Cardo’s Farm Project: Planting Seeds of Sustainability Deep in the Heart of Texas
January 13, 2012 | Danny Jensen
Farms across Texas suffered widespread drought and wildfires during 2011, the Lone Star state’s driest year on record. Thanks to sustainable practices, however, two young farmers in northeast Texas are helping to set a smart agricultural example for a state and a country facing a rapidly changing climate. Cardo’s Farm Project, located in Ponder, TX, is a working vegetable farm and education center founded by Daniel Moon and Amanda Austin in December of 2010.
Committed to growing crops naturally without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, Moon and Austin are not only providing fresh and sustainable produce to Denton County, but they are also helping to reconnect people, especially younger generations, to where our food comes from through community involvement and educational programs. Moon explains: “The farm project is an experiment. We are testing the hypothesis that we can run an economically viable farm in Ponder, TX, while minimizing our detriment to the environment. Using sustainable practices such as composting, salvaging, water catchment, and recycling makes sense from a holistic standpoint.”
The Evolution of Cardo’s Farm Project
Austin, the farm project director, and Moon, the farm manager, met during a farming internship in New York’s Hudson Valley in 2010. A native Texan and a recent graduate of University of North Texas, Austin sparked Moon’s interest in a large farm near her hometown. So when Rick “Cardo” Orndoff, the landowner of Cardo’s Farm needed a caretaker to tend to the animals and deliver greens grown on the property, Moon, who studied agriculture at McGill University, stepped up to the task. After some visits to the farm to help out during the winter, Austin joined Moon full-time the following spring and the two set about envisioning an exciting future for the land.
“The farm itself is an amazing space with a long history of great folks working towards sustainability and self-sufficiency by practicing gardening, sprouting, animal husbandry, renewable energy, and earth-bag building,” says Moon. “The farm has a legacy of people seeking connections to the natural world.”
The two young farmer’s also found Denton to be a very progressive and cohesive community, an ideal and receptive home for their new venture. And yet, despite that community and Texas’ long agricultural history, there weren’t many local farms feeding Denton. The time was ripe for Cardo’s Farm Project to make its way to the plate.
When Moon and Austin began working at Cardo’s, the farm already had a fully functioning wheatgrass and sunflower greens growing chamber, a tractor with a spader, farming tools, three greenhouses, a flock of laying hens, a half-acre of fertile gardens, and several crops planted. However, despite this strong foundation, there was still a tremendous amount of work that needed to be done to expand the farm’s capacity.
The two set to work, building a hotbox for seed starting, installing a rabbit fence, drawing up a crop plan, buying seeds and began planting for the upcoming season, and in doing so doubled the farm’s size. Fortunately, Austin and Moon found much needed assistance from fellow Dentonites who volunteered their time and energy to help get the project in motion.
Achieving Economic Viability
For many farmers, especially those just starting out, financing the operation can be one of the biggest hurdles. Mike Mizell, President of the Denton Organic Society, is familiar with these obstacles: “The time, effort, and expense involved in producing and marketing produce, plus the uncertainties caused by weather and pests. I think more marketing opportunities are opening up, so that is getting a little easier.”
Cardo’s Farm Project is making wise use of a variety of income sources to keep the farm up and running. In addition to selling their diverse produce of wheatgrass and sunflower greens to restaurants, coffee houses and a health food store in the city of Denton, they also have a stand at the Denton Community Market. And to reach a broader customer base and help expand the farm’s offerings, Moon and Austin offered a ten-week Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program this past October. They are currently organizing another for the spring based on the tremendous success of the first.
The biodynamic duo also launched a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $15,000 for the expansion of their growing space to a full acre, and to better equip the farm’s educational facilities. A portion of the farm’s income also comes from the educational programs they offer including adult workshops, a Young Farmers afterschool program, and farm tours. “There are many benefits of having a farm-based educational component on the farm, such as providing folks with experiences that help them to connect to farming and the community,” says Austin.
Sustainable Farming Practices
Utilizing wholesale, farm-to-market and CSA efforts, coupled with educational outreach and online support, Cardo’s Farm Project has partnered traditional approaches with modern innovations to offer an example of economic vitality for other farmers. But money isn’t the whole story. Moon and Austin have committed to sustainable practices and continually work to minimize both waste and external inputs, such as purchased fertilizer or seed, to their farm system.
Some of the sustainable methods Cardo’s Farm Project uses include composting waste from restaurants and coffee shops, planting leguminous crops to fix nitrogen, saving seeds, companion planting, and growing flowers to attract beneficial insects. To reduce water use they have implemented drip irrigation; to keep out insect pests, fabric row covers are hung and crops are regularly rotated to break pest cycles and enhance soil health. Moon goes on to explain: “The manure and bedding from the chicken coop is added to the compost piles to feed the fields. This is an important link between plants and animals in the farm ecosystem.”
Yet, while Cardo’s Farm Project has clearly implemented a variety of successful techniques, practicing sustainable agriculture is obviously not without its challenges. Pests, climate and geography have proven to be some of the greatest obstacles to sustainability for the farm. All manner of insect from the cucumber beetle to the stinkbug and the dreaded locust have made growing difficult. But the use of organic pesticides and row covers, along with ever-evolving pest control strategies have helped the farm to flourish.
As with other farms across Texas, the hot and dry summer presented some serious difficulties for Cardo’s Farm, including a heavy reliance on irrigation, a dependency they are working to minimize. As the farm uses well water, electricity must be used as well as precious fresh groundwater. Additionally, dissolved mineral salts from the well water can accumulate in the soil and cause serious soil degradation overtime. To monitor salt levels and ensure a balance of salination rates, Moon has been conducting soil conductivity tests. And to improve their heavy clay soil, they are also using a spader to dig and flip the soil, as well as adding compost and cover cropping to increase organic matter, which will require less tillage over time.
Despite the challenges they face, Moon and Austin have accomplished a tremendous amount in the short time since they started Cardo’s Farm Project, and their future looks promising. There are many ways that we could enhance on-farm sustainability,” said Moon. “One goal is to employ solar or wind power to pump water from our rain-catching ponds. Another goal is to re-use gray water for aquaculture or irrigation. I would also like to grow fodder crops for the animals such as grains and pulses to reduce our reliance on purchased feed and to make a more closed nutrient loop in the ecosystem. We also need to plant a windbreak to protect the crops from the harsh winter winds.”
In the coming years, Austin and Moon, hope to double their growing space again, and in doing so, feed more people and hire some apprentices. They also plan on expanding the farm’s educational offerings along with better facilities and increased enrollment. Austin emphasizes the importance of the educational component, “Establishing a farm-based education program on our farm is very important to me. Like many others, my grandmother grew up on a working farm and when she talks about her experiences I can see that they have shaped her in a positive and critical way. While Cardo’s Farm Project is practical place of business, it is also a space for adults and children to continue their education.”
Taking the long view, Moon looks farther down the road, “Ten years from now we’ll be facing many new challenges, especially regarding water and fuel availability. I hope that ten years from now there will be many more farms like Cardo’s feeding the world, working to build a sustainable food system and finding solutions through innovation and creativity. Farming hasn’t been this exciting or important since the Neolithic Revolution.”