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Managing Montecino

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Montesino Ranch in Wimberley, Texas, is every farm gawker dream you’ve ever had. The red-roofed barn with thick cedar posts meets you first. Then miniature dappled Herefords, quietly grazing and lifting their furry heads to stare at you with engaging interest. Surrounding this is 160 acres of beautiful Texas bush and rolling hill country. After a minute or two, you realize you’ve forgotten to breathe.

Scott and Brenda Mitchell bought and built Montesino Ranch twelve years ago. When they realized that 3 of their 160 acres were alluvial loam, rare for the Texas hill country, they decided to create Montesino Organic Vegetable Farm to complement it. But there was one problem: they didn’t know how to run an organic vegetable farm. Enter David Burk, 34, and Melody McClary, 28, who have been managing Montesino Organic Farm since 2009. Going into their fourth year, David and Melody have had the coveted experience of running a functional farm without having to dip into their life savings to do it. The tools they need – tractors, infrastructure, two reliable wells, branded and refrigerated trucks, even a home to live in–are available to them because they belong to the farm. Given that David and Melody control the farm’s operational decisions, Montesino affords them the benefits of farm management without all the financial struggle. And what a farm to manage.

I came to visit them on a Sunday morning and, like many farmers do on Sunday, David and Melody were resting. I found the couple relaxing in their home that sits in between their two main vegetable fields. The house is decorated farmhouse chic – stressed wood, heavy furniture, and bright colors. We sat down in their kitchen while their dog, Billie, chased flies that had zipped in the house through an open window. As I opened my MacBook to get started, my first urge was to slam my fist on the table and scream, “How did you get this fantastically sweet gig and how do I get it too!!” But keeping my composure, I instead asked David and Melody to tell me how they got into farming, how this job at Montesino has affected them, and how they think farming can become sustainable and prolific in America. As we talk, I suspect that amid the atmosphere — the barn, the farmhouse, the hills and Herefords — one could lose David and Melody in the background. But precisely because they have found a good farming situation, the details of their story are all the more useful to young farmers figuring out how to fit growing food into their lives.

“I always knew I’d have growing in my life,” begins David, as he remembers growing food a a kid in his grandfather’s garden. “But I didn’t know I really wanted to farm until I was on a road trip in Canada when I was 20, and I ran out of money.” On the side of the road and unsure what to do, David saw a sign that said CHERRY PICKERS–WE PAY CASH. And just like that, a few weeks of harvesting opened a fourteen-year farming career, piecemealed together as David travelled across the United States looking for farm work, often only for a season, and taking odd jobs when he needed to pay the bills. “People always talk about the debt farmers get into,” Melody breaks in, laughing, “but you get into debt as farm worker too!”

David and Melody met after David took one particular odd job at the flagship Whole Foods in Austin. David was working at a juice stand inside the store,while Melody had full time work in the floral department. It was there that Melody was having her own awakening about farming. “When you are unpacking and stocking that much product, you begin to think about the systems involved in its production. Most of the flowers I sold were from South America, but I also saw amazing flowers coming in from local growers, like the Arnoskys. It made me wonder why we weren’t growing more here.” It didn’t take long for that reasoning to filter to food. One day in the summer of 2006, Melody and David hit it off in Whole Foods over a glass of juice, and soon after, they decided to pursue farm jobs together.

By January 2008, they’d both succeeded in finding farm work. David began a season at Tecolote Farm and Melody found a position under the then farm manager at Montesino, Felicia Kentz. Reality soon set in, however, as it does for most young farmers. “One of us had to pay the bills,” Melody says seriously. And since David had had years of farm experience, he decided to take an off farm job, waiting tables at Hyde Park Grill and buildingchickencoops. When I came out to Montesino, I had zero experience,”Melody says. “My first day of work I wore my running shoes, and I’d never actually used my body like that before.” But despite being green, she found the work more rewarding than anything else she’d done in the past. “Planting a seed, and then four days later seeing it come out of the soil, that gratification is so much better than what I was doing. I feel like I’m a person who is defined by my work, and I was happy to be defined by organic farming.” A year later, Melody and David would move onto Montesino’s property and take over as full time managers.

“These three years have been the best farming education you could ask for,” David says, andattimesthelearningcurvehasbeensteep,indeed. Dealingwiththedroughtthisyear has been one of their biggest challenges. “Well, let’s see,” David says as he begins listing things off on his fingers, “February 16th it was 7 degrees. We had a crazy harsh winter, skipped spring, then had the hottest, driest summer in a generation. Even the okra was stunted because it was so confused by what the hell was going on.” Nodding, Melody adds, “Before I started managing this farm I felt like I had a great grasp on farming. I thought I was set. But it quickly became obvious how different every season is, and that even after a lifetime of farming there is still a ton to learn. There will always be successes and failures, and you don’t always know where they’re going to come from.”

At this point I stop David and Melody and ask if they’ll show me around the farm. We walk under an overcast sky, sun-colored leaves falling in front of us. Autumn in Wimberley is different than Autumn in Austin. Colors are vibrant; trees are thick and varied. Wimberley is a broad showcase of Texas charm.

We make our way to their chicken run so David can show me the turkey they have been raising for their Thanksgiving meal. She’s reticent as we approach her amid a group of chickens and ducks. “We love the idea of Montesino,” David and Melody agree. “The fact that there’s a separate owner, that we didn’t have to put it all on the line in order to farm – I think it’s a model that will catch on.” Montesino is a profitable farm, but Scott Mitchell didn’t create it with the intention of augmenting his wealth. He created it because he wanted to grow good food for the community and take care of his land. Melody, tossing arugula scraps towards the birds so they’d come closer for better picture taking, calls over, “This model works: people sharing their land for the benefit of everyone. More people could do it.” David shakes his head at me and jokes, “That is SO un-American, Melody.”

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It soon becomes clear the chickens are uninterested in us, so David and Melody lead me into their fields, pulling a few plants as we talk about their future in farming. “We’re really not interested in buying a piece of land right now,” Melody confesses. “We want to be able to do it when we can do it on our own terms. That might not be for 20 or 30 years and it might only be a few acres so we can have a large garden, but no matter what we do, growing food for others will be in our lives. Even if it’s just for our neighbors.” I admit to them that that’s surprising coming from two young farmers with a picture perfect farm under their care. But Melody challenges the idea that casual growing is somehow less valuable than farming for a living. “I don’t understand why there is ill will towards people who want to grow food on a small scale and not make it their only source of income,” Melody wipes some dirt off a freshly picked beet. “It’s like you’re not suffering enough.”

Melody’s caution about farming for a living is important because it points to realities that every young farmer has to face. Farmers sell an inherently inexpensive product, and making money from it–especially in a food system that doesn’t value their work–can be a challenge. A period of being broke and transient is common to most young farmers tories precisely because farmers can’t or don’t pay a living wage. For young people today, just as it did 50 years ago, farming full time usually means struggling financially. So for those who are thinking of making farming a career, you have to know your own limits. You have to know what you’re willing to sacrifice to farm.

We come to the end of their fields and I finish marveling at an antique manure spreader David describes to me as “a ton of fun.” I ask them what they think it will take, short of altruistic landowners, for young farmers to succeed. David chimes in, “I don’t think young farmers have the proper resources right now primarily because we don’t get enough support from our communities. I am shocked that there is not a farmers market or a farm stand in every single little town in the United States.” Agreeing, Melody recaps her thought from the chicken run, “We all need to think more about our local communities. If we all support each other, then we can all be successful.” 

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