Down(Town) on the Farm

By Suzanne Labry

Freelance Writer

ook toward the southeast from the front steps of the State Capitol and you’ll see the office towers, condos, shops, restaurants, hotels and high rises that make up the landscape of Austin’s modern, bustling downtown. Get in your car and drive for a mere two-and-a-half miles in the same direction, however, and you’ll pass through a time warp into a landscape so unlike its skyscrapered counterpart as to be from another place and time. Deep in the heart of Austin’s east side, Boggy Creek Farm nestles incongruously on five acres surrounded by a barrio. As you turn into the long driveway, the harsh, metallic sounds of the city melt away, replaced by birdsong and clucking chickens. In stark contrast to the asphalt, concrete and billboards just blocks away, neat rows of every kind of green imaginable corrugate the ground. Flowers are everywhere, crowded with bees and butterflies. Take a deep breath and exhale as the traffic-induced stress leaves your body. Pinch yourself: are you really still smack-dab in the middle of Austin? On a farm, no less?

Yes, actually. Boggy Creek Farm, one of the few authentically urban market farms in the entire United States, has been in operation since 1992. The product of owners Carol Ann Sayle’s and Larry Butler’s vision and hard work, the farm is an unexpected rural oasis in the midst of a bustling city. How it got that way is a story marked by the ability to spot a diamond-in-the-rough, serendipity, creative financing and a whole lot of heart.

After the economic bust hit Austin in the 1980s and Larry’s real estate brokerage slowed to a crawl, he began a second business in home remodeling. In the early ’90s, when one of his construction workers asked Larry to help find a house to buy in east Austin, the first bit of providence occurred. Larry got out the Multiple Listing Service directory to begin the search and the book fell open to a page showing three acres with an old house for sale. A drive to the site revealed a totally overgrown property with what turned out to be one of the oldest surviving homesteads in Austin (circa 1840) in a terrible state of disrepair – the roof falling in, two collapsed chimneys and stolen doors. An adjacent two acres, complete with junked cars and graffiti-sprayed signs, were in foreclosure, the bottomed-out real estate market having crushed a developer’s dream of cutting down the huge pecan trees to build 26 duplexes.

Larry found his construction worker a different property, but he and Carol Ann had their interest piqued by the two derelict chunks of land. They were already in the organic vegetable business on a part-time basis, having purchased 15 acres in 1981 near Gause in Milam County, 75 miles northeast of Austin, where Larry had spent his youth and learned about farming. Although still living in Austin while raising their three children, Larry and Carol Ann started growing vegetables at the Gause farm and began selling their produce from a card-table outside Wiggy’s Liquor Store on West 6th Street, not far from their home. The success of this early venture had led them to believe they could make a living as full-time farmers, but they needed more land, closer to Austin.

“Are you crazy? Why would you even want to look at this?” asked the real estate agent when Larry and Carol Ann inquired about the east Austin properties. Undeterred by the agent’s somewhat less than stellar opinion of his own merchandise, they forged ahead to purchase both tracts, kissing their life savings goodbye and maxing out their credit cards in the process. They moved into the farmhouse on the day of closing in the winter of 1992. That night, the temperature fell to 34 degrees outside and inside, courtesy of the partial roof and no back door. A gas leak prevented them from obtaining any heat. But the soil was deep and fertile and there was a good well – true gardeners are nothing if not optimistic.

And so began the journey that has consumed the last 16 years of their lives. Carol Ann describes the next bit of destiny associated with their purchase: “We named the farm Boggy Creek Farm, in honor of the no-longer meandering creek that lies, forever encased in cement, behind the houses across Lyons Road. As a confirmation of the name choice, when we took the concrete lid off of the 150-year old hand-dug well, we discovered, etched in script on the lid: ‘Boggy Creek’.”

They spent that first year making the house livable, but they also planted the salad greens for which they have become locally famous. From their earlier experience with their Gause farm produce, they had already developed a relationship with Whole Foods Market and other local grocers. As time passed and more crops went in, they became fixtures at the nascent farmers’ markets in the city. The thriving farmers’ market scene of today’s Austin belies its early days. In those times, growers were few and far between, a solid customer base had yet to be established; and the term “organic” did not have its current cachet. (Organic before organic was cool; both Boggy Creek and the Gause farm have been USDA-certified from the beginning.) A local chef discovered their produce and began featuring it on his menu. Others did the same. Virginia Wood, a food writer for a popular weekly newspaper, the Austin Chronicle, raved about their vegetables in print. More publications followed suit. The word was out: Boggy Creek Farm had arrived

When the drudgery of packing and hauling produce to farmers markets became too much, Carol Ann and Larry decided to open their own on-site “market day” farm stand. Now every Wednesday and Saturday morning, a steady stream of urbanites arrives at Boggy Creek Farm to purchase fresh produce. From November through April, cool season offerings include head lettuce, spinach, various salad and spring greens mixes, escarole, radicchio, endive, frisee, arugula, cilantro, celery, celeriac, chervil, French sorrel, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, turnips, kohlrabi, hard squash, garlic, green onions, spring onions, daikon radish, parsnips, dandelion greens, parsley, bunched greens (brussels sprouts, mustard, collards, chard, turnip, kale, beet, etc.), greenhouse potatoes, mache, leeks, fennel, and strawberries (April to mid-May). Hot season offerings, available from May to the end of October, include slicing tomatoes (May to mid-August), cherry tomatoes, garlic, potatoes. onions, green beans, long beans, squash, eggplant, melons (July to August), sweet and hot peppers, sweet corn (mid-June), cucumbers, basil, French sorrel, crimson lamb’s quarters, figs (June to July), okra, pears (August to September), and Larry’s special smoke-dried tomatoes (July, until the supply is gone).

There is more going on at Boggy Creek Farm than just vegetables, of course. Prior to becoming a full-time vegetable grower, Carol Ann had a flourishing career as a painter, among the top American artists in terms of gallery representation, sales, and shows. The painting she was working on at the time she and Larry purchased Boggy Creek Farm remains unfinished to this day. She no longer has time to paint, and in fact, the farm itself has become her canvas and creative outlet. Her beloved flowers, interspersed throughout the fields, display a profusion of color, her artful arrangement of the produce on the market stand tables is a feast for the eyes, and her writings about the farm and particularly the goings-on of her favorite chickens are enjoyed by devoted readers of her books and Web site. Not afraid to speak out on matters that concern them, Carol Ann and Larry encourage those readers to participate in a letter-writing campaign to government officials to make the National Animal Identification Plan “voluntary,” so that small farmers won’t have to register their properties and their animals with the USDA.

Education and community service are big parts of Boggy Creek Farm. For years Carol Ann and Larry have sponsored fundraisers for non-profit organizations, in particular a supper benefiting AIDS Services of Austin and an annual fall event for the Green Corn Project, a group dedicated to helping citizens in need learn to grow their own organic produce. An official tour guide, MeriJayd O’Connor, conducts farm tours for school children, home schooling groups, garden clubs and other interested parties. The farm is also the site of a variety of seminars, including those led by the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association aimed at those who want to start a farm or garden and a popular Chicken Seminar intended to educate people interested in keeping backyard poultry.

At Boggy Creek Farm, a discernable sense of nurturing both plants and people permeates the place. Carol Ann and Larry have helped one of their eight employees purchase a home nearby. Both are fluent in Spanish, and neighbors come to “Don Leon,” as they refer to Larry, to translate documents. Workers are encouraged to help themselves to all the free produce they want. Children and young mothers are especially welcomed to enjoy the fresh air, sunlight and open space of a real farm on market days. Both Larry and Carol Ann take enormous satisfaction from providing “good, clean food for people.” Clearly, Boggy Creek Farm feeds not only the stomach, but the soul and spirit as well, right in the heart of Austin.

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