Farming, A Life's Journey: An Interview with Simmon's Family Farm

Farming is a journey, and no one who embarks on it knows quite where it will lead. After a life-changing accident in 1991, Harry Simmons envisioned a career in law, but a move to Austin and a trip to Thailand led him back to a path begun in childhood raising animals and tending the earth. Life is funny like that, and no one deals with the mutable nature of it more directly than a farmer. Folks who work the earth to grow food understand on a deep level that a clear blue sky can shift to brooding storm clouds in moments. Days of hard work planting, weeding, watering, and nurturing life can disappear in an instant; no matter your best laid plans to guard against them, hail, drought, pests, and human error can conspire against you. You'd think this would discourage anyone from ever growing anything again--but just as farmers know that skies can turn dark, they know also that the earth has immense power to renew itself, to heal, and to give abundantly, and this more than anything is what gets them out of bed before the sun every day. This week, we sit down with Harry, Maew, and Penelope Simmons to talk about the farming life: how it connects us all with beauty and abundance.

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

Maew and I (Harry) both grew up in small farming communities. She grew up helping her family plant rice and tropical fruits and vegetables in Thailand while I was showing animals in 4-H, hoeing the garden and helping neighbors buck hay and fix fences. I majored in Agriculture in college and worked at the university research farm helping professors with vegetable trials. Maew worked on her family farm. Around 1991, we both took slight detours from agriculture. I broke my neck in an accident and moved to Austin to study law. Maew began working in the textile factories to help supplement her family’s farming income. In 2004 I decided to return to my passion of horticulture and began a graduate degree in tropical horticulture at Kasetsart University in Bangkok, Thailand. Maew was working at a restaurant close by where we met. Two years later we moved back to Austin, got married and began farming.

Why raise food?

We don’t have to be farmers, we choose to be. We farm because it is what we enjoy. We raise food because it is what we are good at. We grow vegetables because it is an important job that connects us all. Growing food connects us with the ancient humans who first sowed seeds. It connects us with doctors, philosophers and scientists who, because of the extreme productivity of farmers, were able to leave the fields in order to spend time studying and practicing their professions. It connects us with family who show up when asked to help clean and wash vegetables the day before market. It connects us with all our friends who buy produce from us weekly at farmers’ markets around Austin.

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

Maew’s mother was killed when a cotton field she was working in was sprayed when Maew was just 3 years old. At a very young age she realized that she wanted to only use organic practices when growing food for herself and others.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

“Sustainable” means leaving the land and soil in a better state than it was found. Improving the soil through adding natural, organic treatments, compost, and mulch while prohibiting the use of synthetic substances.

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

We’re up with the sun. Breakfast then off to work. Harry does all the billing, orders, internet and paperwork. Maew does most of the real work. She is joined by Penelope Simmons (the matriarch of the Simmons family), Maew’s friend and any volunteers that may be at the farm. If it’s raining they work in the greenhouses. If not, work is done in one of 5 fields. Three brothers (Jacob, Daniel and Lonnie) help out when any heavy work is needed. Maew or Penelope comes in at 11:00 to cook lunch for everyone. We eat at 12:00 and are back out at 1:00 until the work is done (it’s never done) or it gets dark.

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

I realized early on that I had to become an advocate for vegetables. I’ve had to explain that carrots and onions grow in the ground, that broccoli really does have leaves and that garlic is (for most of its life) a green, growing plant. Unlike 60 years ago, most people today have no connection with farming. Many have no idea that the food they buy in the plastic box began as a plant in the ground. I can see this slowly changing as people become better informed as to the importance of fresh food in their life.

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

Most rewarding for us is when people appreciate the beauty and bounty of the produce we bring to market.

What do you find most challenging?

The extremes of Texas weather can be challenging. In a 12 month period we can experience 90 summer days of 100+ degree weather and winter weeks in the teens. Months of extreme drought can be followed by 12 inches of rain in a 24 hour period. A December heat wave can cause plants to wilt or bolt while a late freeze can kill your tomatoes and make immature peaches fall off your trees.

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

The local food movement is great news for us all. People are discovering just how delicious and beneficial fresh food is. Our local chefs are reintroducing local, seasonal produce by creating amazing dishes that impress and emphasize how tasty local food can be. Farmers can grow and immediately deliver varieties that are highly perishable with amazing flavors that can’t be found in most stores. Fewer miles from farm to plate mean fresher food and less damage to the environment. Buying local supports your local economy and often means cheaper prices for consumers and bigger profits for farmers.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

We wish people understood how much work it takes. There are many 10 and 12 hour days on our farm. We often have volunteers come to our farm. Invariably they comment on how much work it takes. Because we don’t use synthetic herbicides and pesticides, most weeding and planting are done by hand. We apply compost and mulch (our fertilizer) by hand. Harvesting, washing and market preparation are also done by hand.

What inspires you?

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

Support the local food movement. It helps our food security. It helps our own health. It helps our local businesses, restaurants, farmers and community.

What are you cooking this week?

This week we are cooking Tom Yum Gai. Tom Yum is our favorite Thai soup with many of our vegetables including: lemongrass, Thai lime leaves, sweet onions, Thai chiles, farm raised chicken, fresh tomatoes and galangal.