A connection to the earth runs deep for Nathan Heath. Even as a child, he heard the land speaking to him, and was drawn to grow good food. His family has faced hardship, but this connection was strong enough that a new farm could rise from the ashes of past adversity. We spend much of our lives disconnected from the world outside, from the seasons and the rhythms of the nature. Farmers, on the other hand, breathe these rhythms in and out every day, and spend their lives in deep connection to the natural world. Their very livelihoods depend on it of course, but all the good farmers I know grow food because they literally cannot imagine any other life. Farming is hard work, and doing it right is the hardest of all--sometimes I wonder that anyone is ever willing to take it on. Their commitment and passion is awe-inspiring: read this week's interview with Phoenix Farms' Nathan Heath and come away with new respect and gratitude for the resilience and durability of the small-scale farmer, steward of our land and local food system.
Tell us a little about the journey that led you to Phoenix Farms.
My journey to growing food in Central Texas started 35 years ago. I was born on a farm in Southern Arizona. Several major events happened which caused my family to lose our farm. We moved to New Mexico where I continued to be involved in agriculture through 4-H. When I was eight or nine, I went to my first farmers' market with tomatoes, cucumbers, and assorted other vegetables I grew. The 'then-to-now' has had many curves, but I have spent most my life involved in agriculture in one way or another. We ended up in Central Texas because I was looking for two things: (1) a climate where you can grow food year round, and (2) a group of people who care about buying clean, fresh food from small family farms. Central Texas fits that bill pretty dang good and there is a bonus--it's in Texas! My children are 8th generation Texans, so living outside of Texas never felt right.
Why raise food?
I grow food because it is part of who I am. It is like asking an artist, "why do you create?" If you feel something deep in your being, you don't really have a choice--at least I don't.
How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to raise food for a living?
Coming from a farming family, you learn what it takes: long hours, hard work, and a complete disregard for risk. To be a successful farmer, you can't let failure or the risk of failure bother you. It's all part of the game; there's nothing safe or sane about doing this for a living. So, I guess that is the biggest thing I learned--knowing when you have the odds on your side and when you don't.
What does “sustainable” mean to you?
Sustainable to me means something you can continue forever. Our present food system can not continue forever; we need major changes to it. Large scale farming does not work. We need thousands of small farmers--10-20 acre farms--run by people who have a deep understanding of how the ecological system works.
What does a “day in the life” look like at Phoenix Farms?
A day in the life of Phoenix Farms: most of the time it starts waiting for the sun to come up. After that, it really depends on the day. If it is Friday, the whole day is spent picking for the market on Saturday. But a normal, run-of-the-mill day is weeding by hand, feeding plants, planting seeds or transplants, working on one of the million projects I always have going. One of the reasons I love farming is that while you do a lot of the same things repeatedly, each day always has a new challenge. Our farm is myself, my wife, and our two children (ages 6 and 7), my mom, and one full-time farmer-in-training.
What do you find most rewarding about farming?
The most rewarding part of farming to me is growing food that I know is the healthiest, freshest food that I can possibly grow, while doing my part to ensure a healthy planet for my children and maybe my grandchildren to enjoy. I believe deeply in good stewardship of the land.
What do you find most challenging?
There is no single challenge in farming that is greater than others.
What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?
The greatest challenges for new and begining farmers in my mind are: (1) access to education which will help them run a successful farm, (2) land, and (3) ability to borrow capital.
What is a farmer’s role in our society?
The basic role of a farmer should be to grow food. Nowadays it seems we have to spend more and more of our time educating the general public and fighting against new laws which will make small-scale farming almost impossible.
Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?
You should shop at the markets if you care where your food comes from, and if you want fresh, clean food that (hopefully) was grown close to where you live. I guess the best way I can answer this question is with another question: why would you not shop at a farmers market? I mean it's only food, you know--the basic thing that keeps us alive......
What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?
The re-opening of Odd Duck.
What do you wish more people knew about growing food?
I wish people knew what was fresh and seasonal and what has been put in storage and is being sold as fresh and seasonal.
What inspires you?
My family inspires me. My brother-in-law who died in Afghanistan inspires me to lead by action and not by words.
What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?
Buy their food from local producers.
What are you cooking this week?
Broccoli. I always go overboard when a crop comes back into season. I eat way too much of it, then by the end of the season I am happy to see it go. Also, we're roasting the last of our green chiles to freeze and save.
What’s your favorite farm-raised recipe or dish?
Turnip greens with onions, cooked in a Dijon mustard sauce and poured over cornbread.
Favorite breakfast: Huevos rancheros
Favorite comfort food: Chicken fried chicken
Favorite book about food: Deep Economy by Bill McKibben
Favorite cookbook: Joy of Cooking
Favorite fall fruit/veggie: Carrots. My son LOVES them, and for some reason growing this bright orange, or purple or white root underground, then pulling it out always sort of surprises me. That never really loses its joy for me.