When we asked her if the flooding caused any damage, she quickly responded, “$7,000. And that was only half an acre.”
Becca Verm makes her living as a farmer. It skipped a generation in her family, but she has fond childhood memories of the cattle, corn, and cotton on her grandparents farm in Wallace, TX. She founded Sown & Grown in 2013 and currently runs the farm at Cath Conlon’s Blackwood Land Institute.
In some ways, Becca’s story is unusual. Because she didn’t grow up on a farm, she had to build the business from the ground up and that meant starting on a 200 square foot plot belonging to a janitor in need of someone to test the compost he was starting to make.
In other ways, Becca’s story is common. It reflects the challenges of farming and the perseverance necessary to succeed. After securing her parcel she found her first buyer, a chef in Houston. She planted her whole garden for his restaurant but just before harvest, the restaurant closed and she got creative to use her produce to start a CSA (community-supported agriculture) instead.
But what troubles Becca is that climate change is making farming harder. “The severity of everything is what’s becoming the issue.” By 2013, Becca was established. She’d started Sown & Grown, had 40 people in her CSA including some chefs, and was farming an acre and a quarter. Then Becca got hit by back-to-back 500-year floods in 2015 and 2016. May 2015 was the wettest month on record in Texas.
“The Memorial Day flood was the one that really did Sown & Grown in….” She’d bet everything on the farm and lost $7,000, her entire savings, overnight. “All good farmers have is their soil.” With that gone, Becca’s only option was to go back to the coffee shop where she met the janitor. At the last second an angel investor came in and saved the farm. She was better equipped for the 2016 flooding, but still lost almost everything. Shortly thereafter she moved her farm to the Blackwood Land Institute.
Cath has withstood her fair share of impacts, too. From December 2010 to September 2011 there was no rain. Nine months and not a single drop. There's hardly a farmer or rancher in Texas who didn’t experience losses that year. But Cath’s perseverance is palpable. In preparation for the next drought, she invested $60,000 into high tunnels (green houses that are tall enough to drive a tractor through and long enough to cover rows of crops). She hired Becca to help with soil structure and build an ecosystem of perennials that is more flood and drought resistant. With Cath’s vision and Becca’s passion, Blackwood is ahead of the curve.
Not everyone is so resilient. Reflecting on the impacts that other farmers are seeing Cath offers, “[they] keep going and going and it takes one break to say, ‘Ok, I give up. I’m going to sell shoes.”
Written by Peter Sargent
Photography by Virginia Sargent