In Santa Fe, Texas, Two Young Farmers Put in the Work to Realize Sustainable Vision
July 8, 2013 | Abbie Stutzer
Alex McPhail and Casey McAuliffe founded Moon Dog Farms, in Santa Fe, Texas, in January 2013. Since arriving at the farm, McAuliffe and McPhail have worked quite hard – the farm’s land hadn’t been touched in years.
Although the co-owners were originally from Texas, the two left the state a few years ago to work various jobs at small, organic farms. At first, McAuliffe and McPhail worked on an organic farm in upstate New York. While the farmers were in New York, McPhail’s family approached the duo about buying some land his family owned. “They told us they had a plot of land [that had] essentially been neglected for the past 15 years,” McAuliffe said.
McPhail’s family offered the farmers the land for a very reasonable, inexpensive price. “It was the most generous offer,” McAuliffe said. “The biggest obstacle for young people on a farm, really anyone who wants to farm, but especially 20-somethings with college loans, is procuring land.”
McPhail and McAuliffe accepted, but wanted more farming experience before taking on all farming responsibilities at their own farm. So, the farmers spent time learning about small-scale farming in North Carolina and McPhail ended up attending a sustainable agriculture program. When the program ended in December, the farmers were ready to return to Texas.
Once McAuliffe and McPhail got their farm up and running, they became Certified Naturally Grown. “It’s kind of unique to the area, because there’s no one within 100 miles who is also certified,” McAuliffe said.
After getting settled, McPhail and McAuliffe planted a cover crop to keep the farm’s soil healthy, full of nutrients and pliable. “We put down a ton of buckwheat and that’s going to be really essential. The soil that’s out here in this area of Texas is called Gumbo Clay, which can give you a visual of the soil we’re working with out here,” McAuliffe said.
The farm has a few barns, some grapefruit trees, and a small orchard with 12-acres of pear trees. The orchard had already been set up for irrigation from the irrigation ponds that were previously dug. But as stated previously, the area hadn’t been maintained in the last several years. “It wasn’t in terrible shape,” McAuliffe said. “[It] wasn’t like no-man’s land, but it was pretty rough. The cleaning up the orchards, and the pruning and figuring out what we’re going to do there has been one of our biggest obstacles.”
Since arriving, the co-owners have planted a small, half-acre organic vegetable garden. The couple didn’t want to grow too much their first season because they didn’t know the area of Texas they were moving to. “We were, like, ‘Gee, we’re going to move down to Texas.’ We didn’t know what was going to be waiting for us there,” McAuliffe said. “We were moving to this tiny town outside of Galveston, and I did a lot of research this past year when we were still in North Carolina, trying to prep and make spreadsheets of contact information for people to call when we got [to Texas].”
To ease some concern, McAuliffe tried to plot out the potential farmers’ markets and restaurants the farm could sell to. Luckily, the farm was well received and the couple quickly got permission to sell some of their grapefruits at a nearby, Galveston market. “We couldn’t bring enough stuff,” McAuliffe said. “People at the market were, like, ‘Whatever you want — we will pay you.’ They bought us up! It was amazing. We did not expect it.” Also, within the first week of arriving at the new farm, the co-owners were approached by area restaurants, and were asked when they would have produce to sell.
So far, the couple is running a small profit. “We started small, but everything we’ve produced each week — we sell out constantly at the farmers’ market — and we sell through this big restaurant in Houston. Right now, we have built up a lot of savings and we’re not losing any money. We’re not getting rich, but we’re not losing money, which is pretty damn good,” McAuliffe said.
As Moon Dog Farms grows, the couple hopes to take on some animals to help the farm actualize its full, sustainable vision. “Ideally, we’d like to have some herds of Gulf Coast Sheep running through the orchard to replace the lawnmower and weed-whackers, and help drop little fertilizer packets everywhere,” McAuliffe said. “That is a big part of the sustainable vision for us.”