Local farmers feed their communities
By Sonia Duggan
The farms that once dotted the countryside in Collin County and across the U.S. have given way to progress as developers snapped up land once farmed for generations. While progress is inevitable, especially for those of us who live in this growing Metroplex, small local farms are supporting the growing farm-to-table movement.
In Farmersville, Plano, Van Alstyne, Melissa, McKinney, as well as other cities, there are opportunities available to anyone who’s willing to take the time to secure a local alternative food source — one that doesn’t involve traveling 1,500 miles to get to our plate — by supporting local farmers and cottage businesses who offer a variety of in-season vegetables and herbs, dairy products, honey, meat and homemade products at farmers markets.
There’s not much that Steve and Lyn Horton, owners of N&P Dairy, don’t know how to do when it comes to farming. Both have been involved in agriculture in some form or fashion since they were born. Since they got together 25 years ago and purchased the farm where Steve grew up, it has been a match made in agriculture and horticulture heaven.
At first, the couple raised their own livestock for show and food, grew their own vegetables and had milking goats at their small farm off County Road 610 in Farmersville. As time went on, their efforts have “snowballed” says Steve and haven’t really stopped since.
About eight years ago, the Hortons sold eggs and vegetables to a farm store in Frisco, before moving on to the Chestnut Square Farmers Market in McKinney selling eggs, veggies, jams, jelly and honey.
After they kept getting requests for meat, Steve came up with a plan to add pork and pastured chicken raised by a friend.
“The farm-to-table restaurants were interested in Berkshire pork, that’s what started that,” Lyn said.
According to Steve, he and Lyn love working with chefs and restaurants.
“There’s a farm-to-table movement that’s going on that’s unbelievable,” he said. After the Hortons participated in some farm tours for those in the local restaurant industry, he said, “It’s kinda grown to where we are now.”
Today, the Hortons lease close to 60 additional acres from nearby neighbors, allowing room for the livestock to roam. Multiple barns and buildings dot their property and a large garden takes up a sizeable space. Dairy and beef cows, one bull, goats, pigs, free range hens and turkeys all seem content and well-cared for. Guard dogs George and Gimley watch over the animals as barn cats provide rodent control and 25 guinea hens offer organic pest control.
After retiring from the McKinney Fire Department in 2015, Steve was able to focus on fulfilling Lyn’s lifelong dream of having a dairy. In 2016, N&P Dairy, LLC, named for Nana and Pop as they are known to many, became a licensed, state inspected grade A, raw for retail dairy offering raw goat milk. Before long, Lyn asked Steve for one cow so she could make butter. Last month, Steve passed a landmark — his 2,000th straight day of milking the dairy cows.
The goat milking is a longer process. About four to five of the herd are milked in the barn at a time, taking seven to 10 minutes per goat. The whole process, says Steve, takes 2-3 hours.
Texas is one of the few states that allows purchase of raw milk, but prior to June 2021, the milk had to be sold at the farm and they were formerly inspected 17 times per year. Under the new law, inspections will now be quarterly and raw milk can be delivered to a pre-determined location if customers pre-order the milk.
“God made it raw, we just kept ours that way,” Steve said. “The pasteurized milk at the store – they render it defenseless because they kill everything that’s in it.”
Because their dairy is a micro-dairy, meaning they only milk a small number of cows and goats, it allows the Hortons time to pursue other things without getting up well before dawn.
Instead, their day starts at 6:30 a.m. “We milk just once a day,” Steve said. “You lose about 20% of the production but you’ll save your sanity in the long run.”
The pristine red dairy barn is where Steve says, “everything happens.” The first room, a processing room with a large cooler and stainless-steel countertops, is where Lyn makes her jams and jellies and all the dairy-related products. Then there is the state mandated in-between room, a room that it is between the milking parlor and the processing room.
After the cows are milked, a 33-gallon bulk tank is used to hold the milk. Then the milk is chilled in a chiller and then bottled. After cleaning the chiller, the goats are milked, and the process is repeated again.
Customers often call ahead and reserve the milk from the small-scale production.
“We often sell 10-15 gallons of goat milk (per week),” Lyn said. “Moms buy five to six gallons of raw milk per week.”
During the summer — or when it is muddy or raining — the female goats have the run of a large covered barn, complete with large fans to keep them comfortable.
“They hate the mud and they hate the rain,” Steve said. “They have all the food they want and alfalfa hay.”
There is a variety of goat breeds — such as a LaMancha named Reba with uniquely small ears. LaManchas are dependable dairy goats known for their high butterfat and ability to milk for a long time. Nubians, another breed known for producing milk high in butterfat, can be found on the farm as well.
N&P goat milk customers include doctors, chiropractors, researchers, cottage industries — people from every walk of life — who travel from Oklahoma, Texarkana, Flower Mound, Frisco and beyond. Many of their customers, Steve said, such as a doctor from Dallas who bought 10 gallons of goat milk every two weeks for a year, are simply purchasing the milk for their babies.
“We have a ton of human babies on goat milk – moms that can’t breast feed – goat milk is the next best thing,” Lyn said. “They are a customer until they get their babies weaned.”
The Hortons wholeheartedly believe in the health benefits of raw milk and say many of their customers are “like- minded” and have shared their health successes with them after consistently drinking their milk products.
While many people believe they are lactose intolerant, Steve said, it’s likely “more people are allergic to the A1 proteins in milk.”
“IBS, Crohn’s disease, gut problems –— 99 times out of a 100 it will make you better,” Steve said. “It’s helps people get over some serious problems.”
While the cost to a customer is higher than store bought dairy, the Hortons feel the benefits far outweigh the cheaper options.
“What is so sad is that it is so hard to do the right thing,” Steve said.” Because there’s so many bad options. It’s hard to seek us out and come and find us and then pay a premium price for a product that should not be expensive. But what we should ask is not why ours is expensive but ‘why are their products so cheap?’”
Farm to table
When the pandemic hit, Steve and Lyn said they were so busy working that they didn’t really know what was happening until a man stopped by one day after Brookshire’s ran out of milk and eggs.
“He wanted to buy milk, eggs and sausage,” Steve said. “We had a line down the road later — and everybody was trying to buy everything we got, but we worked our way through it.”
Buying from local farmers or raising your own food is one way to avoid future food shortages. In fact, Steve thinks every family should have three raised bed planters to grow fresh vegetables and herbs.
“So many people don’t know what vegetables even taste like,” he said. “They’ve been hauled, picked green, they been gassed, they’ve been cold-stored. They’ve had everything in the world done to them, so you don’t even really know what they are — until you taste something that comes off the vine.”
The couple have a small farm store that is open every Wednesday and Saturday. Depending on the season, they sell an assortment of non-GMO heirloom vegetables, jams, jellies, salsa, honey, raw goat and cow’s milk, kefir, yogurt, cream, buttermilk and eggs as well as Berkshire pork, grass-fed chicken and beef.
Lyn likes to experiment in the kitchen and there’s no doubt she’s had a lot of success. Whatever she dreams up will often make it to the store that week.
“It’s never the same and if I don’t like it, I don’t make it,” she said.
Aside from the farm fresh offerings, Lyn’s knack for making things has spilled over into the all-natural health and beauty arena. She makes her own soaps, lotions, salves, lip balm, non-aluminum deodorant, colloidal silver and magnesium leg cream. In addition, N&P sells products from Booth’s Brew, a Denison vendor who makes elderberry concentrate, echinacea tincture, kombucha, cider and non-alcoholic ginger beer in a variety of flavors.
Although Steve has been retired five years, he doesn’t view what he’s doing now as a second career.
“I think it’s just a lifestyle, he said. “It’s the same thing that we’ve done forever. Now, with the pandemic and with people’s thought processes shifting — maybe we need to know where our food comes from — realizing that the system is broken — and all that — has probably paid some tribute to why we want to keep going…and doing what we’re doing.”
More land and dreams of homesteading are what prompted Jim and Heather Cable to move to Blue Ridge after sharecropping for a year with a family friend who owned four acres in McKinney.
“She was a mentor who grew up on a dairy farm,” Heather said.
The couple grew vegetables on her property and shared the egg bounty from 150 chickens. At the time, Jim’s job in the corporate world provided him the opportunity to sell the excess at work.
After experiencing some success, they traded in their 1/3-acre McKinney lot for their property — part of a 100-year farm that they now call Canticle Farm.
In just nine years, Jim and Heather have managed to turn their 7.5-acre property into a small sustainable farm abundant with multiple vegetable and flower gardens, peach trees, plum trees and raspberry bushes while raising goats, chickens, turkeys and two children, Alex and Sara.
The first year, Jim said he and Heather often thought they hadn’t purchased enough land, but they soon figured out how to make the most of their property without buying more acreage across the road.
They jumped into homesteading, learning “how to raise chickens and butcher and all that good stuff,” said Heather, who soon realized she was spending so much time growing stuff, then taking her excess to the farmers market to sell, that she had no time to can anything.
“You’d be surprised to know how little space it takes to grow so much,” Heather said.
The Cables divided the flock of chickens they had in McKinney but no longer bring fresh eggs to market because of the required refrigeration. Instead, they focus more on their gardens, berries and fruit trees and raising milk goats and turkeys.
The farm is under the watchful eye of Joe, a Great Pyrenees, who guards the herd of purebred Nubian and mini Nubian goats while a mini donkey shares a nearby pasture with a Billy goat. Kira, a Border Collie, stays busy herding chickens
Aside from using the goat milk for consumption purposes, the milk is used by Heather for making an extensive variety of soaps which she sells at farmers markets. Each summer, Heather says they sell a few kid goats along with a “trained” nannie to people interested in raising Nubian goats.
Initially, they brought their organic friendly offerings to the Melissa Farmers Market, but now they sell at the Van Alstyne Railcar Farmers Market on Tuesdays and the Chestnut Square Market in McKinney on Saturdays.
Heather says, “Two times a week is good” because it allows them to move their produce quickly.
Goodbye corporate world
Heather has more help in her efforts since Jim quit his corporate job six years ago and opened his own knife sharpening business called CF Sharpening. The transition allows him to do farm stuff, he says, and when he’s not sharpening knives or helping Heather, he delivers for the Local Yocal Butcher Shop in McKinney one day a week.
Because the knife sharpening business is often in higher demand, Jim said, “I kind of lead the way to a market a lot of times,” and then introduces Heather so she can sell produce and all her other offerings.
Canticle Farm is known for their produce including unique pepper varieties, elephant garlic, eggplant, okra, ground cherries, a big variety of tomatoes, lemon and crookneck squash, green beans, lettuce leaf basil, cucumbers and more. Heather also grows zinnias, snapdragons, bachelor buttons and other flowers which she brings to market — 13-14 flower arrangements at a time — to sell with the vegetables.
They will occasionally bring offerings from nearby partner farms that are not interested in selling at market. One such partner has ½ acre of blackberries she maintains for her honey bees while another has pear trees which they harvest and sell for him.
If they have excess produce during the week, they sell through Profound Foods, operated by Lucas resident Jeff Bednar, which is a “food hub that connects small growers by offering a combination of production, distribution and marketing services,” states profoundfoods.com.
“Jeff’s been brilliant at helping a lot of folks that have excess,” Heather said
In the fall, Heather said they are putting up a caterpillar tunnel, essentially a greenhouse tunnel to help control and extend their season.
“You can put tomatoes in there in the fall under some shade cloth, then you may be able to continue growing tomatoes past the first frost,” she said.
Heather makes soap year-round, and when she does, she makes four to five batches at a time — about 100 bars —which sit on trays for at least a month to allow time to totally dry and evaporate out all the water. “A dry bar won’t fall apart in your shower,” she said.
In the winter, she sells mostly body products; clay masks, soaps, lotions, lip balms, toilet bombs — as well as soy candles — until the fresh produce arrives in the spring.
During the pandemic, Heather said they were slammed because McKinney was one of the only (farmers) markets that didn’t close, “so a lot of folks in their efforts to stay local make a big point of shopping at the farmers market.” At the same time, Jim’s business thrived due to everybody being home and cooking more. “They were using their knives and needed them sharpened,” he said.
As a COVID project, the family experimented with heritage turkeys, hatching them in an incubator rather than buying them from a feed store. Heather said they decided they liked them better than chickens and they’ve been successful selling them to people who want to raise turkeys.
“We have 15 of them on the back porch right now,” she said. “They’re all feathered out, free-range and healthy.”
After nine years of working their land, the Cables said what they’ve decided they need are more buildings rather than land. Heather has a small building that houses her soap studio, and the couple is in the process of erecting a multipurpose steel building so they can have a walk-in cooler for their extra vegetables, a shop for Jim’s business and classroom space.
“We have people all the time that are wanting to learn basic info about goats,” Heather said.
In an effort to educate and introduce the community to local farms, Heather worked with a number of farms to offer free come-and-go “Rooted Farm Tours,” last month to give people a chance to “connect with their food.”
“This year, it’s just an interaction between customers and farmers to develop some loyalty and understanding of what it takes – so when people complain about the price of the produce, they will see what it takes to pick vegetables in the heat,” she said. “When you take them and walk them around and show them what you’re doing, it’s education. It creates understanding.”