Workshops and day camps promote urban farming.
Urban farming is nothing new in Austin. Our quirky, progressive city has always supported local and sustainable industry, and that includes what we eat. As one of the country’s leading cities in growing real, organic, seasonal and local foods, our dozen-plus farmers markets are always packed, and, particularly in East Austin, you can practically throw a rock and hit farmland. There are dozens of commercial farms that provide food to the public within the city limits, and many more in the immediate surrounding areas.
But the newcomer to the scene is a little different. HausBar Farms, started by Susan Hausmann and Dorsey Barger (of Eastside Café fame) also offers gardening workshops and day camps for kids—with bigger plans in the works, such as hopefully one day being able to rent their bungalow as a guest house and eco farmstay, use the farm as a small event space and offer culinary classes.
“We knew it could work because we wouldn’t just be selling meat, produce and eggs—a nearly impossible way to make a living in the middle of the city, on such a small piece of land,” Barger says. “We’d be renting out our little house and teaching workshops on everything from composting and backyard chickens, to organic vegetable gardening and aquaponics. We'll also offer cooking classes in our new outdoor kitchen which we designed just for that purpose.”
HausBar Farms was originally started in 2009 to produce vegetables and organic eggs for Eastside Café, which had been growing its own produce since Barger opened the restaurant with business partner Elaine Martin in 1988. “I loved the idea of serving vegetables, eggs and meat that we raised ourselves to our restaurant customers,” Barger says. There was no gas-powered equipment used to start the farm; in fact, there never has been. The entire garden, all 51 beds, was dug with pitchforks and shovels. Three years later, when Barger sold her interest in Eastside to Martin, HausBar began selling to local chefs, restaurants and a produce delivery service.
“It was kind of a stream of consciousness approach,” Barger adds. “I'd be pulling weeds and think, ‘And then we could turn our house into a guesthouse, and then we could have kids farm camps, and then we could . . .’"
The ideas and dreams just kept coming. Barger admits that it helps to have Hausmann, her life partner of more than 15 years, working in a “real job.” Hausmann has worked at the Texas Department of Transportation for 26 years. “Someone has to support me while I farm,” Barger quips.
However, the dream hasn’t been without a struggle. HausBar was shut down by the city back in April, after a complaint from a neighbor about odor from the chickens ignited into a battle on behalf of Austin's urban farming community. On one side were groups like People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources (PODER), that attack urban farming as being a "white movement" and accuse farms of taking up land that could be used for homes.
But Barger counters that when she and Hausmann bought the property it was in horrible shape, covered with garbage and home to three active crack houses. "It's unfortunate that this is being made into a racial issue. I've lived in East Austin for 20 years; it's where I feel at home. I did not ever come here with the intention of displacing anyone. I support and want to live in a diverse neighborhood."
After PODER filed a string of complaints, many of them unfounded or false, the Austin City Council began a review not only of HausBar’s farming operation, but also set up the Sustainable Food Policy Board, a citizens advisory group established by the city and Travis County to promote local food production. The policy board passed a resolution asking the city to clarify and update the urban farm land use definition and regulations, and is in the process of trying to define and clarify the guidelines for urban farming in the area.
As far as HausBar’s problems are concerned, the city admits that that Barger and Hausmann received unclear and contradictory information to begin with. Jerry Rusthoven, current planning manager for the City of Austin Planning and Development Review Department, says that the urban farm permit was mistakenly issued to HausBar Farms. "They had the second dwelling, which isn't allowed," Rusthoven explains. "Urban farms must meet certain requirements, including land size of one to five acres and a restriction on only one dwelling unit." He admits that there was confusion coming from the city regarding the permits and requirements. "We were guilty of…when you put five departments in a room, you sometimes contradict each other."
By late May HausBar Farms was back in business selling produce to local restaurants, and are in the process of a commercial planning review of the kitchen so that they can begin processing chickens and selling eggs again. Barger and Hausmann will present their recommendations before City Council in August. “If things go our way, we'll be able to register our little house as a short term rental property and begin to rent our eco-farm-stay cottage,” says Barger.
Barger says that in spite of the recent problems, overall the farm business is less stressful than running a restaurant, and she’s in her element being able to work everyday, surrounded by the vegetables and animals and people that she loves. The couple is looking forward to having locavore chefs teach cooking classes so that consumers can learn to shop at the local farmers' markets and cook and eat seasonally, and are excited about the summer day camp in June.
The single-day camps are for children ages five to 12 and will take place June 10-14, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day. The cost is $40 per child, and kids will take part in activities such as planting and harvesting vegetables, learning about recycling and sustainable farming, learning to care for animals, and plenty of petting opportunities of the resident rabbits, chickens, geese and miniature donkeys.
"This March HausBar Farms held its first farm day-camps for children,” Barger says. “Gustavo the Goose led us around the farm as we visited baby chicks, fed rabbits, played soccer in the backyard, collected eggs, and planted baby plant starts. We all had such an amazing time. It's so great to see kids interact with plants and animals. You can see their minds churning making the connection with our activities and where their food actually comes from."
Barger and Hausmann are fanatics about sustainability, and teaching its practices to others. “Buying food shipped to us from all over the world is not sustainable. We burn up more calories shipping and packaging our food than we gain by eating it. That's the definition of being unsustainable.”
HausBar only throws away about a gallon of trash per week—and that’s for the farm business and their personal household combined. “We either compost or recycle every other thing that comes on to this property,” Barger says. “That includes staples, the lint that comes out of the dryer, the dirt from the vacuum cleaner; household bills are shredded and used to line our hens' nesting boxes. We make all of our own garden fertilizer by composting our hens' waste mixed with dried leaves.” They recently installed a thirty-gallon rainwater capture system to catch the rain from the roof, and there are plans to add solar energy.
“It's so easy and delicious to change the way we eat,” Barger emphasizes. “You just have to change the way you see food. You'll never want to go to the grocery store again.”