Shawn Fagan stokes a slow-burning fire just beyond the edge of his vegetable farm in Kyle. Usually, the pile is filled with debris from around the farm or leftover cardboard boxes from online orders.
But on a Monday in early March, it will also be filled with pounds and pounds of rotted lettuce that froze and spoiled after last month’s winter storm.
It's been a few weeks since the storm hit Texas. Temperatures dropped into the single digits, several inches of snow fell, and power went out for millions. But Fagan's problems didn't stop once the lights turned on. He and other Texas farmers are still assessing the damage. Data from economists at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension suggests the storm caused at least $600 million in agricultural losses.
“See that row right there that got melted?" Fagan says, pointing to line of wilted romaine lettuce. "It just looks totally dead."
These rows are like dollar signs; the produce that grows down each could sell for hundreds of dollars. Fagan sells mostly to high-end restaurants in Austin.
He stops and inspects another row of lettuce that, at first glance, looks a lot better than its wilted counterpart. But on closer look, he sees most of the lettuce heads are completely covered in mildew.
“This produce looked good a week ago,” he says. “What happened is the storm came and knocked its immune system out ... and basically now it's just suffering, and disease is moving in and getting all over it. I need to get this out before this disease jumps over [to another row].”
Fagan knows farming is hard. "You get kicked in the teeth a lot," he says.
That doesn’t make it any easier to see months' worth of work wiped out in just a week.
“It's not only that we don’t earn the money off of the row,” Fagan says. “Now I have to spend the money to get all the produce out of the row. After I fertilized it, seeded it, grew in the grow house ... got it all the way to full size. And now I have to pay to get it out and throw it away.”
Financially, Fagan says, the farm is “drowning.” He started a fundraiser on GoFundMe to offset some of the losses and started growing last-minute tomatoes and peppers with seeds left over from last year.
But, he says, the “growing window” in Central Texas is pretty much shut, since anything put in the ground right now will have to face the summer heat before fully maturing.
“It is too late to be planting these right now,” Fagan says. “And it is a gamble. But that’s farming.”
Leah Gibson and Gabriel Hedrick run Boxcar Farm and Gardens, a livestock farm in Maxwell. The storm wiped them out, too, though in a different way.
When people started realizing grocery shelves were bare during the storm, the farm saw an influx of new customers. In three days, they sold what would have taken them three months to sell at farmers markets.
"This is maybe the first or second time in this customer's life that they've thought to support a local farm,” Gibson says. “We didn't have enough food to get it to everyone that that wanted to buy it. ... We have empty freezers right now, which is crazy. But we can't just get meat out of thin air.”
This happened to the Gibson and Hedrick once before — at the start of the pandemic, when people were worried about running out of food.
“[The storm] felt like a lot of déjà vu from COVID,” Gibson says.
They tripled their capacity on the farm to cater to the new COVID customers. But as the pandemic went on, she says, people lost interest.
“Our supply kind of normalized,” she says. “And then this [storm] hit and it totally wiped us out again.”
Gibson and Hedrick count themselves as lucky; even though they lost more than half of their beehives, they didn’t lose any of their bigger animals to the freeze. That didn’t happen without effort: Hedrick spent much of the week trying to keep the animals alive.
“Thank God," Hedrick says. "If you lose a pig that's almost ready to go, that's a year of work, and feed, and attention."
“And money,” Gibson adds.
“It can be a little a little more frustrating to lose animals and to have to recoup after selling out, because you can't just say, 'Well, I'll just go out back and pluck two more pigs out of the ground real quick,'" Hedrick says. "I got to wait till they're ready."
Timing is everything for farmers. But many will have to wait months for federal disaster aid. Organizations like the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association are stepping in to fill the gaps, organizing benefit concerts and raising thousands of dollars, because bills are due when bills are due.
“You're kind of in a bind, especially if all of your income that was in that field just froze into like a mushy blob of nothing,” Gibson says.
She hopes that extreme events like the pandemic and the storm serve as a wakeup call for people to support local farms more regularly.
“If people continue to support local farmers when times are good, then we'll have better supply reserves to feed our community when times are bad,” she says.
Hedrick says surviving the winter storm was like earning “a merit badge” that they can feel proud of.
“But it wasn't without exhausting everything you had," he says. "I think that's a good definition of resiliency. And I think most young farmers or old farmers — just farmers in general — are some of the most resilient people around.”
Farmers aren't just going to just give up, he adds. “You just can't.”
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