Howdy! I’m Jane Levan and I want to talk to you about locally grown in Texas, what’s happening right now, and how we can make it better for all of us.

One of the first questions new customers asked me when we sold our pastured chickens at a farmers market was “Why did you decide to become chicken farmers?”
My standard reply became “We were drinking heavily that night” because it was much snappier than saying “Some people buy sports  cars when they go through a mid-life crisis, some people pursue a favorite hobby but we became middle-aged pastured chickens farmers instead.”  That decision came partially by accident, partially because our growing awareness of the need for sustainable local farms and partially because we really wanted to do something that would allow us to earn a living while working together and doing something that was right for the land, right for our neighbors and right for us.

We never intended to become farmers when we bought 20 acres in Lee County Texas.
We’d moved to Austin for 17 years prior and the city was growing rapidly.
We lived off of Brodie Lane and our running joke was that we wanted to move to the country before the last little collection of goats in the field by our house became a shopping center.
We just made it. And we were very lucky in our timing.
The Hill Country west of Austin was becoming increasingly popular but east of Austin was not as fashionable an area yet.
Land was cheap in Lee County and Terry was self-employed which allowed him to be flexible.
He could base out here and drive to the city for service calls.
We did that for 8 years and it worked to pay the mortgage until it didn’t.
Terry was tired of constantly driving. He saw more of 290 and IH-35 than he did of our back pasture.
I was tired of trying to run the business from the house and tired of managing the farm-related chores all week.
We saw each other less than we did when we lived in Austin.
We needed a change but we still also needed to generate an income.
And then I read the article in the Smithsonian magazine about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farms one evening and that was our eureka moment.  Our land was not big enough to run cattle on and our fencing at the time wasn’t good enough to maintain sheep, pigs, or goats.
I had a big vegetable garden for our own consumption but I couldn’t imagine raising rows of tomato plants or spending hours picking off zucchini bugs.
We tried egg layers but washing and sorting the eggs was not really my cup of tea. I always maintained that a little chicken poop was just a testimony to the fact that our product was authentically pasture raised but that didn’t hold water with the health department regulations.
Pastured meat chickens seemed like the obvious solution and it was for 15 years during 6 of which we also ran a USDA-certified processing plant for other farmers. We stopped raising chickens and closed the plant in October of last year and I’ve had a lot of time since to think about the current state of the Texas local food movement recently.

I want to use this space to talk about the small farmers, the customers that support them, the effects of government regulations and programs that can be accessed to make small farms both more successful and accessible.

I want to talk the obstacles that new farmers face when they embark on this journey.
I want to talk about successful small local farmers and how they remain competitive in a really tough market.
I want to talk about programs available to help farmers grow and improve.
Farmers are really busy folk and marketing and sales are generally not their forte and when you’re a small local farmer you wear 100 different baseball caps.
Your first job is, of course, the raising of food but you also have to be an accountant, a delivery driver, an equipment engineer, a construction worker, a conservationist, an educator and a meteorologist.
Time is one of your most precious commodities and one that there never seems enough of.
And while farming becomes a little bit easier as you learn and grow, there are still only 24 hours in each day which limits the amount of time you can spend learning about the improvements that can make farming easier and increase your profitability, the State and Federal programs available to assist you, as well as community resources.
To say that we were overwhelmed when we began selling our chicken at the Sunset Valley farmers market back in 2008 would be an enormous understatement.
All of our energies were concentrated on raising, processing and transporting our finished birds to Austin.
There were no resources that I was aware of to assist us in evaluating our price structure, making valuable sales connections or even how to create an attractive booth to increase our customer sales.  TCLF to the rescue! Their webpage has great links for the neophyte as well as the experienced farmer. https://www.TexasLocalFood.org/.  They offer training on how to build sales and increase your market share on their educational platform TXFED.org

I also want to spend time discussing what we, the community, can do to support our local farmers.
It’s not easy, I know.
Farmers markets aren’t as convenient as grocery stores.
They’re only open a few days a week and they’re not temperature controlled.
Local produce and meats are seasonal and not always available.
They’re also usually more expensive.
It requires a commitment to learn how to cook what’s here and not what’s flown or trucked in from thousands of miles away.
I remember the lovely woman that purchased a whole chicken from my booth because her mother had brought one the week before and roasted it for a family dinner and she loved it.
She stood there after the sale and said “I don’t know what to do with this. I’ve never cooked a whole chicken before.”
All I could think of as a reply at the time was “Call your mother”, a suggestion that my customer loved and it made me aware of how so much of the simple art of cooking has been lost with the advent of processed foods and fast foods.

 Add to that the fact that so many families have both parents working, or are single parent families, with time and economic constraints.
Purchasing from a farmers market, joining a CSA, or driving to a farm to buy onsite requires dedication and we need to make it easier for all the people that want to eat healthy food here in Texas to access their choices.
TCLF promotes SNAP programs at farmers markets across Texas, making it easier for lower income families to purchase healthy, locally grown foods while increasing the sales of the farmers.
It’s a win-win solution.
To find a list of our partner farmers markets that accept SNAP benefits, click here: https://texaslocalfood.org/farmers-markets-across-texas-accept-snap-so-you-can-eat-farm-fresh-in-a-snap/

Finally, I’d like to promote conversations about the resources that the U.S.D.A. and the Texas State Agricultural Program can provide for small producers. When we farmed, I was unaware of the programs available to help small Texas farmers succeed or how to even access them.   I felt that trying to negotiate what appeared as a labyrinth of government legal speak would be impossible especially since my window of opportunity to sit and focus on my computer only occurred at 5 am as I was having a cup of coffee while trying to organize everything else for my day or after everything else had been accomplished that evening.
TCLF helps to foster awareness of the existing agencies that can lend support to farmers and communities that want to eat healthy, local foods.

If you managed to stick with me this far, I know you care about where your food comes from and how it is grown.  I know that you want to help build a stronger, more sustainable food community where you live.
I welcome all feedback, suggestions, and questions that you may have.
Let’s work together to create sustainable local farms that are accessible and equitable for all the citizens of Texas.

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