Just look at those shiny, happy faces. That's Alex McPhail on the left and Casey McAuliffe on the right. Their farming story has taken them clear across the country, from Texas to New York and back with a detour in North Carolina along the way.
Casey took a break from the blazing sun and swarms of mosquitoes to tell us a bit of their story. The pair's passion for farming and building a better future shines through in all her responses. Just as clear is their sense of humor about that crazy thing called farming.
Where is your farm? Santa Fe, Texas...15 minutes north of Galveston Island on the Gulf Coast of Texas
Who farms with you? We farm all by our twosome, with the help of family and friends from time to time.
How did you get into farming? What made you want to be farmers? Casey: I grew up in a hippie-tinged household with a mom who grew most of our produce. In college, I played on a few farms and WWOOFed in Europe, but it wasn't until Alex and I graduated and lived on our own that we truly changed our relationship with food. Avoiding Chilean grapes turned into a devoted Saturday farmer's market routine which turned into wanting to learn how to do it for ourselves.
I quit my preschool teaching job, Alex left his decidedly indoors job at the Austin Film Festival, and we went to work on an organic farm in upstate New York. We wanted to learn what it meant--what it really meant--to create a viable alternative that does a lot of people good. To be honest, it was none other than a good book that really did it for us - I read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in 2009 and it put me over the top. I couldn't stop imagining ourselves on this new adventure. We were ready to learn; we were ready to turn half-baked and wide-eyed ambitions into something real.
It wasn't until we had worked on that New York farm for nearly a year, running their Union Square booth and learning a farm's frustrations and joys that it seemed like we could really do this. Alex fell in love with the rhythm of working outdoors, and we both still cherish the opportunity to work with each other every day in the field (and in a field) we're passionate about. From New York we moved to North Carolina where Alex got an Associate's Degree in Sustainable Agriculture and we worked on more small farms. The last few years we had our eyes on the day we started our own operation in Texas, where some old farm land left in the family waited for us. [That happened this year!]
What do you grow? Our garden production includes the usual tasty fare, from arugula, okra and cucumbers to edamame, potatoes and watermelons. Our specialties are absolutely our pre-made salad mixes and flower bouquets. Somehow along the line we started selling the bouquets in recycled soup cans, and they took off---we're now the kids with flowers-in-a-can!
We have the good fortune of revitalizing an old 11 acre pear orchard that was part of the original property. This winter we'll put in blackberries and muscadines. We also have several citrus trees, including pink and white grapefruits, Meyer lemons and satsumas.
What are your markets? We sell primarily at a farmer's market on Galveston Island, 15 minutes away. Galveston's Own Farmer's Market has blown us away; it's brand new and full to bursting with customers who buy us out of everything we bring! They're ridiculously supportive and happy to see us every week; the feeling is mutual.
We also regularly sell to the large fine-dining restaurant Brennan's in Houston. We've had many local restaurants contact us with intent to buy our goods, but we don't have the yield at this point. It's a dizzying and amazing problem to have, and one we did not anticipate.
Why do you feel local farms and natural practices are important? Not too long ago, buying from the farmers in your town and eating from the land around your house wasn't trendy – it just made sense. Similarly, the food you grew was raised naturally because it just made sense. Money traded hands between friends and neighbors, and continued to circulate through the community. Friends and neighbors could visit the farm that grew their food, and so the farmers stayed trustworthy. In this way, trust is the biggest bonus that comes from buying local. The consumer can trust the integrity of their food because the farmer can trust their food is valued. Growing food naturally is the only way to do something good for everybody--consumer, producer, community and planet.
Why did you get involved with CNG? Food should be a joyful fact of living, rather than a symbol of the barrier of what you do or do not have. By labeling ourselves Certified Naturally Grown, we ally with folks telling a story we believe can change the world. Plus, CNG encourages us farmers to eschew our typically isolated ways and go out and meet each other---and sharing a beer with a new friend is never a bad thing.
How did you choose your farm name? Our dog, Saxton, is a 14-year old Chow Chow-Akita mix. He is big, black and wooly. He's been with us through all our journeys and was hooked on the farming life from the beginning, just as we were. After all the traveling and living in our car he's endured over the years, it's only right to name the farm after our old friend.
(When) have you wished you hadn’t become a farmer? Lately, with summer temperatures peaking around 100 degrees and 70% humidity topped off with biblical swarms of mosquitoes, I've been questioning the sanity of this lifestyle.
Most unusual or favorite farm tool My various podcasts! I listen to them while weeding, pruning, harvesting, bug-squishing and more. I love This American Life, RadioLab, Slate's Culture and Political Gabfests, The Moth, and almost anything from BBC's Radio 4.
Favorite vegetable: The 4 green pillars: kale, lettuce, okra and cucumbers. Although I'll be honest: I had to train myself for months to get the hang of the cukes.
What's your guilty pleasure? When the grapefruits are in season, we enjoy a nice post-harvest cocktail with fresh-squeezed juice every Saturday while arranging our flower bouquets for market the next day. And sometimes, we have two.
What’s your most useful piece of clothing for working on the farm? During normal times, a classic large-brimmed hat-- the bigger the better. In response to the intense sun and massive blood-sucking mosquito armies that characterize our farm in summer, our best defense is what we call the Come Hither Uniform: long thick pants, long-sleeve shirts buttoned to the chin, muck boots, gigantic hats and, occasionally even a bee-keeping hood. Seriously, the mosquitoes are bad this time of year.
P.S. Some of the photos were taken by teenagers enrolled in a summer camp that we worked with. They came and took photos, we talked to them about agriculture, yada yada. Photo credits, top to bottom:
Casey and Alex, color: Rachael Belshaw
Watermelon: Barbara Savant Smith
Casey and Alex, sepia: Nina Klouda