Juicy red tomatoes, deeply dark greens, fragrant melon, and crisp peppers are always more flavorful when they are fresh, and grown and picked close to home, but local farms and farm life are under threat in Central Texas.
The benefits of choosing local produce are well-documented. Consuming fruits and vegetables grown within your county or state means fruits and vegetables that are in season, and full of flavor and nutrients because they were picked at peak freshness. It means helping to preserve farmland and green space in your community by keeping working farms up and running. And just like shopping local, it benefits the local economy by supporting local farmers who can, in turn, invest in other small businesses.
While few would argue that supporting local farms and farmers is good for the community, farms in Central Texas are still slowly fading into obscurity. Here is why: access to locally grown produce requires not only skilled farmers who know how to manage sustainable businesses, but an adequate supply of local farmland and Central Texas (like much of the country) is suffering from a decline in both of those commodities.
In the Austin area, an estimated nine acres of potential farmland are being lost per day to new development. Only one percent of the food consumed in the city is grown there. In Texas, the average farmer is nearly 60 years old, meaning a large population of area farmers are looking toward retirement. Across the U.S., farmers over age 65 outnumber those under 35 by six to one, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition, and the average age has been on the rise since the 1980s.
But even as potential farmland decreases, especially near urban centers, the population continues to grow and more residents, regardless of geographic or socioeconomic background, have wizened up to the benefits of local produce and are actively seeking it.
A Three-Pronged Solution
That is where Farmshare Austin comes in. The nonprofit organization launched in 2012 began with a mission of growing a healthy local food community by committing to three pillars: teaching new farmers, increasing food access, and preserving farmland.
“Farmshare’s founders recognized that if we share this goal to achieve a healthy local food community where everyone who desires it has access to delicious, nutritious locally-grown vegetables and fruit, then we need to ensure an ample supply of trained farmers who know how to farm and run a financially sustainable business, and they need land on which to grow,” said Andrea Abel, Executive Director of Farmshare Austin.
Farms Need Farmers
First up was tackling the issue of trained farmers to replace those who are hanging up their hats. “Traditionally, farming skills and knowledge were passed down generation to generation and were acquired over long periods of time working side by side,” Abel said. “Today, we have a real and urgent generation gap in farming and a growing number of adults in their twenties and thirties who have a desire to work in sustainable and organic agriculture.”
That is good news, but these would-be farmers often do not know where to start, especially if they did not come from a farming family, as increasingly more agricultural candidates do not. Fortunately, Farmshare offers Farmer Starter, an eighteen-week training program for adults who want to gain the skills necessary to start a sustainable farming enterprise. According to Michelle Akindiya, Farmshare’s education manager, students spend three days a week on Farmshare’s ten-acre, certified organic vegetable farm in Eastern Travis County. They get hands-on production experience growing vegetables that supply the organization’s Mobile Markets, learn the science and business of agriculture in the classroom, and visit local farms to learn directly from the experts.
“We cover all aspects of growing organic vegetables as well as business planning and entrepreneurship,” Akindiya said. “For a farm to be truly sustainable it must also be financially sustainable. With careful planning, it is possible to make a good livelihood growing food. We want our students to leave us feeling confident about both growing food and growing new businesses.”
Hannah Beall, a spring 2018 Farmer Starter graduate, said the education was an “enlightening, immersive experience that laid the groundwork for me to feel confident enough to venture out into my own farming career.” She and her husband now run Hairston Creek Farm near Marble Falls where they grow vegetables and have a flock of chickens.
In addition to Farmer Starter, Farmshare also offers a host of other education options. There are hands-on workshops on post-harvest handling of produce, days-long intensives on vegetable growing, even farm business planning classes to lay the foundation for a successful career. These classes are not just open to Travis County residents; anyone from across the state, country, or world can apply.
Farmers Need Farms
Finding farmland is the next obstacle to obtaining fresh produce where Texans live. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, land access is the number one challenge most farmers face.
“We are just beginning to launch Farmshare Land Link in order to help connect people who have land that they would like to see farmed with farmers looking for land,” Akindiya said. “As more and more of the population has left farming, it is not uncommon for a retiring farmer to have trouble finding someone to carry on their farm into the next generation. The Farmshare Land Link can serve as a bridge between generations.
“There are also many landowners that would love to see their land in production, but do not have the ability to farm it themselves. Helping farmers access this land is at the core of this program. It is a kind of a matchmaking service for farmers and landowners.”
Landowners who want to find stewards for their land contact Farmshare. The organization then uses a proprietary farmland evaluation tool to determine if a piece of land, either rural or urban, is suited for farming and helps connect new farmers to the appropriate pieces of land in Central Texas.
Feeding Central Texas
Lastly, Farmshare strives to improve food access, mostly with their mobile markets. The markets, small enough to be packed up into a van for easy setup, are located where the community needs them most, like schools, health centers, and YMCAs. The weekly markets provide fresh fruit and vegetables every week to Austin neighborhoods identified as areas that lacked access to full-service grocery stores, and had other socioeconomic and geographic barriers to fresh food, such as transportation challenges or low income.
The markets do not only provide access to this food, bringing produce from the Farmshare farm and other local farms, but make it affordable, too. Besides setting prices at intentionally affordable price points, everything at the market (including products like pasta, beans, or pasta sauce from Wheatsville Co-op) is eligible for the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. Customers receive SFC Double Dollars for SNAP purchases, enabling them to get even more fresh produce than at their local corner market or grocery.
“Farmshare is small but mighty. We are addressing some of the most fundamental aspects to creating healthy local communities: teaching people to grow organic food and operate successful farm businesses, making sure there is adequate farmland to grow food, and sharing the bounty of our farm and other sustainable Texas farms with our neighbors,” Abel said. “The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, these are the most fundamental elements that sustain life. Our ability to accomplish everything else is dependent on this. We believe this is a fundamental human right and that everyone living in Texas should have an equal opportunity to live in a healthy community.”