At Barking Cat Farm, Dirty Hands Make Delicious Veggies, Especially with Butter
Kim Martin and Laurie Bostic of Barking Cat Farm are an open book. They will tell you anything you want to know about what they are growing, how they are growing it and how it's going. They also believe that if you don't like a vegetable, you probably haven't sautéed it with butter. According to them, that fixes everything.
Martin waited for me at the front gate of their farm, which is good because I passed it. Twice. Then they gave me a tour of their 20-acre farm out in Hunt County. We looked at everything from the high tunnel (think moveable greenhouse), to the wildlife management area (which makes up a significant portion of the farm), to the world's saddest blueberry patch (75 percent of the patch didn't make it). "I try not to think about it too much because it makes me pretty sad. Right now we are maintaining it until we have time to figure out how to handle the situation," Martin said. A lot of people wouldn't have bothered to mention the blueberry patch because it is far from a success. Just thinking about all those blueberries that could have been makes me tear up a little. But Martin and Bostic believe in full transparency about what it really takes to farm the way they do, and their candidness is refreshing.
These ladies are obsessed with soil. For them, healthy soil is the key to everything. And I mean everything: bugs, fungi, drought, flood, you name it. Because when your soil is the right balance of nutrients and organisms, it is flexible and adaptable. It can better absorb whatever Texas weather has to throw at it, and if you have lived here longer than three weeks you know that can be quite a lot. When your soil is healthy, you don't have to dump a bunch of synthetic awfulness on top of it just so you can crank out perfect looking vegetable clones. They go so far as to have a microscope on site so they can check in with their soil to see how it is doing. They love soil THAT much, and by the time I was done working, I was pretty fascinated too. (I'll save the intricacies of soil biology for the classroom, but trust me when I say that the complexities in a spoonful of healthy soil could rival a Beyoncé concert.)
Martin and Bostic began Barking Cat Farm nine years ago after they retired from the tech industry. Retirement didn't suit them, so they started looking into starting a business. Leaning on Martin's extensive gardening experience, they decided to start growing and selling flowers directly to the Dallas area. Two years later, they saw a need for more local produce, so they switched the bulk of their effort into growing vegetables. Currently the farm is consists of Martin and Bostic and two part time employees David and Davis (seriously). David is a neighbor, and Davis is a skateboarding, Vans wearing 20-year-old who began working on the farm to save money for school.
They currently maintain a CSA that is at capacity and regularly delivers to Dallas and Rockwall restaurants such as Bolsa, Boulevardier, The Fatted Calf, The Life House and Culpepper Steakhouse. While their farm isn't certified organic (most local farms aren't because of costs and government hoop-jumping) they go above and beyond organic standards to make sure they know exactly what they are putting on their crops and are more than happy to share that information with customers. As Bostic puts it, "We have a responsibility to be good stewards of this land, and that means managing it sustainably and wasting as little as possible."
After we worked pulling weeds and moving drip hose all morning I asked them some questions:
You have been farming full-time for a few years now. Has it been what you expected it to be?
Kim: We expected it to be hard, but we didn't realize it would be this hard.
Laurie: Yes, it is harder than we could have imagined. Like picking vegetables in the dark and in the rain and a foot of water hard.
Kim: But I've also been surprised by how truly nice people can be. The chefs we deliver to have been nothing but kind and flexible. They understand when a crop doesn't come in on time, which is happening a lot this year due to the cool spring. They make it work. Also our CSA members are fantastic and we have really enjoyed getting to know other like-minded farmers and ranchers.
What makes farming so hard?
Kim: You can't control the weather. We are in the middle of a drought, and there is a good chance it isn't going to end any time soon. Also varmints. We expected deer but didn't anticipate rabbits, squirrels, possums, raccoons and birds.
Laurie: Agreed on the weather and critters. It's also things we never saw coming like the huge cost of infrastructure and never ending list of things that need to be fixed. And the fact that mentors with knowledge of small-scale organic farming are few and far between.
OK then, what do you like about farming?
Laurie: I really like being outside. Also not working for the man, if you know what I mean. One of the most rewarding things about the work we do is feeling like we do something useful. So many people go to work and come home and feel like they have nothing to show for it. I see the results of our work every day, particularly on days when we deliver the food we grew to customers and restaurants.
Has farming changed how you see the food you eat?
Laurie: Most definitely. We didn't expect to turn into food advocates, but that seems to be where we are headed. The more we learn about food and how most of it is grown and raised, the more careful we are about what we eat and where we get it.
A lot of people wonder why local and/or organic food costs more. Care to explain?
Laurie: When you buy directly from a small farm, you have to pay the full cost of the food. We don't get government subsidies or have crop insurance, and our work is labor intensive because we don't spray a ton of chemicals on everything. Big equipment is expensive and we don't do the volume or have the capital to put that kind of investment in our farm. We would rather put our time and energy into building healthy soil, because that's how you end up with vegetables that actually contain nutrients and taste good.