Local organic farmer hopes to teach kids about sustainability

Green Gate Farms 'Farm Camp' shows kids the ins and outs of a working farm

Erin Flynn, owner of Austin's Green Gate Farms, is passionate about sustainability. Over coffee on a sunny spring morning a few weeks ago, evidence of this passion was everywhere. Logs functioned as improvised chairs tucked beneath a grove of shady trees, a 108-yard-old barn overflowed with hanging garlic and pigs and goats sought shade beneath old South by Southwest banners.

It's a way of life that Flynn hopes to teach the children who have taken part in Green Gate's "farm camp" during the past two weeks. Over the course of the two-session camp, in its first year, children learn about how food is produced on a hyper-local level, from tending crops to slaughtering animals. There is plenty of fun and games thrown in too, but getting their hands dirty doing some work is a big part of the experience.

"There's nothing wrong with building up a little sweat," Flynn said. "There is no reason why they should sit around and play with their thumb toys all day."

Flynn and her husband, Skip Connett, moved to Austin about five years ago from Atlanta. Running a farm had been a longtime dream for Skip, one that he decided to act on as he approached 50. Though he had spent his childhood on a farm in Pennsylvania and worked on another in Atlanta, neither he or Erin had experience running one on their own. They did have experience in the field of public health — Erin worked for the American Cancer Society, and Skip for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — which informed the approach they wanted to take at Green Gate, down the street from the Travis County Exposition Center.

The farm didn't have much experience either, at least not recently. Before the two arrived it functioned as what Flynn describes as a "loose commune" for several years, with a rotating cast of residents who weren't doing much farming. The land did have an agricultural history, though, as part of a larger farm owned by the Bergstrom family. The barn on the property, still in use, was built in 1902.

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Starting from scratch, Flynn and Connett faced a number of challenges including out-of-control wastewater bills (the city billed them on a residential scale) and issues erecting signs so people could find the farm. Another ongoing battle involves helping people understand what it means to operate a small organic farm. "Because it's been written about a lot lately, people assume that there's some sort of glamour about it, and that we have an easy ride," Flynn said. "They don't realize that people still want cheap food, and that means that I can't pay my workers a living wage." The attention has an upside, though. "When 'Food, Inc.' has aired somewhere or Michael Pollan has appeared in the paper, we get a little bump in our business."

Inviting children to learn about farming is one way to raise awareness. In Green Gate's short existence, kids have always been interested in the farm. "I had a mother who kept telling me that her kid wanted to learn how to catch and kill a chicken," she said. Flynn considered taking part in 4-H, but she did not agree with the program's reliance on traditional farming methods such as notching the ears of piglets or the fact that it is funded by biotech corporation Monsanto. She decided to start her own program, adding a fifth "H" to emphasize humane treatment of swine.

Flynn teaches her campers about farm responsibilities including weeding, harvesting and planting crops and watering and feeding animals. In the afternoons, guests discuss caring for chickens, beekeeping,d nature photography and other topics. If campers are up for it, they can even watch as a rooster is killed.

Though Flynn emphasizes that this is completely optional, she sees it as an important part of learning about food. "It's good to pull them into this and show them nobody likes doing killing on this farm," she said. "It's not a pleasant experience; I want these kids to get it."

The week ends in a potluck dinner using ingredients from the farm that campers prepare for their parents. It's all part of the larger message of sustainability. "You probably have what you need in your life right in front of you," she said. "You just need to be creative about getting it."

pmongillo@statesman.com

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