Dec 11, 2013

In Squeezepenny, a Sustainable Farm Nurtures People as Well as Crops

At her Squeezepenny Farm near Dallas, Penny Braley and volunteers use sustainable methods to grow organic crops for local consumption. Photo by Pu Ying Huang.

By Dylan Baddour
For Reporting Texas

In 2009, Penny Braley listened to a newly elected President Barack Obama talk on TV about the problems that faced the United States. She recalls being struck with “a shameful feeling of obligation to get up off the couch and do something to help.”

Later that year, she founded Squeezepenny Sustainable Farm in Squeezepenny, about 30 miles northwest of Dallas. Today her 2-acre operation, which she runs with volunteer help from family and friends, has fed more than 200 area families with pesticide-free brussels sprouts, cabbage, herbs and figs, among other organic offerings.

“We have relied on too many other people for too long to take care of stuff for us,” said Braley, 52, referring to what she considers America’s overreliance on large-scale, mechanized farming.

Braley, a native Texan from a farming family, sees Squeezepenny farm as an example of a nationwide movement away from industrial agriculture toward small-scale, sustainable farming that produces organic food for local consumption.

Texas A&M agricultural economist Luis Ribera said growth in small-scale farming is hard to document, but that he has seen the number of farmers’ markets in Texas increase in recent years. The latest survey of organic product sales in the U.S., conducted by Organic Trade Association, showed that sales rose to $31.5 billion in 2011, up 9.5 percent from the previous year.

Barbara Storz, Hidalgo County agent of horticulture for Texas A&M’s Agrilife Extension Service, said small-scale farms have been marginalized since the 1950s by policies that encourage single-crop farming on plots of 5,000 acres and more. Small farmers, she said, can grow a mix of crops on 3 to 5 acres.

“Big corporate farming is the model in place,” Storz said. “It’s what we rely on for safe food supply, and it’s what makes [the United States] the world’s top agriculture exporter.”

Proponents of sustainable farming point to a draft report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that was leaked to the New York Times in November. The study, by 71 scientists from 30 countries, predicted “severe harm” to human systems worldwide without adaptive solutions to global warming. The study foresees “violent conflict” prompted by food shortages that occur because of drought, floods and temperature change.

The report, slated for final release in April, is meant to advise policymakers on how to deal with “human interference with the climate system.”

In Squeezepenny, Braley has taken matters into her own hands. She and her volunteers weed, water and dig without heavy equipment. She doesn’t use chemical fertilizers or pesticides to grow her produce, which she delivers to subscribing customers in her pickup truck. Instead of tilling, Braley buries compost from last year’s crop between rows and plants atop it the next.

Matt Liebman, professor of agronomy and chair of sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University, said in an interview that the main problem with modern farming is its reliance on petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides. Both are refined from fossil fuels, a process that releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. When chemical fertilizers are sprayed on soil, bacteria use them to create nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 310 times more effective at warming than carbon dioxide, according to a 2013 Environmental Protection Agency study.

Braley says she grows crops at Squeezepenny by “treat[ing] plants like children” and would never consider using chemicals to increase yields.

“Everything that I do … is … trying to imitate nature,” Braley said. She can control plant growth by meticulously pruning plants, covering them to control light and watering them at precise times.

Though sustainable agriculture offers a cleaner alternative to industrial agriculture, high production costs have made its produce relatively unpopular with consumers. “Sustainable farming is limited by demand,” said Elizabeth Winslow, spokeswoman for the Sustainable Food Center, which operates four farmers’ markets in the Austin area and conducts educational programs to spread the word about sustainable farming.

“People are going to have to be willing to pay more for food,” she said. Cheap produce, says Winslow, is the result of “shortcuts” taken by big growers; high prices from sustainable farms reflect higher-quality growing techniques.

Winslow points out that, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was published in Washington State magazine, Americans spend a smaller percentage of their income on food than any other nation.

Braley charges $125 for five biweekly deliveries of produce, including extras such as honey, olive oil, asparagus and artichokes from nearby farms. Braley redistributes the money she earns to customers who pick up and deliver produce or help her weed and water.

All profits at Squeezepenny are reinvested, says Braley. For almost five years, she has earned enough to sustain her operation and build a warehouse and walk-in refrigerator. In the coming year, she plans to use money from her produce sales on hydroponic equipment to grow strawberries indoors.

In a 2012 study of economic feasibility of small farms in South Texas, Storz and Ribera concluded that small farms could turn a profit following Braley’s model, in which subscribing customers receive regular deliveries, but that farmers’ markets were a less reliable revenue source.

By involving her customers in production and distribution, Braley says she’s eliminating the middleman. “If a semi-truck were to show up and ask me to take a delivery off, I would consider that a failure,” she said. “It’s because of the food miles, because of the carbon footprint.”

Regional crop specialization on a national, even global, scale means that produce is often transported thousands of miles from farm to consumer, says Liebman of Iowa State. Braley’s produce has never traveled more than 42 miles from Squeezepenny, she says.

According to Bryan Black, communications director for the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas is a world-leading food producer, yet national reliance on foreign fruits and vegetables has tripled in the past 30 years as U.S. farmers focused on commodity crops such as soy, corn and grain, which can be grown more profitably at large scales than vegetables and fruits.

Even so, greenhouse gasses from agriculture are on the rise, according to the EPA. Black says the Agriculture Department tries to reduce carbon emissions from farm machinery by subsidizing the replacement of old and inefficient tractors, trucks, combines and other equipment.

If Texans are serious about reducing their contribution to climate change through agriculture, people will have to change what they look for when buying food, says Winslow of the Sustainable Food Center. Given America’s decades-long reliance on large-scale farming, that could take a while.

Penny Braley is undaunted. Back in Squeezepenny, she hopes to acquire 100 acres across the county road to lease to 20 new farmers, whom she hopes to recruit by offering them land ownership within five years. She wants to grow growers, she says.

“The whole country could eat this way, sure,” Braley said. “I can’t do it alone, of course, but if there were 200 farmers growing on this side of town and 200 growers on the other side of town, we could change things.”

This story has been corrected: Squeezepenny does not charge separate fees for items from other farms. Braley intends to grow hydroponic strawberries, not tomatoes. Braley hopes to purchase 100 acres for new farmers; her family does not own the land now.