Growing Happiness: Interview with Tecolote Farm's Katie Kraemer

Farming runs in Katie Kraemer’s blood. “I used to be so proud to write ‘farmer’ for my parents’ occupation when I had to fill out forms in school or for college,” Katie says, laughing. Katie met husband David Pitre in college; they shared dreams of forging a connection to the land. ”David always knew he wanted to be a farmer–he was never interested in anything else but growing food,” she says proudly. The 65 acres in Manor, Texas they have named Tecolote Farm, after the owls that also call the farm home, produce some of the area’s finest food–heirloom vegetables, blackberries, and pastured pork. For SFC Farmers' Market shoppers and Tecolote's devoted CSA members, the farm's peppers, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, alliums, green beans, herbs, gorgeous leafy greens, okra, and gorgeous root vegetables are highly prized. Yesterday, Katie took a break from readying the fields for a hard freeze to share her story with us.

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

We wanted to build our farm in a supportive, interesting community. When we found ourselves "with child" in 1992, while living and farming in Alaska, we began to seriously begin the process of choosing a region that would satisfy David's southern and Texas heritage as well as my southern California roots. Pre-SxSW, we found our South by Southwest home in Austin.

Why raise food?

Everybody needs to eat. We both love to eat and cook. It's a living one can feel good about, and it never gets boring.

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

I'm the daughter of a citrus rancher, and my dad was the son and grandson and great-grandson of citrus and cattle ranchers. I always appreciated the work he did, and our family's heritage. On my mom's side, they were Kansas wholesale grocers. David comes from a Louisiana Cajun background on the Pitre side. They love to eat! His great-grandfather, who made a huge impression on him, had rice fields and a shrimp boat. On his mother's side, coincidentally, there were more wholesale grocers, and even canners in Alabama. Food seemed to be a family theme on both sides.

What does “sustainable” mean to you?

Well, for a different take on the word, let's talk about farm sustainability. Every year we have been farming here-and this will be our 21st year near Austin-we have seen small farms come and go. Let's think about how to sustain a farm. We farm with the intention of being here next year. As such, we need to farm smart, turn a profit, and not burn out. That's one reason our CSA runs just half the year. The amount of time and resources it takes to keep an excellent CSA going with wide diversity requires us to farm full time about 8 days a week. By focusing on the market and wholesale when "the sun doesn't shine" quite so much (fall and winter), we can move at a more sustainable pace for part of the year and ensure our energy and enthusiasm for what we love doing most- our CSA (the longest-running one in Texas!)

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

They never look the same! This month it will look like fence building at the new river farm to keep out the deer. In December, it meant training Escoffier School culinary students how to harvest, wash, and bunch Fiesta Beets! In our high season, when the full time crew (about 10 people) is working 5 days a week, here's a simple rough sample:

6 am: Katie meets the CSA driver in the walk-in cooler and begins packing CSA baskets

7 am: Driver leaves on deliveries

7:30 am: Team Tecolote arrives for the day of fieldwork, harvesting, weeding, hoeing, planting, transplanting, washing, packing, or whatever the day holds

12:30: David eats with the crew. If anyone has mentioned the word BBQ before lunch (an act which is mostly forbidden), there may even be a field trip to Smitty's in Lockhart for lunch. That's special, though.

4:30-6: Departure time for the crew, depending on how badly something HAS to be done before tomorrow comes.

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

People manager, mechanic, water engineer, agronomist, soil scientist, marketer, database specialist and delivery supervisor, and so on and so on. I'm not sure what would surprise anyone, but it is a long job description between the two of us! While traveling in Spain a few years ago, I found that I got a dull response from my answer to the question, "What do you do for a living?" Back in the States, the mere novelty of my answer tended to pique interest in the surveyor. So, I complained to my host (American, but married to a Spaniard) about the lack of curiosity about my response. After a quick lesson in Spanish history, class systems, and the division between white and blue collar workers, she suggested a new substitute for "I'm an organic vegetable farmer." Here was her take on our job description: "I'm a business owner and run a vegetable distribution cooperative for 300 families." So fancy! It actually worked!

What do you find most rewarding about farming?

Being outside, being our own bosses. Observing the happiness fresh food brings to people's table and family lives. Having great food at our fingertips all year long!

What do you find most challenging?

Texas weather. Green washing. Localwashing.

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

The challenge of encouraging people to come out and buy produce (lack of market). There's also other folks saying they're selling local products when they're not (faux local, localwashing).

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

To provide clean, healthy, fresh food while at the same time not exploiting people, hurting the environment, or wasting resources.

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

Anything Mark Bittman writes. Hawaii just banned the sale of GMO foods! Locally, the City of Austin has expressed interest in sponsoring a major downtown farmers market centered around farmers.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

David chimes in: I wish they knew the amount of crop losses inherent in the organic system, and the true cost of organic food production. I wish they knew that cheap food always results in the exploitation of some people or the environment.

What inspires you?

Austin farmers' market shoppers who come out no matter what the weather. Love this town!

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

Shop at the farmers market. Buy from farmers you know and trust. Join a CSA. Teach your children to do the same.

What are you cooking this week?

Boudin from Best Stop in Scott, LA, slivered kohlrabi salad, mashed All Blue fingerling potatoes, treviso radicchio with pasta and parmesan, steamed beets, and so on!

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

Tecolote-raised pastured pork chops with David's collard greens, sliced watermelon radishes with lemon juice, and roasted pink fingerling potatoes.

Quick Picks

Favorite breakfast: In the summer, good toast with summer tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Favorite comfort food: Biscuits and gravy (Katie makes the biscuits, David makes the gravy).

Favorite book about food: anything by Elizabeth David.

Favorite cookbook: The Joy of Cooking, Moosewood Cookbook, Deborah Madison's books, Alice Waters' books.

Favorite fall fruit/veggie: treviso radicchio, collard greens.

Favorite food indulgence: pasta carbonara.