In the backyard of a rented house in East Austin, two young Southwestern University graduates are starting what they hope will help revolutionize the way food is grown in this country.
Michael Hanan and Lloyd Minick are the founders of Ten Acre Organics – a business they hope will become the most sustainable 10-acre farm in the world.
The two are pioneering a new method of food production known as aquaponics, in which fish and vegetables are grown together. Waste from the fish is used to fertilize plants, while the plants and bacteria in the growbeds filter the water for the fish.
“Aquaponics has a ton of promise for central Texas because it is the most water-efficient way to grow crops,” Hanan said.
For now, the two are perfecting their aquaponics skills in the backyard of the house they share. A large tank of Tilapia is fertilizing basil that is sold to restaurants in Austin. Already, the small backyard is generating 40 pounds of basil a week.
“We pick the basil in the morning and the restaurants have it by that evening,” Hanan said. “The Tilapia will eventually be sold as well.”
In addition to the aquaponics operation, Hanan and Minick have turned every inch of their yard into land that produces something. The front yard has cucumbers, zucchini, peppers, beans and Swiss chard, and the backyard has a small garden with okra and sweet potatoes, as well as a chicken coop and beehives. Some logs in a shaded area along the side fence will soon be sprouting shitake mushrooms. Even the living room is used to get the basil plants started.
Hanan and Minick recently started their own Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA), which provides participants with a four-pound bag of vegetables and herbs each week in exchange for a fixed price.
Hanan graduated from Southwestern in 2010 with a degree in political science and a minor in philosophy. Minick graduated in 2008 with a degree in psychology and a minor in music, and recently completed a master’s degree in psychology from John F. Kennedy University in the San Francisco area.
So why did a political science major and a psychology major decide to start an organic farm?
Hanan said the two originally met through their fraternity, Kappa Sigma. Although each went his own way after graduation (Hanan to Austin and Minick to Hawaii), the two kept in touch. Another thing both had in common was that they were passionate about sustainability.
“As the years went on, the conversations got more serious and we decided we wanted to start a sustainable agriculture company,” Hanan said.
For now, the two are still working other jobs while they try to get their business off the ground. Hanan serves as chief operations officer and chief marketing officer, while Minick serves as chief executive officer. Several other Southwestern alumni are helping them with various aspects of the startup, including Hanan’s wife, Marie Franki, a 2009 Southwestern graduate who works for a business incubator in Austin.
Hanan and Minick credit their liberal arts education for the vision to start the company and the skills to get it off the ground.
“There is something really unique about a liberal arts education,” Hanan said. “It allows people to think about problems at a higher level. We’ve been uniquely positioned to run our business because of our studies at Southwestern.”
Minick said Southwestern taught him how to become a jack of all trades – a skill that is necessary because in the past two years, he has had to learn about videography, business, biology, botany, marine biology, soil biology, 3D imaging software and marketing.
“Southwestern gave me the confidence I can learn new things,” he said.
Minick had a mentor in graduate school who helped him develop a business plan for their company and the two raised $16,000 in 60 days last fall through a Kickstarter campaign to help them get started. Their goal is to find a larger plot of land a develop a model aquaponics farm that others can replicate and franchise.
“We want to get these farms to as many cities as possible,” Minick said. The two recently received a $2,500 Community Transformation Grant from the city of Austin that will enable them to put on a series of free workshops for the public.
Hanan and Minick are not the only Southwestern alumni who have ventured into the field of sustainable agriculture. Alex McPhail, a 2007 graduate who was in the Kappa Sigma fraternity with Hanan and Minick, and 2008 graduate Casey McAuliffe have started Moon Dog Farms on a patch of family land in Santa Fe, Texas, which is between Houston and Galveston. The farm is named after their 14-year-old dog, Saxton.
Moon Dog Farms specializes in organically grown vegetables, fruit, mushrooms and flowers. McPhail and McAuliffe grow produce for popular local eateries such as Brennan’s in Houston, and sell their produce at the weekly farmers market in Galveston.
“The local food market is really taking hold here and it’s wonderful to be a part of that,” McPhail said in a recent interview with CultureMap Houston.
McAuliffe majored in anthropology and theatre at Southwestern, with a minor in Spanish. McPhail was a communication studies major with an English minor, and McAuliffe says he “never would have guessed back then that he would be sweat-soaked in a field of watermelons a few years later.”
McPhail’s original goal was to work in the film industry, and he started working for the Austin Film Festival while he was still at Southwestern. After a while, McPhail said his job “left him feeling more exhausted than fulfilled,” so the couple took off on a trip around the United States. They made their way up the East Coast to an organic farm in upstate New York and then went to North Carolina, where McPhail earned a degree in sustainable agriculture from Central Carolina Community College while working at a farm near Chapel Hill.
“I think Southwestern’s environment was key in allowing Alex and I to feel comfortable taking off and traveling around for several years with no real purpose but to explore,” McAuliffe said. “Doing that was how we learned to farm, and gave us the idea that ‘Hey, we like this. In fact, we really like this. I think we could do this.’ Also, it didn’t hurt that Southwestern taught us how to do our homework and research. You could read about building up soil fertility for years and never stop, so it feels like a good skill to have honed.”
McAuliffe puts her writing skills to good use by writing a blog about life on their farm. A recent blog entry talked about how they had hosted a group of teen campers enrolled in the Sea Camp sponsored by Texas A&M University at Galveston.
Marisa Miller, a 2003 graduate who also majored in anthropology, is starting a farm called Lost Barn Farm on land her family owns in Putney, Vermont. Miller and her parents grow a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, which they sell at farmers markets, to local restaurants and co-ops, and through their own CSA.
Miller has been farming ever since she graduated from Southwestern. She spent two seasons on another farm in Putney, a season on a farm near Burlington, Vt., and then five years on a family farm in Tacoma, Wash. She also spent a few winter months “WWOOFing” (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Italy and France in 2007 and 2008.
Miller said she moved back to Vermont in 2010 because her father had retired and was interested in starting a farm on the land where she grew up. The name of their farm comes from the fact that many barns in Vermont – including their own – fell under the record-setting snows of 2010. Her father has since rebuilt much of their barn.
Emily Calhoun, who graduated from Southwestern in 2007 with a degree in international studies, is running a floral farm in Mesilla Park, New Mexico, called Floriography. Calhoun said she started the farm so that people in El Paso and southern New Mexico could get good quality flowers that are grown closer to home.
“I always thought it was curious that this valley can grow so many things but we were still importing flowers from South America,” said Calhoun, whose family has been farming in the Mesilla Valley for four generations.
By growing and selling flowers locally, Calhoun can eliminate many of the extra costs associated with the floral industry. A shorter distance between producer and consumer also means that fewer resources are used to get the flowers to market.
Calhoun launched her business on Mother’s Day in 2012 and says it has been well received in the community. “We have been particularly embraced by the local farmer’s market scene since we are the only flower farm within 350 miles,” she said.
Calhoun received help launching her business from the Entrepreneurship Ventures Program sponsored by the Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University. The program connects entrepreneurs with statewide resources that will help them successfully launch their business.
Hanan and Minick said they are not surprised to see that so many other young Southwestern graduates are involved with sustainable agriculture.
“We were getting our education at a time when the revolution in agriculture was hitting a threshold,” Minick said. “We are the first generation to see the need for this. One of the most important challenges our generation faces is redesigning the way we grow food and sustain ourselves on the planet.”
McPhail and McAuliff are quick to agree.
“Southwestern taught both of us how much bigger the world is than you and your little orbit, and how any big ideas of change that you hopefully and inevitably form in college boil down to the small choices you make and what you choose to do with your life,” McAuliffe said. “We believe the farm we have now is a small choice that means something bigger. Plus, we get first pick of the watermelons.”