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Local growers share good living with their customers, but it's about food, not money

Sunday, August 03, 2008

By J.B. Smith

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Supporting the local food economy may take some investment in cash and road miles, but it pays delicious dividends.

Within 60 miles of Waco are small farms offering an impressive array of delectables: raw milk ice cream, chevre cheese, heirloom tomato salsa, mesquite honey, free-range eggs, grass-fed beefsteak and tempranillo wine.

But more than food, a growing number of direct-to-consumer farmers are also selling the personal touch. Many give tours to show off their “sustainable agriculture” techniques, and let people pick fruit, take hayrides, learn about cheesemaking, churn butter or even plow with horses.

This kind of agricultural tourism is part of the “local food” movement of recent years that aims to reconnect consumers with the farmers whose food they consume.

Close customer relationships have allowed some small farmers to focus on quality instead of quantity. They can bypass the conventional farming practice of growing one or two big commodity crops for export to distant markets.

“We’ve noticed more Texas consumers buying and dining locally,” said Gene Richards, assistant commissioner for marketing and promotion at the Texas Department of Agriculture. “Consumers are more comfortable buying closer to home.”

He said the agriculture department’s Go Texan program is working to promote connections between small farmers and consumers, including farmers markets and agricultural tourism. Those connections help small farmers survive, he said.

“The more people go out to farms, the place where the production is happening, they begin to develop loyalty. There’s a bond that’s been established.”

The idea of doing good by eating well appealed to me as I researched a recent story on the local food movement. So I decided to check out some of these farms, in a quest that tested my Honda Civic’s tolerance for bumpy gravel roads. But the discoveries were worth the trouble.

I was already familiar with some Waco farms, such as Homestead Heritage, World Hunger Relief Inc. and Tehuacana Creek Vineyards, that offer tours and public events.

But farther afield, my traveling companion and I foundmore culinary delights and stories of family farming in the 21st century.

Stop 1: Sand Creek Farm

Off a gravel road halfway between Calvert and Cameron you’ll find a family living a dream of country life with horsepower and girl power.

Four blond-headed girls have the run of the place. They ride ponies, gather eggs, feed pigs and wade in the pond, getting the hems of their dresses muddy. The oldest, 9-year-old Abigale, trains horses to work the fields and draw wagons.

Their parents are Ben and Alysha Godfrey, who bought an old hay farm two years ago to start a dairy. Now some 150 customers from places like Houston, Austin, Dallas and Waco make the drive to buy raw milk from grass-fed cows, for $10 a gallon. They also buy ice cream, Gouda cheese, honey, farm eggs, pork and grass-fed beef.

“We’re not a monoculture, monoproduct farm,” Alysha said. “We feel like it’s going to take a little bit of everything.”

Farming is a lifelong dream for Ben Godfrey, a native of Crowley, Texas, a small town near Fort Worth. Not so for Alysha, who grew up at a country club neighborhood near Fort Worth.

“I wanted to move my kids out to the country,” Ben said. “My wife used to say, ‘I don’t want to live anywhere where there aren’t sidewalks.’ Now she doesn’t even like to go to town.”

In their old lives, the Godfreys would come home from work, make dinner, watch television and go to bed. Now, in the evenings, they milk, feed chickens and hogs and then feed themselves from the bounty of their own land. They no longer own a television.

The switch to the country life started when the couple bought a 40-acre farm near Bryan in 2002. Then, as now, Ben had a job in commercial construction, but the new farm is an attempt to go into farming full time.

Alysha, who earned a nutrition degree from Texas A&M University, said providing wholesome food is her vision for the farm.

“What drove us out of the city and regular life was seeing a lot of health problems,” she said. “It makes you think there’s something wrong with the food supply.”

Ben Godfrey graduated in 1991 from Texas A&M with a degree in agricultural development.

“We were trained to be change agents,” he said. “We were taught about new technologies and farming with chemicals. We redirected that to old farming techniques. With modern agriculture, everything comes down to a pill or a shot. With the sustainability approach, instead of a patch or a pill, you start with your soil and make sure that’s healthy first.”

Ben befriended Amish farmers in Ohio and from them learned how to farm with draft horses.

“We hit it off great,” he said. “I thought, ‘What a great life.’ ”

He bought Percheron horses and horse-drawn equipment, which he uses for smaller projects that don’t require a tractor.

He feeds no grain to his cows, on the principle that cows are ruminants and should eat grass. He rotates his pastures intensively and plants sorghum and peas together to provide a balanced meal. He also feeds beets, molasses and sweet potatoes to supplement his cows.

The pigs run free in the same pastures with the cows, along with the chickens, which can eat bugs and any grain the pigs leave behind.

The milk from the grass-fed cows, Ben says, is higher than grocery-store milk in Omega 3 fats. Only a few farms in Texas are certified to sell unpasteurized milk, and because of regulators’ continued concern about milk-borne diseases, it cannot be sold off-farm.

It’s also more than 5 percent milk fat, which gives the milk a rich, creamy taste.

Ben said his cows give about 20 percent less than conventional dairy cows, but the milk is better.

“Our goal wasn’t to maximize production,” he said. “Our goal was to make the best milk. If this was just about the money, I wouldn’t be here. The return on investment just isn’t there Raw milk advocates say pasteurization destroys the nutritional and probiotic properties of milk. And they’re willing to drive long distances for it.

The Godfreys also open up their farm once a month for farm days. The public is invited to plow, stack hay, churn butter, feed chickens and pigs, collect eggs and take wagon rides.

Our tour ended at the makeshift farm store, where we bought some milk, Gouda cheese and a pint of maple ice cream, which we devoured by the time we got to Calvert.

As we were getting ready to leave, Alysha called in the girls for lunch and they came running when they heard what was on the menu.

It was pizza, with homegrown tomatoes and homemade Gouda from cows the girls knew by name.

Stop 2: Re-Creation Ranch, Peoria

We waited until a Saturday for the northwest leg of our journey. First, we stopped in Abbott at the James Nors Raw Milk Dairy, which I profiled in a recent story on local food. After sampling some farm-fresh milk, we were ready for a little solid food, which was waiting for us at Re-Creation Ranch near Lake Aquilla.

Jim and Roseanne Smalley are all about good food, and they make you feel good about eating good food.

The Smalleys sell vegetables, fruit and salsa in addition to their main business, raising grass-fed beef from their herd of Limousin-longhorn cows. Like the Godfreys, they are sold on grass for cows.

“Cows aren’t designed to be feedlot-fed,” Jim Smalley said. “They’re not designed to eat grain.”

“We want animals to have the best life — the best cow life, the best bird life — until they are killed,” Roseanne said. “They’re totally happy right until their throats are slit.”

As we talked, Roseanne served up a sampler plate: raw salsa, homemade flatbread, honey, scrambled free-range eggs and fresh canteloupe.

“I was raised in the country, making everything from scratch,” Roseanne said. “When I went away to college, I said, ‘This food doesn’t taste right.’ ”

Roseanne used to work in pharmaceutical sales in Michigan and Ohio. Jim worked a variety of well-paying jobs. But they decided they wanted a slower-paced life on a sandy farm, where they built their own house.

“We had a nice brick house in the suburbs,” Jim Smalley said. “We gave that up to live in a barn.”

On weekends, Roseanne teaches cooking classes and welcomes groups that spend the night at the farm.

“Now our main focus is to live a good life,” he said. “We do that and try to teach other people how to live sustainably.”

The Smalleys, who attend the Foursquare Gospel Church in Hillsboro, see their farm as part of their Christian ministry. They believe a life that is simple, healthy and close to nature is the life God intended, but it’s taken a while for that message to be heard, Jim said.

“For a long time, I saw that conventional Christianity did not embrace the sustainable lifestyle,” he said.

“God created us,” Roseanne Smalley said. “We’re a vessel for his Holy Spirit. The body is a holy temple. I want to be at my healthiest to be able to be his vessel. That’s why we’re here.”

By now the Texas sun was blazing hot, and we needed to move on. We grabbed some salsa for the road and headed off in search of goat cheese.

Stop 3: La Cuesta Farm

At La Cuesta Farm we found general manager John Spanogle drenched in sweat, weeding a patch of New Mexico green chiles in the Texas sun.

The peppers were destined to be fire-roasted and mixed with chevre goat cheese — a combination that has turned out to be one of the goat dairy’s best-selling products.

La Cuesta, a raw milk goat dairy near Laguna Park, sells fresh and frozen milk ($12 per gallon), yogurt, kefir and a variety of cheeses — queso blanco, chevre, feta — that go for $14 to $18 a pound.

Spanogle and partner Alberto Garza sell their products at the farm as well as to Central Market, Whole Foods, and markets and restaurants in Dallas. The cheese is also available at the new Texas Cheese House in Lorena.

Spanogle, a retired city of Dallas architect, didn’t move to the Lake Whitney area for this. He was planning to retire near the lake and raise a few cows. But in 2002, he let Garza start a small goat farm on his land, and it became a full-time job for both men.

Garza, a native of Tamaulipas, Mexico, grew up with goat cheese and thought he’d try his hand at making it. But he found it wasn’t a quick route to financial success.

“Everybody goes to the store and sees 5 ounces of cheese selling for $7 or $8,” he said. “They start thinking, “I could make my own and be rich.’ But it’s not that easy.”

La Cuesta is a three-person operation. “Last year we took our first vacation in five years,” Spanogle said.

“When you go to artisan-produced foods, you can’t crank out large volumes at reduced prices. It takes 12 man-hours to get 16 gallons of milk, and $4 of feed. Last year, we thought we might make a profit. The bottom line is, we don’t do it for money.”

But he said La Cuesta’s cheese is growing in reputation.

“Once they buy it, no matter what it is, they love it,” Spanogle said. “What food critics tell us is that our cheese has a freshness. They like the clear taste of our cheese. There’s not a goaty flavor. If you start with impeccable sanitation, you don’t get the goatiness.”

We tried the cheeses, and he was right: It had the sharpness I associate with chevre, but not the funkiness. We bought half a pound, which we ended up spreading on crackers and even chocolate cake.

Stop 4: Red Caboose Winery, Meridian

We had one more stop: Red Caboose Winery in Meridian, where we would sample an array of wines and even a tawny port, made from grapes grown right there in the heart of ranch country. The Red Caboose and Tehuacana Creek Winery are the first Central Texas entries in the fast-growing Texas wine market. But that’s another story.

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