Hallie Casey tours the apple orchard at Engel Farms in Fredericksburg, TX

How We Verify the Environmental Impact and Viability of Small Farms

Early enough to beat the heat of the day, SFC staff arrives at a nearby mixed vegetable farm, donning boots, hats, and clipboards. Farmer Paul of Priverno Farm starts by showing us around, describing upcoming crop plans for the next season, and lamenting the squash borers that have somehow already gotten into the zucchini rows.

Morgan Ehmling, SFC Farm Viability Manager, offers up a suggestion to address the problem.

“I heard that switching varieties between years can lessen the problem, there are even some varieties like butternuts that are naturally more resistant. I can connect you after our visit with an Integrated Pest Management specialist if you’re interested.”

This is a very familiar routine for the Farm Viability team at SFC. Since 2018, our Farm Viability staff have committed to biannually visiting every farm in our network as part of a new project called Sustainability Impact Statements.

Through this project, we are working to better understand the unique environmental factors that influence the viability of our local farms and ranches. Over the past three years doing this work, we’ve gotten to see these farms grow and change, some shifting dramatically while others plug away at small improvements.


Sam Moffat of Shirttail Creek Farm in Brenham, TX shows grass seed to SFC Staff

What are Sustainablitly Impact Statements?

“The last time you were out here there were no native prairie grasses, but now look around,” beams Sam Moffatt at Shirttail Creek Farm.

Sam has been working in partnership with a neighboring ranch to reintroduce and cultivate Texas native grasses into his farm. These grasses improve pollinator attraction and water retention in the soil. Rewilding portions of this sprawling ranch is a key part of Shirttail Creek’s commitment to regenerative agriculture. This buzzy term – regenerative agriculture – has been catching on lately and is based on the principles of leaving the land better than you found it. Regenerative agriculture seeks to improve soil health and water quality and lessen climate change, by increasing biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and reducing the use of chemicals.

This is where Sustainable Food Center comes in. In our renewed commitment to cultivating a just and regenerative food system, we must start where the food is grown. Over the last three years, our team, along with the support of technical advisory groups comprised of food system experts, biologists, policy advisors, farmers, and ranchers, have been hard at work developing SFC’s Sustainability Impact Statements (SIS).

Whether we’re trekking around freshly planted vegetable rows or popping into barns to check out huddles of newly hatched baby chicks in their pens, SFC staff are using the SIS to guide questions for farmers and gather all of our observations throughout the visit. We ask about things like soil health, water usage, how the farmers deal with pests and plant disease, and the biodiversity of the entire ecosystem surrounding the farm.

Some aspects of a farm’s operation are easy to see: barns, freezers, tractors, and fencing. Others require our staff to make keen observations and ask technical questions, like how soil nutrients are managed or the movement patterns of livestock onto new pastures.

After each farm visit, SFC staff follow up with a personalized suite of services and connections to resources. Whether those resources are an introduction to a pest specialist, a one-on-one session with our grant manager, or a guide on how to set up an Instagram account, everything we recommend is based on the conversations we have with each farmer.


SFC Staff asks questions at B5 Farm in Lockhart, TX

What Have We Found?

SIS allows us to collect data on the forty-five farms and ranches that attend our SFC Farmers’ Markets and get a picture of the overall impact of local agriculture on our environment. During the last two years of using the SIS, we’ve learned our farmers are rock stars! We always knew that our local producers were thoughtful, responsible land stewards, but now we have data to prove just how much focus these folks put into running sustainable, and even regenerative, farms and ranches.

We found that 100% of the vegetable farmers we work with are using organic methods for improving soil nutrients, like using mushroom compost or natural fish fertilizer. Our ranchers are also in alignment with USDA Organic standards to ensure that all animals are raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior. Many ranchers are also restoring pasturelands by planting native grasses, legumes, oats, etc. which regenerate soil nutrients and prevent soil compaction.


data graphics see above: 32 local producers across Central Texas surveyed, 4/5 ranchers performed rotational grazing to allow pasture regrowth and soil health improvement, 100% of ranches had livestock and poultry infrastructure to ensure that all animals are raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior in alignment with USDA Organic Standards. 100% of the vegetable farmers we work with are using organic methods for improving soil nutrients, like using mushroom compost or natural fish fertilizer, 70% of farmers irrigate with water water-conserving technology

Grow Farms, Feed Community

Now that we know farms in our network are operating with this level of care and sustainability, we can start to ask tougher questions: Why aren’t more farms getting organic certification? How can we help small farms grow to feed more people?

Through this research tool, we can learn more about the complicated realities of farming in Central Texas. As is common for so many small and family-owned businesses in the country, we are finding that labor shortages continue to be huge stumbling blocks to scaling up an operation. In addition, land is increasingly difficult to access as the real estate market in Central Texas continues its meteoric rise. With these valuable insights, our Policy and Advocacy team can support change to ensure Central Texas is home to thriving farms for years to come.

Over the next few years, we’ll work even closer with these farmers to help grow their businesses. We will connect growers with buyers from restaurants and school districts through our Supply Chain department, and offer business management help with specialized farmer-focused training.


SFC Staff learns about mushroom cultivation at HiFi Mycology in Austin, TX

Get the Highest Quality Local Food at SFC Farmers' Market

Ask anyone on our team and they will all say visiting farms is their favorite part of the job. Not only do they occasionally get to eat ripe peaches straight from a tree or cuddle with baby animals, but they also enjoy it because our farmers genuinely want us to know what is happening back on the farm.

Our guarantee to our SFC Farmers’ Market customers, and anyone else we work with, is that every one of our producers grows, raises, and makes what they sell at our markets. That is our ‘Verified Local’ promise to our consumers. The Sustainability Impact Statement work is how we ensure you can always trust our verification. When you buy something at either SFC Farmers’ Market, you can know you are getting the highest quality locally grown food, raised, and planted by farmers who are making the world a better place.

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A freshly picked peach at Engel Farms