When you follow your bliss, as Joseph Campbell famously advised, who knows where it will lead you? For Carol Ann Sayle, it led her on a winding path, the end of which she could not have predicted. When she and her husband, Larry, bought a farm not far from Austin, Texas in 1982, it was just a refuge where they could enjoy a simple life of gardening and chicken tending on weekends.
Who knew that a midlife course correction would lead them to operating Boggy Creek Farm, one of the first and best known urban market farms in the country, and national acclaim as ‘pioneers’ of the local food movement?
How often do you hear someone in the business world, usually very successful, bark something like, 'Just make it happen!', or 'Run the numbers'? Or, you read the story of an entrepreneur who sets out intending to create a specific business that is backed up by a detailed business plan to validate that it's viable? And then does?
There are plenty of anecdotes and stories that might lead you to conclude that the only way to start a business is to get your MBA, do a bunch of market research, crunch the numbers and see if they tell you you have a viable idea before you even start.
Or, there is the organic way. The way where you start doing something you love just because you love it. Over time, circumstances develop, timing is just right, and opportunity appears, and eventually and surprisingly you find yourself with a business you could never have envisioned.
That would be the way Carol Ann Sayle and her husband, Larry Butler, ended up being considered 'pioneers' in the 'local food movement', running one of the country's best known urban farms, Boggy Creek Farm. Carol Ann says with a smile that she imagines that's just because 'we are just about the oldest farmers in the area still doing it..."
It all began in 1982 when Carol Ann and Larry bought a farm in Milam County, Texas. They spent as much time there as her art career and his real estate brokerage business would allow, tending chickens, growing their own food, and walking in the woods. They loved the simplicity of farm living. Starting with ten chickens and a 100' by 100' garden, over the next 10 years they learned to grow a big variety of food from seed.
But, in the late 80s, Texas fell into a terrible real estate depression. The real estate market was devastated, savings and loans were failing right and left and Larry's brokerage business simply couldn't weather the storm. Carol Ann's art business also fell off. Having very little money, but plenty of energy and nerve, they decided to farm 'commercially' on their land. They figured if nothing else, they'd eat well!
Carol Ann recalls, "The recession was actually what gave us the courage to go against the grain since our friends and families thought we were crazy!"
So, living primarily in Austin, they would commute the 1.5 hours to the farm to stay out there for stretches of time. Their first crop of tomatoes was sold to the original Whole Foods store and was such a hit that the company continues to be customers to this day. At the time, the concept of farmer's markets was still fairly new, but Carol Ann and Larry had the idea of setting up card tables on the corner of Wiggy's Liquor Store and selling to passers by every Saturday morning.
Then, one of those lucky circumstances appeared. In September of 1992, they discovered a five acre property in east Austin about five minutes from downtown. East Austin in those days was considered the poor side of town rather than the hip, up and coming area it is today. Vacant, it had been on the market for two years, and had been foreclosed upon by a couple of banks. The historic farm house was in very sad shape with a collapsed roof and chimneys in the attic, but Carol Ann and Larry saw a real diamond in the rough. They managed to pull a deal together and Larry's commission on it was the down payment for what became Boggy Creek Farm.
With Boggy Creek Farm in Austin requiring so much work and attention, they temporarily stopped growing at the Milam County farm, and by 1994, they had their own stand at the city farm. From 1994 to 1998, they sold their produce at the farm and simultaneously at various farmers' markets that would spring to life and just as quickly die.
They limped along that way, investing themselves and any resulting revenues back into the farm, until serendipity struck in summer 1995. The Austin American Statesman ran a story about the farm with eight color photos which boosted their business considerably, allowing them to hire their first farm hand. And by 1998, fed up with the hassles of trying to sell at other markets as well as their own farm stand, they somewhat anxiously decided to sell only from their own place. They needn't have worried; customers followed them there and they've been coming ever since. Their business, between direct sales to customers, grocery stores sales and restaurants, is so big they now have to farm both the urban property and the rural one.
I asked Carol Ann what she'd learned about success in her many years of growing organic produce at Boggy Creek Farm. "We found that failure could happen with one terrible hail storm, or ice storm, or tornado, or drought ... all of which we've experienced, most of them multiple times, in the last 18 years....but each time we replanted and were completely back in business in a few months. We learned that defeat is not the end. Every season is a new game, a new chance."
For Carol Ann and Larry, the real estate bust was part curse and part blessing. It was a little scary, but starting the farm also represented an exciting new life that they had only dreamed about. Carol Ann says, "We were intrigued with the idea of growing nourishing food for people. Before we started the farm our diet was like 90% of Americans at that time (and now), in other words, not very good. But suddenly, eating well and wanting that for other folks in the community, especially children, became our mission."
They hadn't borrowed money to finance the dream, they simply paid as they went and every bit they made went back into the farm. As a result, "it's been a very satisfying life," Carol Ann muses. "We live a life of excellent food, exercise, sunshine, interesting challenges, creativity, appreciation for the beauty of nature and the fellowship of our chickens, employees, and the consumers of our produce." One only has to walk around the magical place they've created to see evidence of all those things.
Neither of them ever thought of having an urban farm, it just happened as things unfolded, organically you might say. There has been some humor in the whole journey what with employee feuds involving black magic and birds' nests, and irony mixed in. Customers still sometimes ask if the east side is safe, worrying about being robbed, or worse, seemingly unaware that the area has become a haven for artists and young creatives in recent years.
When I asked Carol Ann if she and Larry imagine doing something else, she shakes her head. "I doubt that we will go into a different 'business' as we both love this dearly. But we do talk about down-sizing and redefining the farm in a few years...I do want to paint again and have more time to write. Larry likes building furniture, but right now the farm is too big and busy for those mini dreams."
But, Carol Ann trusts in serendipity. After all, it's stood them in good stead so far. Something is bound to happen in the next several years that will push them in that direction.
Carol Ann's advice and wisdom on success? "Let the opportunities come into your life. Don't worry over them or aggressively seek them. Just place yourself in the midst of society, people, work and projects, none of which may be your desired dream. But stay active and social and the opportunities may lead to your next life work. Real success is being able to do what you love. It may not be great wealth, but the 'fun' is in the doing."
It doesn't take a genius to see Carol Ann has practiced what she preaches. Her blue eyes sparkling in an open, happy face say it all.
Carol Ann Sayle and her husband, Larry Butler, own and operate Boggy Creek Farm in Austin, Texas, an urban market farm with Whole Foods as one of their oldest and biggest customers. Besides the city farm, they also intensively cultivate their country farm to keep a steady supply of delicious, organic produce flowing to restaurants, grocery stores, and their own farm stand. To learn more about their farms, go to http://www.boggycreekfarm.com.
LIST OF COMMENTS
Written by Stephanie - Tuesday, June 23 2009
Great story, thanks Allison.
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This is my first day on this blog and I love this story. Very inspiring. I have a lot of regular mid-life issues eating up my days right now, but I can see in my heart's eye the ability to follow a new and better course. Thanks for writing this great article.
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