Traditions in farming reinvented as Liberty Hill changes

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Joe_Schram_Aquaponics (3 of 3)-web

Joe Schram’s aquaponic greenhouse uses waste product from fish in a tank (left) to provide his crops with nutrients. (Waylon Cunningham Photo)

By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Al Kauffman remembers picking cotton as a boy. The bolls would dry in the hot Texas sun and sharpen into bristles.

“You’d pick that cotton and those burrs would really eat on your hands,” he said. “It was brutal, to say the least.”

In those days, the 1950s, every pound of cotton fetched the equivalent of about $1 today. No machines existed yet to pick the cotton automatically. But that changed in the 1960s, Kauffman remembers, as did a host of other farming methods.

“Everything was different by 1975,” he said.

The fertilizers grew more sophisticated, the combines faster, the tractors larger.

“Instead of two rows at a time, you could plow six,” he said.

Kauffman worked the family farm his grandfather bought in 1924, contained inside what is now the Kauffman Loop that circles the intersection of Ronald Reagan Boulevard and State Highway 29. His father, Pete Kauffman, would later become known as the biggest — and one of the last — cotton farmers in Liberty Hill.

Today, roughly half a century later and five miles to the west, farmer Joe Schram throws pellets into a water tank full of fish, about the size of a hot tub. It is part of a new farming method called “aquaponics.”

Toward the bottom of the tank, a plastic tube connects it to a biodigester –“basically a big poop smasher,” Schram says. Water from the fish tank, rich in nutrients and excrement, is filtered through here and comes out clear. It pours directly onto the gravel where Schram plants his dinosaur kale, a plant Thomas Jefferson once famously cultivated.

Surrounding Schram in the greenhouse is almost every leafy green available — spinach, celery, cabbage, broccoli, and over 3,000 heads of lettuce. All watered by fish excrement.

“Synthetic fertilizers have bleached out some of the most important minerals from our soil,” he explains. “But this fish water has all that and more. All I have to do is add a little iron and magnesium.”

Schram, 63, is no newcomer to farming. He had his first farm when he was 19 years old, back in 1973. Two years before what Kauffman marked as the end of farming as he knew it, and the end of farming in Liberty Hill.

The three cotton gins that served the area, located in Leander, Florence and Georgetown, all closed their doors around this time. Pete Kauffman, Al Kauffman’s father, continued to haul his cotton up to the market in Taylor, but it became increasingly dangerous, Kauffman said, to drive the big tractors on these small roads where the traffic got to be more every year.

Pete Kauffman, now 94, harvested his last cotton crop in 1990. Into the late 1990s, Kauffman continued to farm corn and maize.

Hollis Baker, a local columnist and historian, recalls that when the maize fields would ripen, they turned a rusty orange color.

“It had an unusual blossom. Each flower yielded a small grain, smaller than if you took a grain of rice and rolled it into a ball,” he said.

In the 1930s, during Prohibition, this grain would be used to make bootleg alcohol.

Ray Braun, 71, held out picking cotton for only a few years longer. He sold his last bale in 1996.

“You’d have to drive your tractor longer and longer distances,” he said, “and it got to be more dangerous as people were on the road. The yield had gotten too low. It just wasn’t worth it anymore to grow cotton.”

To be clear, Liberty Hill never hosted too much farmland. The soil has always been too shallow.

To the east of Georgetown, on the other side of the Shin Oak Ridge, was where much of the farming in this region happened. There, the black soil made for good yields of cotton and corn. Liberty Hill and the other towns to the west always leaned heavily toward ranching.

The ridge acted like a sieve to sift wealthier settlers from the poorer. Those arriving to the region with more money, notes Baker, could buy land in the nutrient-rich east The rest made their due in the west, where they turned to manufacturing charcoal and raised what little cotton they could.

The advent of common fertilizer following World War II changed that, Baker said, but it didn’t take long for the fertilizer to wear the soil out.

Judge C.L. Chance in his memoirs writes that the production of cotton on his family’s 80-acre farm fell from 40 bales in a harvest to three or four. For that brief window however, during which Kauffman’s and Braun’s fields flourished, cotton was king.

Schram’s farm currently sees much fewer fluctuations in his yield. The continual supply of nutrients from the fish, he explains, means that yield is relatively consistent. The climate he weathers is more financial in nature.

“Each greenhouse I have makes about 500 to 600 heads of lettuce a week,” he says, and each house generates about $60,000 a year. “But it costs around $45,000 to set up a greenhouse like this. You won’t see a return on your investment for 18 months. Most people can’t get around that.”

Aquaponics’ recent popularity over the last 20 years comes from research originating in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In Texas, he says, farmers have begun using it in the last 10 to 15 years.

“I’m probably the biggest and newest operation in the area. We’ve got a couple in Weir and one in Walburg, some larger ones down in Hayes County,” he said. “It’s catching on because, well, this is the future. It’s a controlled environment in the greenhouse. We grow year round.”

In Texas’ July and August, the traditional farming of lettuce would be impossible. Schram’s production sees a slight slowdown, which picks back up again in October. When it freezes in the winter, Schram’s greenhouse stays warm.

Traditional farmers thrived and starved on the accuracy of predicting freezes. Typically, above-ground crops like corn were planted in early March after the last freeze. If planted too early however, and another freeze swept through, the crops would wither in a matter of days. Long before the news could give a forecast, farmers had to be prophets of the weather. They passed the knowledge of these signs down generational lines.

“My daddy always told me that when the pecan trees grew clean leaves, when they opened up, that’s when the frost was over and you could begin to plant,” Kauffman said. “The pecan trees will never lie to you, never have.”

Similarly, “when the moon is shining—and it can face either up or down—you can know you’re going to get rain when it shines down on the bottom side. That means the moon is full of water.”

Kauffman might be among the last in this region to know such signs.

“These signs and signals still work, and always will, but people don’t know what they are anymore,” he said. “No one knows what to look for. These traditions haven’t been passed down, and the family farm is a thing of history. It is no longer.”

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