The historic freeze, electrical-grid failure, and loss of water in Central Texas had devastating effects for farmers. While some people may think of the winter storm as a threat that has passed, farmers are still dealing with its effects — one farm was out of power for two weeks. From dead plants to frozen livestock to busted irrigation systems, local farmers suffered significant losses and are hastily trying to revitalize damaged crops.
Still, Central Texas farmers are resilient and optimistic. While losses were significant, many farmers expect to have enough time to replant to make up for their losses. Eater asked six Central Texas farmers to share how the freeze affected their farms, in their words.
The farmers also shared additional ways to help their businesses. Pre-purchasing boxes of vegetables from community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs provides essential cash flow to the farms to help them rebuild.
Ada Broussard, CSA and marketing manager, Johnson’s Backyard Garden, Garfield, Texas
“We lost a large majority of our crops in the field. All the greens (collards, kale, chard, herbs, lettuces), as well as brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, mustards, kohlrabi, romanesco) are looking especially dead. Our carrots, which were insulated by the soil, might come out okay. Our onion crop may recover. We were about a week behind planting half of our potatoes — had we been ‘on schedule,’ we would probably have had 100 percent loss.
“We are grateful that all of the transplants we had in our greenhouse survived. Our employees moved thousands of transplants from our greenhouse into our warehouse and office in the days before the storm. We triple-covered the rest of the transplants that wouldn’t fit in the office/warehouses, and everything looks perfect.
“Our farm has been hit by several tornadoes and floods and droves of very hungry hogs that have inflicted some serious crop damage, but this is certainly the most pervasive crop damage we’ve ever experienced. In addition to crop loss, there was some damage done to our irrigation systems. Despite all this, we are feeling very determined and resilient to figure it out and plant on. We are no stranger to the variability inherent in vegetable farming, and over our 17-year history operating a farm, we have become well-versed at how to adapt, pivot, and get creative. Things could have been worse, and we are very grateful that all of our employees and farm family are healthy and able to help us with the recovery.
“We will be able to replant. We will have to get creative in these coming weeks on ways to keep all of our 80 full-time employees busy. The vegetables that usually drive the labor at the farm (picking, washing, packing, delivering) won’t be available in the usual quantities we need to provide all these jobs, but we are committed to keeping everyone employed. Before the storm, we were also able to harvest a lot of our ‘root’ or ‘storage’ crops like daikon radishes, turnips, carrots, and bulk beets. Luckily, we did not lose power at our barn where these were tucked away in the cooler (they would have frozen otherwise), so we’re hoping that these bulk crops will keep things going, to some degree.
“I have been blown away at the outpouring of love and support we’ve received from the community. So many of our CSA members are calling to check on us, sending us letters and cards, and upgrading their subscriptions. Several CSA members have also simply offered to buy our crew lunch. The community has been overwhelmingly helpful, and also eager to help more.”
Johnson’s Backyard Garden is selling transplants of its vegetables at the farm every Saturday through April (or until transplants run out). It also offers a CSA, CSA gift certificates, and farmers market bucks to spend at a participating farmers market.
Becky Hume, owner and operator, VRDNT Farm, Bastrop, Texas
“The storm wiped out all my mature crops. Some very young crops will bounce back, but I am left with a steep revenue drop for a month or two. Honestly, I have barely slowed down to process everything. During the storm, I was hustling to keep what I could alive. Now, I’m just slamming plants and seeds in the ground as fast as I can.
“My business is only a year and a half old, so I haven’t experienced anything like this before. That being said, I’ve been working in agriculture in Central Texas since 2015 and I’ve never seen such an extreme weather impact so far. Since I am only a year and a half in, I don’t have much of a safety net in place. A total revenue loss or one to two months of revenue loss was not something I was planning for.
“I am already replanting. Thankfully, it is early in the season so I still have a shot to make up for some lost ground.”
VRDNT Farms is preselling CSA boxes for when vegetables are ready this spring.
Montana Stovall, farm manager at Urban Roots, Austin, Texas
“As far as crops go, we are still assessing that damage. We lost all of our kale, collards, rosemary, and the lemongrass was hit hard. The leafy parts of the alliums are dead, but some of the bulbs are still viable underneath. The wind blew back the frost blanket in some areas, exposing our salad mix, but luckily a good portion of that stayed protected.
“We feel incredibly grateful for a committed crew of volunteers. Just as the cold was about to set in, volunteers installed frost blankets, moved flats of transplants into the temperature-controlled cooler, and helped winterize the irrigation system. Still, we ended up with some structural damage to our hoop house, which completely collapsed under the weight of the ice.
“The farm has experienced some losses on par with or worse than this one in years past. For example, the farm has flooded not once but twice in a year, which meant damage from the rain and from the pests that inevitably show up in warm, wet conditions. Any loss is tough, but we are grateful knowing it could have been worse.
“Right now, we’re just sticking with our crop plan. We have cleared out any loss and will pick back up on planting. We had a good supply of seeds, so we’ve already seeded more flats that will be planted soon.”
Finegan Ferreboeuf & Jason Gold, farmers and owners at Steelbow Farms, Austin, Texas
“Going into the storm, we were expecting a total crop loss in the field. After the snow melted and the ice thawed, we were pleasantly surprised that a lot of our crops pulled through. That said, there was a substantial amount of crop loss — around 30 percent — and we had to suspend sales and pause the weekly veggie box subscription.
“We are young farmers, and have only been running our own business for four years, but we have never experienced a loss this substantial. In order to make up for lost income, we are feverishly planting and we are planning on upping production for the spring and summer. The good thing about growing food in Central Texas is that we have a large window for most crop production. The good thing about farming is there is always another season, another chance.”
Steelbow Farms offers a vegetable box program, which will be back up and running again in early or mid-March.
Dorsey Barger, co-owner, Hausbar Farms, Austin, Texas
“It will be a long time before we recover emotionally from the challenges and trauma of 77 hours without electricity and the desperate need to keep over 200 animals alive. We thought that the whole garden would be a pile of mush. But amid the brown and mushy and frost-bitten dead, there are pockets of vibrant life.
“While we don’t have a vast variety of herbs and vegetables, we do have enough to stay in business.
“I’m not sure why our farm was spared to such an extent. Is it because we don’t till the ground, don’t spew gas from motorized equipment, don’t use any pest control at any time in our garden, feed with our own compost tea? I don’t know, honestly. But I feel like the love we give our earth came back to us in a miraculous way.”
Katherine Tanner, co-owner, Hat and Heart Farm, Fredericksburg, Texas
“We’re feeling hopeful and exhausted. We lost roughly 80 percent of our field crops and roughly 25 percent of our greenhouse crop. Our alliums (onions and garlic) took a hit, but will make a comeback with irrigation.
“As I write this we are on day 13 without power. Without power, we have no water. We finally secured a small generator for our well pump that serves the livestock and greenhouse. A large generator arrived from North Dakota last night that’s powerful enough to run the big well pump in the field. Our county was hard hit and crews from all over the state are helping to restore power here. There are many downed poles and lines yet to fix.
“Before the generators, we hauled water in tanks and buckets from town to the farm (on icy, snowy, tree limb blocked roads), and manually hauled water for the animals. During the freezing temperatures, we broke ice on tanks multiple times a day and ultimately resorted to melting snow with propane burners — and then finally gave the hens snow when propane became scarce. We only lost four birds out of 700 and did not lose a single goat. Our tractor’s hydraulics froze, so we moved bales of hay by sliding them across the ice with a chain.
“We were supposed to have about 90 newborn goats and 500 week-old chicks on the farm last week. But the billie goat got out of his pen many months ago, moving our kidding time up two months earlier than planned. Because of that one loose gate, all of our kids were older and stronger during the winter storms. We also delayed ordering chicks. We would’ve had 500 week-old chicks in a house with no heat lamps and frozen water. In those conditions it might have been a total loss of life. But it wasn’t, because things didn’t go as planned.
“As we look to put the pieces back together, we decided to accelerate our egg production and order more chicks ASAP to start making back our losses — only to learn the USPS has placed a shipping embargo on all live animals through the mail for the last two weeks. Many of our hatcheries have been in a state of turmoil. So many people throughout the state and throughout the country are going through their own version of chaos. Purely Poultry in Wisconsin moved mountains for us and we getting us chicks in two weeks (instead of two to three months).
“Our family has been farming near Fredericksburg for 166 years, and has seen many historic weather events over the generations. Since we have been farming full time as Hat & Heart Farm, this has been our first and hardest setback due to natural events. What makes this more significant is how many small and large farmers all across the region have been affected by this storm. A hail storm is usually localized, pests are typically focused in a specific area, and we learn how to work within drought conditions around here, but this storm was widespread and we were not prepared for it.
“We absolutely will replant. We are starting seeds by hand-watering from a portable water tank to replace the loss. We’ve already started reseeding beets, more carrots, Swiss chard, lettuce, spinach, kohlrabi, three kinds of turnips, along with quick-turnaround things like radishes and microgreens. We plan to grow more after this than we ever have before to ultimately make up for the losses. We expect to start getting back to ‘normal’ around the beginning of May. The hardest part is making sure we can keep all of our employees on through the next two months of replanting and farming. This is when we need them most but when we have very little cash flow to support that effort.”
Hat and Heart Farm recommends donating to Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association Farmer’s Relief Fund, or donating directly on its website. The farm is also looking for a camper or travel trailer to move into during the replant/rebuild.
Carol Ann Sayle and Tracy Gibson Geyer, stewards of Boggy Creek Farm, Austin, Texas
“We are actually feeling pretty grateful at this point despite the fact that power was out for 80 hours and then water, as pipes started to break. Our team did an amazing job of covering what we could. We didn’t have enough row cover, so we prioritized and covered a variety of crops.
“Some things fared remarkably well, like our napa cabbage, baby kales, and other brassicas. The spinach, leeks, onions, cilantro, carrots, and beets look like they will be okay. Things in our hoop houses like lettuces and flowers did well too. The hens all survived and we only lost only about 25 percent of our seedlings. We are planting new starts into the field and hoop houses already. In two weeks, we will begin to plant out seedlings of eggplant and tomatoes and peppers.
“This is a hit, but we will climb out of it. We did not lose a crumb of our soil and the failed crops, like the five to six beds of various pea varieties on the brink of harvest, will be tucked under the tarps as cover crops to nourish the soil. After all, we are a regenerative, no-till farm. Farmers know to expect these random losses and must always do what they can to minimize them and be ready to hit the ground running; that’s what we plan to do.
“In 2011, we lost virtually everything to the heat and drought. Okra and eggplant shriveled up and died, but we replanted and had a successful fall crop.
“Tracy was stuck at home in South Austin worrying about her mom, Carol Ann, the crops, the greenhouse babies, the old pipes, and my sweet hens. Tracy was comforted knowing that our greenhouse had a propane heater and that Carol Ann was carrying out boiling water to the hens’ water troughs multiple times a day. During the brunt of the weather crisis, our field manager, Monica, walked 45 minutes to and from the farm a few times a day to check on the greenhouse propane tanks, pipes, chickens, and Carol Ann, keeping her stocked with firewood.
“On Saturday, 63 of 120 transactions were new customers. I love this photo [seen to the right] of Buddy the dog and the atypical long line to the farmstand on Saturday morning. It gives an idea of how essential local farms and markets are when the ‘sh#t hits the fan’ and large food systems are unable to serve the community.”
Boggy Creek Farm offers gift certificates and sells produce on-site on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.