Texas' oldest CSA has seen community, farm industry transform

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Texas' oldest CSA has seen community, farm industry transform

Back in 1994, when Katie and David Pitre started Texas' first community-supported agriculture program, email was an "exotic rumor" and the couple's farm was so far east of U.S. 183 that they never imagined they'd almost run out of water because of encroaching development.

That's what happened about six years ago when the Pitres' hand-dug well that carried water through the drought of the 1950s started to dry up as private developers and even Travis County workers dug wells nearby.

Over the years, the Pitres had watched subdivisions go up and baseball fields and artificial fishing ponds go in. Cars and semi-trucks finally started whizzing by on the toll road, which fell near the fields where they grew vegetables for people who lived far from farmland but didn't want to get produce from under fluorescent lights.

Their water supply was dropping, but demand for organic vegetables just kept growing. "We had an 8-to-10-year waiting list for over a decade," Pitre says. You can't grow food if you don't have water, and when the well started to dry up, Tecolote stopped being "the farm with the oldest CSA in the state" and became "the farm with the water troubles."

Katie Kraemer Pitre went from farmer to farm advocate, learning every detail of previous water rights' cases and the not-so-pretty political underbelly of her profession. She was the public face for the farm, going head-to-head with the county to challenge its claim that the best use of Tecolote's land wasn't agriculture and that the county could legally draw as much water as it needed because of the rule of capture, which states that whoever draws the water first can use it without compensation to the landowner. The Pitres ended up taking a sabbatical in 2007, planting cover crops to let the land rest.

The three-year battle ended with a settlement offer: The county commissioners agreed to give $5,300 to the Pitres to dig test holes to find a new well.

The Pitres held out. That much money wouldn't pay for the study they'd need to find a new production well, if there was even one on the property. University of Texas professor Jack Sharp approached them with an idea: He had a group of hydrology students who needed experience, so they worked during the summer of 2009 to find another well. It didn't have as much water as the first well, but it would do. "We call that one the UT well," Pitre says. "If we would have had to pay for that study, it would have been over $160,000."

Rather than trying to find even more water, they started looking for more land, this time even farther east. In late 2010, the Pitres used a zero-down, low-interest U.S. Department of Agriculture loan to buy 20 acres right on the Colorado River in Bastrop County near Utley.

By the time they'd pulled the mesquite, put up a deer fence and put in a well at the new property, Katie Pitre changed her mind about the county's offer. "I said, ‘I'm going to swallow my pride. We could use $5,000 to help pay for this,' " she says. "I was ready to be done with it."

While they were struggling to keep things going, the number of urban farms inside Austin's city limits had jumped from one to four, and the number of farms offering CSA subscriptions grew into the double digits.

As other farms started to incorporate the subscription model instead of or in addition to the farmers markets or direct to restaurants or retailers, the Pitres' CSA held steady at about 180 subscribers, which was about as many as they could feed on the amount of land they had.

But last year, they were farming on two parcels of land, so they added a fall round of the CSA for the first time. "We've got a lot of hope set on this new property," Pitre says. "It's been a tough four years. This land is breathing new life into us."

To the surprise of people who had been waiting for years to become subscribers, the Pitres increased the number of CSA shares, eliminating the waiting list for the first time in more than a decade.

Last week, the Pitres delivered the first baskets of the season to people such as Elizabeth Kubala and her husband, Mohan, who have been members since the very beginning, making them the longest-running CSA subscribers in the state.

"When we started the CSA, we had just been to France," Kubala says. "We got so entranced by the way they view food there. It's sacred. It almost puts you in an altered state."

In the beginning, the Pitres didn't have a computer to keep track of orders and deliveries, so they used handwritten ledgers. Every week, they delivered the baskets along with photocopied newsletters, which often contained recipes such as the greens gumbo that are now classics among longtime subscribers. Now, they send out digital newsletters and they blog updates about the farm and recipes through their website, tecolotefarm.net . (Go to the website for information about subscribing to the CSA.)

CSAs operate contrary to the now widespread notion in commerce that more choices are better than fewer. Because we often feel overwhelmed by choices these days, not having to choose has become one of a CSA's biggest advantages. "When I go to the farmers' market, I have to make choices," Kubala says. "It's much harder. I come home with hardly anything." Before joining the CSA, she would have never picked out radicchio or kohlrabi, but now those two vegetables are among her family's favorites.

Broadening his family's palate was one of the big reasons Will Andrews joined Tecolote's CSA in 2002. "You get what they have. You don't get to choose among things. It's going to bring me things that I wouldn't buy otherwise," he says. "The cost isn't any more than what you'd spend at Whole Foods. Plus, it forces us to cook more, so we don't eat out as much when we are cooking so often." Andrews and several of his neighbors coordinated a cooking group for several years, which helped them find new ways to cook some of the items in their weekly baskets.

The definition of a CSA has changed since the Pitres first started. Some third-party companies deliver boxes of produce that are labeled "CSA," but the direct connection to the farmer is often missing. Other food companies are using the idea and applying it to baked goods, charcuterie or restaurants. The idea is the same: That customers make a financial commitment to support the business. This means they have to ride out the ups and downs of droughts, floods and bumper crops.

Tecolote sells produce at a number of area farmers' markets, but the CSA is its bread and butter, Katie Pitre says. "We have to grow two to three times what we need to have the variety that customers want, and you're bound to have crop failures. You have to make sure that if something fails, you'll have an abundance of something else."

Like many CSA subscribers, Kubala loves getting produce so soon after it's picked and the variety forces her to cook outside her comfort range, but it's more than that. "For me, it's as much political and spiritual as gastronomical," she says. "I like to imagine that Katie and David's energy is in the food. Certainly their sweat."

Contact Addie Broyles at 912-2504. Twitter: @broylesa

More CSAs

There are more than a dozen community-supported agriculture programs in Central Texas. Each of them operates slightly differently, but most offer weekly shares for a set cost that includes a box of produce grown on the farm. They generally cost between $30 and $40 a week, depending on the size of the box and whether the farm staff delivers directly to your house. Both Farmhouse Delivery and Greenling Organic Delivery offer similar baskets, but the produce comes from a number of farms instead of one. For a list of farmers' markets and farm stands, go to austin360.com/go/farmersmarkets .

5 Mile Farm — 743-4245, resolutiongardens.org/farm

Bikkurim Farms — 578-9015, search ‘Bikkurim Farms’ on Facebook

Burro Malo Farm -- 964-0350, facebook.com/BurroMaloFarm

EIEIO Organic Farm — 847-2463, eieiofarm.wordpress.com

Edendell Farms -- (979) 884-0292, edendellfarms.com

Finca Pura Vida — 979-249-3866, fincapuravida.org

Green Gate Farms — 949-9830, greengatefarms.net

Hairston Creek Farm — 512-756-8380, hairstoncreekfarm.com

Johnson’s Backyard Garden — 386-5273, jbgorganic.com

Millberg Farm — 512-667-0776, millbergfarm@austin.rr.com

Millican Farms — (936) 870-4099, millicanfarms.com

Natural Springs Garden — 619-5203, naturalspringsgarden.com

Ottmers Family CSAbit.ly/I2gwZj

Scott Arbor Organic Farm — 830-379-0588, scottarbor.com

Steele Farms — 830-386-3276, steelefarms.org

Tecolote Farm - 276-7008, Tecolotefarm.net

Urban Patchwork — 662-1854, urbanpatchwork.org

Urban Roots — 750-8019, urbanrootsatx.org

Walnut Creek Organic Farms — 303-3400, wcorganic.com

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