"You got to hang out with Toesy? I'm jealous! She's so cool..."
Toesy, as it happens, is a chicken. Mention her name in a throng of Austin food bloggers or chefs, and everyone knows exactly where you spent your morning.
A scant two miles from the beep and thrum of the 25th annual South by Southwest music, film, and interactive conference and festival, a couple of farmers - and their celebrity livestock - are changing the way the city eats, one egg at a time.
It was, perhaps, the smartest decision they ever made. After selling their lettuce, broccoli, carrots and more at the front door of a liquor store for a while – Austin had no farmers markets at the time – Sayle walked over to a small, local grocery store to see if they’d be interested in carrying the produce overflow. Boggy Creek Farm had been exploring more sustainable farming processes and had become USDA certified organic. They’d heard that the proprietor of the store had an interest in that sort of thing, so Sayle figured her chances were good. She handed the produce manager a sack of tomatoes and he bit into one.
“I’ll take everything you’ve got,” he said.
The store owners made a solid bet on Butler and Sayle, and the luck was mutual. That little grocery soon blossomed into the chain now known as Whole Foods, and together, they’ve helped Austin – and the rest of the country – understand what “organic” means, and why it’s important.
“Why would you want to feed poison to people?” exclaims Butler. “Chemicals kill the life of the soil. You want to nourish, not kill.”
Butler is quick to share his expertise with anyone who cares to listen, and listen, they do. The proof is in the produce – the brilliantly hued, heritage Italian lettuces, the sweet, slender carrots and hearty bundles of leeks. “It’s still vibrating with energy,” says Sayle. “This is what fresh is.”
The local chefs agree, and on two weekly market days, they’re out in full force at Boggy Creek’s on-site market stand. Butler appreciates chefs who, as he says, “walk the talk,” and the couple will only eat out at restaurants that buy from them. Their Austin dining options are far from limited. On a recent Saturday morning, chefs from Haddingtons, Mulberry, Asti and Fino restaurants and the Izzoz Tacos trailer were stocking up for service. Not only does the stand sell Boggy Creek’s produce and highly sought-after organic eggs – they also carry and proudly tout dairy, bison, sauerkraut and other goods from nearby farms.
Eric Polzer of Wink restaurant is a fixture at Boggy Creek. Butler says that years ago when Polzer and his partners were looking to open a restaurant, they figured they might as well cut out the middleman and grow the produce themselves. Boggy Creek accepted the chef as an intern and after six months of throwing everything he had into Boggy Creek, he returned to his partners to tell them, look – we know restaurants. Larry and Carol Ann know everything about farming. Let’s make a deal with them – if they don’t open a restaurant, we won’t start a farm.
Butler and Sayle's willingness to share their expertise makes them “ideal Austinites” in the eyes of Austin-American Statesman food writer Addie Broyles. Upon moving to the city five years ago, Broyles quickly came to realize that she was among her people – rejects from other areas of the country who’d come to Austin seeking freedom to just be themselves.
Says Broyles, “People here respect other people’s choices, and they know they, themselves, won’t be judged. People here support and celebrate artists and creativity, and they won’t make fun of you if you fall on your face.” The proprietors of Boggy Creek, who’d taken that leap of faith, themselves are more than willing to support, tout and take under their wings anyone who’s seeking a smarter, more sustainable way of farming.
At the mention of the blight that deprived Northeasterners of nearly all tomatoes two years ago, Butler immediately offers a non-toxic cure of raw milk or compost tea in a foliar spray, and one gets the sense that if he had the time, he’d jet on over with a sprayer and also teach you hand-on how to battle blossom end rot.
According to Broyles, that’s par for the course for Butler and Sayle. There are four urban farms within one square mile of Boggy Creek and they are “BFFs.” Says Broyles, “They’re not threatened, and they’re more than willing to share their wisdom.” She continued, “Carol Ann is the mother hen for these other farmers and she sets a tone of camaraderie.”
The same could be said for Broyles, who recently co-founded the Austin Food Blogger Alliance - a non-profit organization dedicated to galvanizing the city's robust and varied collection of independent publishers. "I didn't know I'd be leading," she says. "They were all just doing their thing, and I suggested having a happy hour to get us all in the same room."
That first gathering led to a potluck dinner, then a Facebook page that gained 500 members in a year. The group recently formed a 501(c)(3) and officially launched austinfoodbloggers.org to advance their three-pronged mission of social networking, educational classes for bloggers who want to improve their photography skills, search engine optimization or design, and community outreach.
The last one is par for the course for Austin, says Broyles. It’s the seat of state government and people come to Austin to be heard. Activism abounds in the state capital, and the bloggers put their money where their mouths are. In April of 2010, members of the Facebook page took part in a Hunger Awareness Project, researching how much a Capital Area Food Bank patron and food stamp recipient would have to work with, then living within - and blogging about - those means for an entire week.
The meld of altruism and creative ambition is characteristic of Austin chefs, as well, says Broyles. Chef Zack Northcutt of Haddingtons and Mulberry – a frequent Boggy Creek customer, himself – hosts a “Meaty Monday Madness” gathering for his chef friends from restaurants around the city. The restaurant scene, by all accounts, is shockingly free of infighting and nasty competition.
Broyles chalks this up to both Austin’s chilled out ethos and the mutual respect the chefs have for one another. “They’re not out there showing off their feathers,” she says. “They’re all humble. They could just as easily be in New York, but they really want to be here.”
Chefs from white tablecloth establishments, food trucks and trailers alike can be found crowded around Northcutt’s backyard smoker, testing out recipes that the chef admits, “will never make it only any of our restaurants,” swigging beer (“It’s what you use to time the meat!”) and celebrating the evening’s theme. Any Baby Can...Be Delicious or the Celebration of Pig and Bourbon can bring upwards of 50 chefs into Northcutt’s backyard, and he’s just happy to get a chance to hang out with his friends outside of their restaurants.
“I never think, ‘what do I want to eat tonight?’ It’s always, ‘Who do I want to see tonight?’”
If pressed – and if one’s not stayed out swining and dining too late the night before, Boggy Creek Farm would be a great place to run into just about anyone in the Austin food scene. The chefs, the bloggers, the other farmers, and the wide variety of customers from around the region who come in Porsches and on beat-up bikes come because they know the produce is just-picked fresh, organically grown, and exquisitely flavorful.
There are also the eggs, laid by Boggy Creek’s flock of free-ranging, organically-fed (including crab for extra Omega 3s and always without soy) and, to the casual observer, extremely happy chickens. Unlike many small chicken farms, the birds aren’t slaughtered once they’re no longer laying eggs – “It’s a retirement home for chickens!” jokes Sayle – so Aunt Droptail, age 17, mingles freely with farm favorites Babette and the famous Toesy, so called because she’s got a mild foot deformation. That doesn’t stop her from following Sayle as she drives the tractor up and down the rows – just hopping alongside.
People flock to Boggy Creek for the produce and the coveted (only six to a customer, please!) eggs, but even if they’re not planning on spending any cash, they’re welcome to roam the fields and sit by the open chicken coop. Sayle says that families and even solo poultry enthusiasts will just spend a quiet (save for the clucking of the flock) hour or two just hanging out, being one with the nature abounding around them.
As Sayle says, “It’s just very…Austin.”