"The idea of actually having someone be my boss is pretty offensive."
This past weekend, Farmgrass visited Phoenix Farms to talk with Nathan Heath, who heads up the family owned and operated Bastrop farm. We got a chance to meet the fam and see what they're growing, as well as talk farm-to-table restaurants, the absolute need to be outside and the Zac Brown Band. Check it out:
Farmgrass: How did you get involved in organic farming?
Nathan: We moved up to the panhandle by Lubbock, between Lubbock and Amarillo to a little town called Earth and got involved with cattle production like wheat pasture. We would do wheat harvest in the off season and that was when I got introduced to massive conventional agriculture and how much chemicals they use. Slowly I realized I wasn’t at all interested in that. We would work on farms that had 15-20 thousand acres of the same crop and we were hired to do custom harvesting on machines, and then seeing when they would package it how much chemicals they would put on it. The packers on the machines would have to wear respirators. You were in danger of being crop-dusted at any time because they would just dust right over people. And then they take that feed and they give it to animals that we’re supposed to eat. It all started to just go together. Like when they grow cotton, they defoliate it with Agent Orange on massive scale and then we wear it. Growing up, we were never used to that but then when you’re around hundreds of thousands of acres of it, it is pretty disgusting. Eventually, we were looking for a place that we could farm year-round and a place where hopefully people would buy it, so that’s kind of how we ended up here.
Farmgrass: Seems like you guys are doing pretty well, considering how you keep having to clear out fields to make room for more crops..
Nathan: I’m trying to stop doing it. I’ve got like 15 projects that are all 85% done, never quite get to 100%. I told myself after I did this one, I wasn’t going to do anymore till I got some stuff done. We don’t have any more room to plant right now. Like this whole field will be in onions by January, and half that field will be in potatoes. So they’re already spoken for you know?
We’re constantly looking at what we call “Farmer Porn,” the seed catalogues, but we don’t have anywhere to plant it. So you kind of get like the burn of ‘oh man, I wanna try that and that…”
Photo courtesy of facebook.com/phoenixfarmstx
Farmgrass: How big is your operation, how many people do you have actually working the farm?
Nathan: My mom and I are full-time and then Shayda (Nathan’s wife) helps sometimes. Up until last week we had three guys that helped, but that’s only been seasonal in the fall. Occasional volunteers, some from Odd Duck came out a couple of times this year.
Farmgrass: How did your relationship with Odd Duck begin?
Nathan: Well they came to the Triangle market…We didn’t even know a farm-to-table restaurant existed when we first started this. After that, it was like, "huh there’s actually restaurants that buy food from farmers?!" It developed from there, about the same time Shawn Cirkiel (chef) of Olive & June started Parkside Project, he met Sam at the market and then we started selling to them. And that’s how that started, selling to restaurants.
Odd Duck is definitely the top at committed to spreading it around. It’s easier for the chefs to order from Hardie’s [produce wholesaler] – there’s just no way around it. I mean what does Hardies have? Everything you could possibly imagine. It does take a lot more work when a chef makes that commitment to buy from local farms, and I mean because we’re not huge we don’t have 50,000 heads of cauliflower at any time. You cannot get what you want – especially now because we do a lot of restaurants. We do ours solely on first come; send the list to everyone at the same time and whoever orders it first gets it. It’s a big commitment on their part to buy from local farms, because there are some big farms around here, like in the Valley there’s some 400-acre farms where if you want Brussel sprouts they’ll have thousands of pounds. It’s really cool that they make that commitment, and they get the upside benefit that their food tastes better!
Video Courtesy of PhoenixFarmsTX.com
Farmgrass: What do you love about being a farmer?
Nathan: The constant challenge, and there is never a lack of something to learn. And I love being outside, and I’ve pretty much always been my own boss so the idea of actually having someone be my boss is pretty offensive. What about you Mom?
Cindy: I get totally bored being inside, I’ve always been an outdoor person. I’ve had a few jobs where I’ve had to be inside and I just didn’t like it at all. I would be in any kind of weather as long as I could be outside. I love growing things, animals, science, botany - all those things that are combined in farming. To me, it’s the best life. You don’t get rich but you have all the vegetables you would like to eat!
Nathan: It’s shocking to us, especially her, when people half our age are saying ‘This is so hard!’
Cindy: One of our employment things should say - ‘If you can’t keep up with a 62 year old woman, you’re probably not going to do it!’ It’s a lot of hand labor in our size farm, it’s not just riding on a tractor all day long.
Farmgrass: What is your greatest struggle?
Cindy: I think our greatest struggle would be that we started with poor soil so improving the soil. And now we’re getting to a point where it’s getting better so that’s rewarding. We have happy plants. Seeing the plants get healthier each year, I really enjoy that. I look upon them as little creatures. I feel responsibility for their survival. You’re developing an ecosystem; we have hundreds more bugs than we first did, hundreds more butterflies...we always want to think of the whole big picture.
I’m in charge of more of the day to day things, Nathan does most of the marketing.
Nathan: I didn’t expect that it would take so much marketing time to sell this stuff. I think we were both a bit naive on that aspect. 20-25 hours a week of my time is spent selling and delivering the produce. So that has been a struggle, and also finding labor for the level we need. People will help, they just get burnt out. Its just the reality.
We planted a whole bunch of potatoes, and the weather didn’t cooperate and we lost over a thousand pounds of seed potatoes and about $10,000 worth of potential crop. And a guy from Odd Duck was asking me, well aren’t you mad? and I said if I got mad each time a crop failed, I would be pissed off all the time. You have a couple of beers and you get over it. If you don’t want failure, don’t farm.
Cindy: We call farming ‘legalized gambling’. 100% percent.
Farmgrass: Any music you feel embodies what you do, or inspires you?
Cindy: We have a farm song.
Nathan: Zac Brown Band - Chicken Fried. That probably is our theme song.
Cindy: He has a wider range, but I pretty much just like bluegrass, folk and country.
For more information on Phoenix Farms, visit their website: http://phoenixfarmstx.com