering variety of lettuces. (Austin frequently stops, yanks something out of the ground, and hands it over to taste. Turns out it's worth getting over a mania for hygiene and triple-washing everything. Raw asparagus, radishes and spinach, straight from the earth and wiped off on your shirt, taste amazing.) While most farmers try to keep rabbits out of the vegetables, they have a role in the farm's ecosystem here: Otha, named after Austin's grandmother, lives in an open-bottomed crate that gets moved around the field before it gets too hot in the afternoon. Her job is to eat the bolted lettuce and spinach and add her manure to the fields.
The chicken-and-egg operation is also going strong. The chickens don't live in cages, although they have protected nesting boxes for use when they're ready to lay. Instead, they spend their days wandering another fenced half-acre, scratching around contentedly, protected by a relatively benevolent rooster. "He's polite, not as aggressive as most roosters," Moon explains. They're also quiet except for the occasional cluck and chortle, and completely stink-free.
First-year sales are strong, according to Moon. So far, Cardo's Sprout Farm Project is selling all the eggs and vegetables it produces. Among their customers are Hannah's Off The Square, The Chestnut Tree, Jupiter Coffee House and the Cupboard Café, all in Denton. They also sell directly to customers every Saturday at the Denton Community Market.
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Asked to describe their longer-term plans and vision for the project, Moon hesitates. "I don't have a long-term vision. I may not be here for long. I'm really just looking for experience and to contribute something, to build a system that someone else can come in and pick up." Austin, for her part, will consider staying, depending on how this year goes. "I'd like to have a farm education center in Denton itself, a sister farm to Cardo's," she says. "If I decide to move, I want this place to be in good shape for someone to pick up where we left off."
Then, the tour was over and it was time to get to work. Moon walks me over to a giant pile of mulch, a gift from a recent visit by the power company to trim trees away from the power lines that border one edge of the property. He hands me a rusty pitchfork and asks me to load up a wheelbarrow and bring the mulch over to a new bed just getting planted. The next 40 minutes of hauling mulch back and forth across the field give me time to consider what a labor of love all this is -- two college graduates doing crazy-hard work, without health insurance or a retirement plan, for very little money, trying to build a local food movement in the shadows of the Walmarts and Krogers just a few miles away. It's humbling, and it makes me want to try harder to stay connected to where my food comes from.
Then again, it also makes me want to go inside and sit in the air-conditioning.
Cardo's Sprout Farm Project 178 Seaborn Road Ponder, TX 76259 817-371-2278