Exploring Diversity, Taste and Better Nutrition: An Interview with B5 Farm's Jamey Gage

"One day, I'll get my guest bedroom back," Pamela Gage says with a sigh and a rueful smile. Nothing takes over and gets under your skin quite like growing food, and Jamey Gage has been doing it for almost longer than he can remember. From a single greenhouse, B5 Farm has grown into a sprawling operation that produces gorgeous heirloom tomatoes, unusual varieties of broccoli, and transplants for folks interested in growing their own food. These plant starts also supply The Green Corn Project, an organization that helps people in Austin grow their own food, and is near and dear to Pamela's heart; this helps a lot when she can't see the floor. Honestly, she'd be the last to try to dissuade her husband from his life's work--it was his tomatoes, after all, that converted her from reluctant veggie eater to raving fan. Read on to see how the seeds of a deep connection to the land were planted in 1875 and continue to bear fruit at SFC Farmers' Markets today!

Tell us a little about the journey that led you to B5 Farm.

I began farming, or at least gardening, as a child. My grandparents would keep my cousins, sister, and me while our parents were at work. They quickly learned that the best place for us was outside: picking, planting, weeding, and watering. My grandparents grew almost all of the vegetables they consumed and also supplied friends and family and still had surplus from time to time. The grandkids (including myself) were allowed to sell the surplus in the front yard and even to a neighborhood grocery store. After building a loyal customer base, and with much help from my parents, we kept asking my grandparents to let us plant more and more space on their quarter acre garden plot. It was amazing to see the appreciation in the community for fresh, delicious vegetables and it revealed the profound need for small farms in the food desert of East Austin (which my grandfather always remarked was ironically some of the most fertile land around). The name B5 is derived from my great-great-grandfather’s cattle brand that he registered in Travis County in 1875. I view my farm as a continuation of his legacy.

Why raise food?

Food is my greatest passion. It is an experience that can change you from the most instinctive, nutritional level to that of the highest form of art.

How did your previous life experience or influences prepare you to raise food for a living?

My parents and grandparents instilled a sense of the importance of self-sufficiency. It was really their experiences that prepared me for raising food. My grandparent’s generation survived the Great Depression and a World War, when raising one’s own food saved many from starvation. Their stories about those years made a huge impression on me. Then my parent’s generation witnessed a shift where “plenty” of food created by large scale commercial agribusiness concealed the fact that the food was losing its value. My parents, with great foresight, grew bountiful organic gardens and taught my sister and me the value of our fresh, nutritious food.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

“Sustainable” farming means leaving the land better for the future. I was inspired by Malcolm Beck to try to return America’s land to a natural level of carbon reserves. Organic carbon holds water, stays sequestered from the atmosphere, and provides a cooler micro climate through evaporation. It is also important to leave a place for wildlife in uncultivated areas and avoid measures that will harm beneficial insects. In the near future we are excited to host a hive from Austin Honey Company.

What does a “day in the life” look like at B5 Farm?

My day begins early with a check of the weather forecast and consideration of how crops will be affected. Then picking and pollinating tomatoes. Then weeding and watering or transplanting. After dark I typically go inside to seed seedling trays. On the best of days, I interrupt this schedule by cooking or visiting a farm-to-table restaurant in Austin.

What is special or different about the food you raise?

The food I raise reflects my tastes. I try new varieties every season and discard any that aren’t the best I’ve had. I also stick to open-pollinated seeds when possible. There’s amazing diversity, better flavors, and in most cases better nutrition. I find that seeds that originated before industrial agriculture are the most flavorful and weren’t developed to withstand artificial ripening, shipping, or ridiculous shelf-life. They were developed for one reason, they taste good.

What would we be surprised to learn is part of your “job description”?

It may be surprising to know how much time and effort is devoted to long-term land stewardship and soil management. Planting cover crops, encouraging the growth of native plants and animals, and developing rotation strategies are a large part of the job.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

The most rewarding experience a farmer can have is the conversion of “tomato hater” to the ranks of the enlightened. My own wife was among my very first converts. I find that most people that dislike veggies simply haven’t had good veggies.

What do you find most challenging?

Weather. Dry years can shrivel crops, spawn clouds of insects, and end a season in a single day.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

Uncertainty of cash flow and thin margins are a sadly clinical description of the main perils of farming. Luckily, diversification of crops and the promise of the next growing season make it all possible.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

Farmers should present the best food possible to their community. If more people tried food in its best, freshest form, they would voluntarily improve their lives, health, and society in general.

Why should we shop at the farmers’ market?

Farmer’s markets are an incubator for new food. Small farmers can try new varieties that large produce growers wouldn’t consider. Every market that I attend I learn about a new vegetable, variety, or food preparation. I also enjoy the infectious energy of the shoppers, farmers, and food artisans.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently?

The growth in the movement to ban GMOs is really encouraging to me. I feel that GMOs are the enemy of genetic diversity and good healthy food. I am also excited to see the increasing number of people attending farmer’s markets and the farm-to-table restaurants, food trailers and events. Both are very encouraging!

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

Simply the timeframe required. Most people have no idea that the tomato they’re eating in July grew from a seed planted in December.

What inspires you?

I’m excited to be part of a growing food revolution. Now a huge proportion of the population realizes the importance of food quality, not quantity, and I feel that idea will give rise to a new generation of small farmers. I’m also inspired by the work of chefs. I love the energy in the kitchen and creativity of Wink, La Traviata, JAK’s, Eastside Pies and many more. When I make a delivery I leave with renewed enthusiasm for my small part in their wondrous creations.

What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system?

Most importantly, I wish everyone would grow something. The ideal situation would be for everyone to plant herbs and vegetables in their yards, planter boxes, window sill, or rooftop. It can start with one plant that will, at the very least, give an idea of how food is made. Modern life makes it difficult to grow all of your own food, but everyone can grow some.

What are you cooking this week?

Broccoli everything. Broccoli quiche with Phoenix Farm’s eggs, stir-fried broccoli with garlic, and broccoli pizza. Also, to celebrate the coming spring I’m bringing out the grill for some grassfed beef burgers from Indian Hills Farm (with a side of charred broccoli).

What’s your favorite farm-raised recipe or dish?

Catfish tacos with shredded cabbage and homemade pico de gallo. (Admittedly, I buy the tortillas.)

Quick Picks:

Favorite breakfast: Huevos rancheros

Favorite comfort food: Rich, free-range egg yolk, in any preparation

Favorite book about food: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Favorite cookbook: My grandmother’s Swedish cookbook from Palm Valley Church in Round Rock, Texas (it’s the only one I follow to the letter, especially her handwritten portion)

Favorite in-season fruit/veggie: Broccoli and tomatoes

Favorite food indulgence: Pizza from Eastside Pies