“Living out here, raising chickens that predators might eat; we might have a rainstorm that might kill 50 chickens at once,” says Robin Bowman matter-of-factly as we stand in one of her poultry yards while Current photographer Justin Parr tries to coax a closeup from a particularly fetching (and fleet-footed) white bird. “You know, when I first started it just broke my heart every time we would lose a chicken or lose a crop or whatever, but that’s really a lot what farming’s about.”
Rancho de la Chuparrosa, Robin’s small, idyllic farm, lies just north of Sabinal off of Highway 90 West. Agarita bushes and prickly-pear cactus fill the gaps between her fields of greens and vegetables, but she just incorporates jelly made from their fruit into her wares — available to members of Chuparrosa’s Community Supported Agriculture program and the lucky foodies who order the leftovers. The farm doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides and the chickens are truly free range (just ask Justin), eating grass along with their feed and soaking up Vitamin-D-producing sunshine as it suits them.
Robin took time on a chilly late-January day to show us around the hens and the arugula, bouncing back quickly from the recent freezing rain, and talk about the challenges of being an independent farmer:
I don’t want to sound real depressing about it, but farming is a lot about loss; you know, it’s about losing something and trying to make it work better, and you’re at the mercy of weather, and rain, heat. The meat birds, the type of birds we raise for meat, they’re very very fragile birds because they grow so fast. It’s like if you can imagine a human baby going from being a baby to a full-grown person in about two years, that’s maybe an analogy to that, and they outgrow their skeletal system, they outgrow their cardiovascular system. Well, when it’s 103 degrees out here, they can’t stand it — because they’re big, they’re round, they don’t have the heat transfer, and they just die. And it’s really really hard to raise that kind of chicken in a pastured situation in Texas. Other people that do it in other states, it’s not quite so hard, the climate is not nearly as unforgiving as our climate is, So there’s been a lot of loss, but I think you realize that’s part of nature, and that’s part of the way things are. And you know, I don’t like it when something dies or when we lose a vegetable because of the freeze or whatever, but I guess I’ve gotten to where I don’t expect everything to go right; you know, I can’t control everything, it’s beyond my control.
We’ve talked about some of the things that Texas is hard on. Are there any things that Texas is conducive to particularly?
Oh, yes, as a matter of fact. For instance, squash is one thing that does really, really well in Texas, and it loves the heat. Okra is another thing. People up north can barely grow okra because it’s not hot enough. And in the right season tomatoes do really well, peppers do really well. And we also have kind of like a split season: Like the spring we can do a lot of things, and the fall we can do a lot of things. The middle of the summer is kind of our dormant period. Up north they can’t grow anything from say November through February, whereas we can grow stuff from August to June, say, and July … well, August is really the hardest month. But our dormant period is really there in the summertime. But even in those hard times, those hot times, okra does smashingly, and prickly pear loves it.
That reminds me, I was in a vegetable co-op for a while, and the very first week that I went to pick up my box of stuff, it had to be 50-percent okra. I mean, whoever went `to buy the bulk produce` that week was like, “Okra, right on.” I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was like, “Four pounds of okra!? What should I do with it?” Is there a favorite way that you like to prepare and eat your okra?
Yeah, there’s two types of people in the world: There’s the people that love okra, and there’s the people that hate okra, and there’s nobody that’s in the middle ground.
I fortunately love it, but I’d never actually fixed it myself from scratch before.
Well, see, I’m a Texas girl, and my grandparents were farmers. They raised okra. I ate okra boiled and slimy from the time I was little and so I love it that way.
Flavored with anything in particular?
Just boiled. That’s the way it was done when I was growing up. But I like okra lots of different ways — in gumbo; with tomatoes it’s usually less slimy, for the people that the slime is a problem. Okra pickles is really good, and of course the fried okra — there’s ways to do it a little healthier. A lot of people like fried okra that can’t stand it steamed or sautéed.
Well, Americans like anything fried.
Exactly. But okra is a really nutritious plant, too. The seeds in okra are very high in protein, so it’s really good for you. That’s why okra is used in gumbo, because the seeds have protein and it helps thicken the broth. And, I guess, also the mucilagenous part helps thicken the broth.
So, do you make okra pickles?
What do like to you put in there?
Usually I put garlic and then some dill seed, and, of course, vinegar — and I can’t think of what else I put in there. But probably garlic and dill is mostly most of it.
We had wonderful okra last year that was purple — it’s called a burgundy okra. And so I made okra pickles with the burgundy okra, and it made all the brine in there with the vinegar kind of pinkish or purplish and they were really pretty.
What is your very favorite thing to eat fresh out of the ground? Is it the lettuce? Or the onions?
That’s a tough question ’cause there’s so many. The fresh lettuce is just awesome, but another thing that’s really wonderful is green beans, or peas. In the spring, the English peas, or the snap peas, or the snow peas, when you can pick those off the vine and eat them, oh, that’s really good. They’re very, very sweet. But almost anything, when you’re out there hoeing and weeding and you can pick something and eat it, that’s fun. That’s good.
Have you found farming lonely? Is it isolating at all?
No, I like the quiet very much. My husband stays in San Antonio during the week and comes out on the weekend, and I like the peaceful time, that doesn’t bother me at all. And of course Rose and Carlos and Floyd work for me, so there’s always somebody here.
For information on joining the Chuparrosa CSA or placing orders for farm-fresh produce, visit Goodfoodfarm.org.