It started with a few chickens and an aquaponics garden when Paige Powell and husband Corry Reiling lived in a house near Zilker Park.
When Reiling’s software company moved him out to Colorado for a few years, they lived in a larger house with a little bit of land. The idea of space and farming began to take hold.
Powell and Reiling, who both grew up in the suburbs of North Austin and have business degrees from Concordia University, formed a plan: Move back to the Austin area with their three kids, look for land and start a chicken farm to sell eggs and an apiary to sell honey.
They found a house near Dripping Springs with 15 acres filled with overgrown cedar trees that needed to be cleared.
“It’s a little piece of heaven,” Powell says.
Four years ago, they became farmers as the owners of Black Bear Farm and Apiary.
It’s a life that has brought challenges and lessons.
The lessons are ones the kids — Brooklyn, 10, Braxtton, 8, and Beckett, 5 — are learning.
Recently, during stay-at-home orders, they’ve been incubating eggs and watching them hatch. They found some monarch caterpillars on milkweed and watched those turn to butterflies. The kids are keeping busy running outside and doing art projects.
Powell learned a trick from snow days in Colorado: Put painter’s tape on wood or tile floors to create towns for toy cars to roam around or bull’s eyes for tossing things into.
But the farm and its space are the cool part. “They are getting the space to run around and be kids,” she says.
When they lived off South Lamar Boulevard, she never felt safe letting them run out the door. “Here I’m like, ’Go run and play,’” she says.
Here, they also are learning that good things take time.
It’s OK to work toward a goal that will happen six to nine months from now, and life lessons happen when things go wrong.
In the first four years of being on the farm, a lot of things have gone wrong.
The name of the farm comes from a day when things went very wrong. The day before they were going to drive back to Texas, Reiling went for a walk with the dogs and saw that the light inside Powell’s car was on. He reached in to turn it off and a black bear growled at him from inside the car. The door had shut behind the bear.
The bear destroyed the car before someone from Colorado Parks and Wildlife came out to remove the animal.
“It was the worst smell we’ve ever smelled in our life,” Powell says of the totaled car. “You can’t get the smell out.”
But more than the smell sticking with the car, Black Bear stuck with the farm they were about to start.
”We have a cool story to go with the name,“ Powell says.
The farm also has taught them a lot about the power of community and family.
In January, Beckett began complaining of a headache and grabbing his forehead. It wasn’t constant and didn’t seem debilitating. They gave him some Tylenol or Motrin, and that seemed to help.
Then he started acting differently. He wouldn’t turn his head to look at you; he would turn his whole body, Powell says.
After a week, she says, she thought it was just too weird to not see a doctor.
A strep test came back positive, and doctors thought maybe he had an abscess in the back of his throat from strep that was causing pain.
They were sent to Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas to get a CT scan of his throat. He didn’t have an abscess, but they did see a mass at the base of his brain.
A full MRI early that morning along with more scanning and testing found a tumor that was in the cerebellum, close to his brainstem.
Friends connected them to a doctor at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
“We had no experience in the medical world,” Powell says. “We had three children that were all healthy. This was so mind-blowing and overwhelming. We got really lucky we had friends who could guide us and help us make decisions.”
Three days after the MRI that found the pilocytic astrocytoma, they were in Houston on Jan. 30 for surgery on the benign tangerine-size tumor. Powell was told that this kind of tumor has only a 5% chance of growing back. It’s also rare — 1 in 4 million kids get it — and it’s not genetic.
“It’s like you won the lottery in a different way,” she says. “There’s no rhyme or reason for it.”
Beckett was in the hospital and then a rehabilitation unit for five weeks. For the first three weeks, both Powell and Reiling stayed in his hospital room; then Reiling went home and Powell stayed.
Powell’s mom left her home in Leander to be with Brooklyn and Braxtton, but she couldn’t run the farm, too.
Friends showed up.
“None of them have farms,” she says. “They just stepped up for us.”
Friends created a schedule and traded off days.
“Our animals did not make it easy on them,” Powell says.
The dogs, for one, got into a fight with a porcupine. The chickens got out. “It was crazy,” she says.
Yet, “they didn’t say anything to us about anything,” Powell says. “They didn’t expect anything from us. We have been held up by our community.”
Beckett has some damage from the tumor and surgery to remove it. He came home using a walker and wheelchair and is now toddling. His speech and vision also have been affected.
“He’s like a toddler right now,” she says.
He has some kind of therapy daily. “They are teaching him to walk and run and do all the things that 5-year-olds should be doing,” Powell says.
The family returned to the farm, but life changed, as it has for all of us in this time of staying at home.
Now each day, Powell is doing therapies with Beckett and then school with Brooklyn and Braxtton while Reiling is working from home.
“It’s challenging,” Powell says. “It’s a lot. I keep telling myself it’s not a normal situation.”
In the beginning, she and Brooklyn were fighting a lot about getting school work done, but then they figured out how to make it work by finding something fun to do together and letting her do what she can of her school work on her own.
And for Baxtton — they try, but “he has an amazing teacher that understands we’re being pulled in different directions right now,” Powell says.
Powell feels extremely lucky that they were able to get out of the hospital before the stay-at-home order was in place and kids had to learn from home.
This pandemic has brought some renewed interest to the farm. When eggs and meat have been difficult to get at grocery stores, Powell has had more inquiries and been sold out. She’s able to do it all through contactless transactions.
One day, when social distancing isn’t our norm, she’d like a return of visitors to the farm. Last summer, she ran a farm camp where kids got to see where their food comes from. They opened up an egg and looked inside to learn the different parts. They picked their own vegetables.
“I’d like to connect more with the community,” she says. “It would be cool to have farm-to-table dinners. I want more people to come out to the farm, to get to know our family, to connect with where their food comes from.”
This farm is home to 350 chickens. The egg-laying hens live about five years. Some of their favorite chickens have names, like Cinderella, who has feathers that look like silver shoes.
They also raise meat chickens, which they buy as chicks three or four times a year and raise for about 12 weeks. Those never get named.
Powell takes them to a meat processor to be inspected for safety and processed and gets the meat back to sell. In the beginning, it was a bit harder to take them to the processor. Now it’s part of the cycle of life.
For Powell, raising animals ethically means she makes sure they have only one bad day.
She focuses on the life they are living. “They are animals out here being animals,” she says, which includes pecking and scratching and finding bugs to eat. “They live a great life."
Last year, they also raised turkeys for Thanksgiving, and that’s when she learned a great lesson about turkeys: They are not smart.
"They try to find any way to die,“ she says. ”If it rains, they need shelter. They can choke on a raindrop, and they can drown. They are so dumb.“
There are two part-pot belly pigs named Pork Chop and Belly Flop, and four pigs that are part of the meat program. They’ll keep those pigs for seven to eight months before their one bad day.
They have a dairy cow and a meat cow that was orphaned.
Some peacocks and peahens are just for fun, but they are also great at eating fire ants.
Dogs and cats tend to show up and stay. “This is the perfect spot for a dog,” Powell says.
But the coolest creatures by far are the bees. It’s been a journey into beekeeping, she says. “I ended up falling in love with every aspect of it.”
Before she started, she was afraid of them.
“Just that noise peaks fear,” she says. Now she’s been stung enough times to not be as fearful, and when she’s been stung, it’s been her fault. The worst was when she was moving bees without protective equipment on and dropped them. “It jolted them and they stung me 15 times,” she says.
She learned never to move them without the protective gear.
Bees, she says, get a bad rap. “For the most part, they will leave you alone.”
Powell has 10 hives, and each has between 30,000 and 50,000 bees. She harvests their honey twice a year, usually after winter and before the heat of the summer to make sure they have enough honey to survive the summer, and between summer and winter, to make sure they can survive the cold of winter.
“They are just the coolest little creatures,” she says. “I learn something new and interesting every time I work with them.”
Every day on the farm is a different day, and it’s all hard work. “I knew it would be hard work, but this isn’t one day of hard work,” she says. “You wake up every day and you work hard every day. Every single day brings a new challenge. Something new pops up to try to navigate through.”
The pipe bursts that brings water to the animals. The plastic on the greenhouse rips up. But it’s the fencing that is always the pain in the neck, Powell says. The meat birds will push over the fence if you are late coming out to feed them. The cows use their body weight to push through the fence and take a field trip to the neighbor’s house.
Powell is always trying something new on the farm. This spring they’ve added crops including tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, okra and beans in a high tunnel greenhouse. Powell’s been working with the Sustainable Food Center for guidance and got a grant through the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to build it.
That’s where her business degree has come in handy. They applied for grants to clear the land and took 2 1/2 years to do it, and now they can see native plants returning.
She thinks Reiling always will need to have his full-time job in software sales that comes with insurance.
“I don’t know if I could ever scale it up to make sense" as a full-time gig, she says of the farm. Reiling’s job is the security blanket when the farm has a bad month.
”We call it the money pit farm,“ she says. ”People don’t think about what all it takes. It’s not just the food and the animals. It’s the infrastructure of the animals, getting water to the animals,“ she says, and, of course, it’s the fencing that they keep tearing down.
But like all things on the farm, they build it up again.