|By Suzanne Labry
You just never know where life is going to take you. Take, for example, Johan and Joan Osth. Who could have predicted that Johan (born in Guatemala, Swedish father, Guatemalan mother), with a degree in construction science, and Joan (Massachusetts-born), with a degree in history and journalism — neither of whom had much agricultural experience — would end up running a family farm in North Zulch, Texas? And doing it with a team of Percheron draft horses and horse-drawn implements to boot?
North Zulch, population 2,516, seems at first glance an unlikely spot for this duo to put down roots. But since the little community is only about 25 miles from College Station and the two met while attending Texas A&M University, the location is not so curious after all, especially after learning that Johan’s first “real” job out of college was working as the maintenance foreman for Amycell, which is the spawn plant for Monterey Mushrooms in nearby Madisonville.
As for the old-school methodology? That can be explained by understanding that a goal of self-sufficiency is an underlying focus of their operation, along with a desire to learn sustainable processes from the ground up, so to speak. “Even though we don’t come from agricultural backgrounds, we know how to seek out information, and we’re not afraid to get our hands and feet dirty,” said Joan. “We learn something new every day. It’s exciting!”
The couple, their three children, 12-year-old Hans, 11-year-old Sally and 9-year-old Ana, and Johan’s 86-year-old father, Arne, live on 88 acres along with their dogs, the Percherons, a quarter horse named Ida Red, dairy cows, Beefmaster cattle, meat and milk goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys and honeybees.
Two acres are under cultivation for herbs and vegetables, which they eat themselves and also sell through direct orders to customers in their area. When they have a surplus, they sell it at the farmers market in College Station. Meats (beef, pork and goat) are sold by the whole or half-animal. Fresh eggs, homemade goat milk soap, crafting gourds and loofah scrubbers round out the Osth Family Farm offerings. Plans are underway to add artisanal cheeses to the mix. (Joan notes that making cheese would be appropriate, since the phonetic pronunciation of Osth is “ost,” which means cheese in Swedish.)
The farm truly is a family affair. Although Johan is an ESL (English as a second language) teacher for 3rd-5th graders at Madisonville CISD during the school year, he still does the daily milking and feeding, along with planting and harvesting. He also keeps up with constructing the farm’s physical infrastructure and the seemingly ever-present maintenance it demands. The children have their regular chores to do before and after school and on weekends, which include feeding and watering the animals, gathering eggs, cleaning the barn and whatever else needs doing. Joan, calling herself the “general manager,” does a lot of the garden work; makes her popular soaps (which come in a variety of scents); produces a delightful newsletter that lists weekly produce availability and describes various goings-on at the farm; handles the bookkeeping; and generally keeps the household running smoothly. The Osths’ days start at 4:30 a.m. and the hard work gets done as it does on any farm, despite heat or cold, rain or snow. The whole family helps with filling orders and on the days they go to the farmers market, they all man the stand.
The Osths have not gone through the laborious process of getting organic certification, but they follow organic methods without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. They are members of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and also belong to the Brazos Valley Farmers Market Association.
Although they decided to go to “horse-power” when gasoline prices were so high, it was Johan’s love of working with animals that drove the decision as much as not wanting to be dependent on fossil fuels. “Our 10-year-old Percherons are named Kate and Allie, and Johan just loves driving the team,” explained Joan. “They train him and he trains them, so it’s a cooperative effort. Plus, there’s no tractor noise!” They’ve ordered some of their horse-drawn farm implements from sources in the northeast and gotten some from a neighbor who also farms with horses and who has been an indispensible source of advice.
In another step on their journey toward sustainability, the Osths have recently drilled a water well and added a solar pump. Their 1,500-gallon water tank sits on a platform that gravity feeds a drip irrigation system for their garden area and water for their barnyard.
Although it has been a challenge to build such an intensely hands-on farming operation from scratch, the Osths maintain that it has been and continues to be a wonderful experience. Every day, despite the hardships and setbacks, they have the satisfaction of knowing they’re not only eating fresh and healthy food that they’ve grown themselves, but sharing it with others as well. They credit the lifestyle with teaching their children valuable lessons in responsibility, hard work and practical understanding of everything from monetary transactions to conversing with the public. And that’s really what a “family” farm is all about.
For additional information, visit www.osthfamilyfarm.com