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Cover Story - Posted July 26, 2013 9:03 a.m.
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photos by Shannon Richardson

Homegrown Revival

On a late-summer evening, an Amarillo family gathers around a simple dinner table, where dishes of fresh vegetables support a sizzling main course of beef or pork. The plump squash, ripe tomatoes, and crisp romaine lettuce were grown in a nearby garden. The meat comes from a ranch just a few miles outside the city limits. Thankful for the local harvest, the family digs in.

This scene might have occurred two or three generations ago, during those simpler days before supermarket convenience and the complexities of commerce changed our relationship with the food we eat.

Or it might have occurred just last weekend, thanks to a renewed interest in locally produced food. From Austin to New York City, the “locavore” movement has captured the attention of food lovers nationwide, bringing generations together in a passion for better-tasting meals, a commitment to local economies, and a desire to return to a more community-oriented lifestyle.

The Texas Panhandle has always been a place intimately connected to the land, and it’s no surprise the local food movement has taken root here. It’s visible throughout the city of Amarillo, from the now-iconic Golden Spread Farmers Market – a summertime fixture in the Sunset Center parking lot for more than two decades – to the organic farms, community gardens and all-natural cattle herds that keep Amarillo kitchens stocked with fresh food.

“It’s like we’re just going back home,” Kathy Hommel explains. It’s a July summer morning on their family farm northwest of Clarendon, and she’s trying to illuminate exactly why so many customers are passionate about 3H All Natural Beef, which the Hommel family sells at the Farmers Market and from storefronts in Amarillo and Clarendon. “That’s exactly what they say to me, that they want to go back to what their grandfather ate. They remember going out to the farm or ranch, watching him raise cattle, grow grain, or a vegetable garden. That was just a part of life. People are wanting to go back to simpler ways in this crazy, busy world.”

The Hommel family has lived in those “simpler ways” since the early 1930s, passing their farm down from generation to generation. Now owned and managed by Kathy and her husband, Gene, it’s a popular local supplier of all-natural beef products, from sirloins and brisket to summer sausage. Once a traditional beef producer, 3H changed its business model in the 1980s, expanding into the growing all-natural market after Gene had a health scare.

The transformation took several years as they slowly replaced their herd, but today 98 percent of their 800 to 850 Angus and Charolais cattle have been personally raised at 3H to meet USDA all-natural and IMI Global verified standards.

Kathy says that transition was a challenging one. She remembers thinking that such a change – especially in a beef-obsessed area like this – might have seemed a little unconventional, but her customers’ response soon won her over. “There was a huge need,” she says. “Not just the need for the taste and the flavor, but the need for the [nutrients] in it.”

Plus, she says, more and more customers tell her that buying locally grown beef gives them the peace of mind that comes from knowing the family behind the food on their table – and she deeply appreciates the intense loyalty that develops as a result. “This is a family working farm and ranch,” Kathy says, with heavy emphasis on working. “This has been passed down from Gene’s grandfather to his father to him, and now to his son and our grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. We support five generations within this business. I think that’s [an area of] satisfaction within the people coming to our store. They know we depend on it. They know they are part of our security and safety net, too. People are coming in and saying they want to buy locally grown products because they want to support our area.”

Her customers’ loyalty has made the Hommels more community-oriented as well. In making her own purchasing decisions – whether buying free-range eggs or fresh tomatoes from area farmers – she finds herself turning more often to local vendors. “A lot of my customers, for the first time, are trying to grow gardens in Amarillo in their backyards,” she says. “People are coming out to the Farmers Market and getting a taste of what can be, then they’re going back and doing it themselves. The front-porch community is back.”

Like the Hommels, Alan Birkenfeld appreciates how a passion for local foods helps sustain family farms and strengthens a community. In fact, the owner of Paidom [pronounced “pie-dome”] Meats, east of Nazareth, says community-building has been on his mind since college. That’s when he began reading about the negative impact of rural depopulation, how families who once could make a living in agriculture had begun to struggle in a world where farms kept becoming larger and much more corporate.

“I hoped there was a way an ag family could make a living on a smaller asset base, smaller number of acres of land, smaller number of cows in the herd, [and] sheep in the flock instead of it being a volume game,” he says.

Alan is proving that it is indeed possible at Paidom, where he sells beef, lamb, goat, pork, chicken and eggs, all raised organically, entirely on what the sun (pai) and land (dom) provides. Their meats are free from hormones, additives and antibiotics, and raised exclusively on their acreage. Alan says his company’s motto is “conception to consumption,” reflecting the fact that their livestock is nurtured entirely on their organic-certified land.

It’s something his growing base of customers appreciates. “That’s what we sell first: a relationship,” he says. “These folks want to have a connection with the person who grew it.” It doesn’t hurt that his clientele believes his products taste better than store-bought products, including the customer who just arrived to collect an order of Paidom green chile sausage to satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife.
Alan smiles as he hands over the box. “I think people have a desire for this, and it’s not just because they just want to support [us], but it’s more of a drive from their end: ‘Hey, I’m tired of all these processed foods.’”

Over the past couple of years, Alan’s customer base has exploded. He used to deliver 200 pounds of meat and eggs to less than a dozen customers on his monthly stop in Amarillo. Now these deliveries near 1,000 pounds… and three times as many buyers.

Greg and Penny Baker have seen a similar uptick in sales of locally grown food, even though the proprietors of Honey’s Farm Fresh in Canyon never set out to start a family-run business. They were only interested in pursuing a healthier diet. But it wasn’t long before heavy yields of free-range eggs and fresh fruit from the acre behind their home meant blessing neighbors, friends and family with food.

“Little did I know what we would be doing three years later,” Penny says.

Today the acre teems with turkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, goats, rabbits and even honeybees, alongside a small orchard of apple, peach, pear and plum trees.

“We’ve pretty much let the public rule what we raise,” Penny says, only slightly distracted by Curly Sue and Buttercup, two Nigerian dwarf goats who won’t stop nuzzling her from behind. The breed is known for its prodigious dairy output and friendly nature. “We wanted the food for ourselves, but it’s really neat that we can supply this for other people.”

An Iowa native, Greg grew up milking goats on his grandfather’s acreage. After a stint in Las Vegas, he arrived in the Amarillo area with intentions of returning to the land, tending his own garden, and possibly raising some chickens.

Penny recalls their very first date, when Greg brought her to see his chicks. The couple has come a long way since then. She steps gingerly through the couple’s backyard pen, home to 125 laying hens and a handful of roosters. The birds provide up to 10 dozen brown, speckled, blue, green and white free-range eggs daily, which Honey’s Farm Fresh sells twice a month at a Lubbock-area farmers market (at the time they began, there wasn’t a need for their eggs in Amarillo).

The Bakers explain that their dressed birds are hormone- and antibiotic-free, and though not certified organic – their birds receive some commercial feed along with fruits, vegetables, insects and grass – they have a dedicated customer base with those seeking the fresh taste of farm-raised fowl and eggs. Early on, most of these customers seemed to be transplants from Austin, Chicago, or the east and west coasts, where all-natural food had already been trending for several years. But lately, Greg and Penny have noticed more Panhandle natives drawn to the farm-to-table movement, possibly because of the same nutritional drive that first interested Greg in local food. “People are much more health conscious,” he says.

A healthy lifestyle was also one of the reasons Ronnie Kimbrell first began cultivating his dream of organic farming. Currently serving in his eighth year as president of the Golden Spread Farmers Market, Ronnie and his brother, Jeff, a lieutenant at the Amarillo Fire Department, own and operate Cimarron Organics, a five-acre farm along Willow Creek Drive in north Amarillo.

Ronnie first became fascinated with local produce in 1990, when he took a job at the Dallas location of Whole Foods Market – at a time when the Austin-based empire had only a modest five stores. The organic food Ronnie sold made him nostalgic for the fresh produce of his childhood, which his parents had grown in a large personal garden on their property in Amarillo. The burgeoning market share and fanatic customer base of Whole Foods captured his imagination, and within the decade Ronnie and his wife, Christine, had returned to the Panhandle, intent on turning his parents’ land into an organic farm.

Today, Cimarron Organics produces an abundance of fruits and vegetables on four acres of land and in three greenhouses, two of which are occupied by 1,300 tomato plants. These are Cimarron’s specialty, which Ronnie taste-tests and nurtures from his wheelchair (he has been paralyzed from the waist down following a 2002 mountain biking injury).

Like the Hommels at 3H, Cimarron Organics is a family affair. “My kids have helped from the time my son was 12 years old,” he says. “My dad is semi-retired but still helps out. My daughter takes care of our greenhouses and goes to the Farmers Market. It’s been a family operation from the beginning.”

He’s quick to say, however, that Cimarron is not alone in its family orientation. “It keeps our family close together,” he says, “but I think that’s true of many of the local farmers at market. We’re small family farms – even the bigger farms relative to mine – and [these] families have kids who helped when they were young and still help into their 30s and 40s.”

Cimarron became USDA-certified organic in 1999, which requires its crops to be produced without excluded methods like genetic engineering, synthetic fertilization or ionizing radiation, among other regulations. This means Cimarron produce, which is available at the Farmers Market as well as in Amarillo’s United Supermarkets locations, has no pesticide residue.

“I do organics because it’s something I believe in personally,” he says, noting that, to him, the process of organic farming feels closer to growing crops the way his parents did it. Beyond the Certified Organic label, though, he says his customers appreciate knowing the people behind the produce.

“Customers want to know where their food comes from,” he says, looking eastward at rows of onions, some of which were heavily damaged by recent hailstorms. “When you go to the Farmers Market, you stand face-to-face with the person who’s growing that food. You can ask them questions about what they’re growing: ‘When are you going to have watermelons? When’s corn going to be here?’”

That relationship brings consumers closer to the process of farming, and makes them more thoughtful not only of the food they eat, but also of the land that provides squash, onions, melons and other produce. “You learn about the way [the plants] grow,” he says. “You learn about the varieties...”

While Ronnie is clearly proud of his operation at Cimarron Organics, he’s quick to place himself within the context of a tight-knit community of local food-growers. “We all grow for flavor,” he says of other local farmers. “We have that relationship with the customer, and if that tomato’s no good – if they don’t like the flavor – they’re not going to come back to us. And so it’s important for us, to all of us as local farmers, to grow a good quality product because of that personal interaction.”

Toby Lankford agrees. The owner of Mariposa Urban Market and Tierra Linda Natural Farms explains that the best-tasting, most nutrient-rich produce begins with carefully cultivated soil. The soil used at Mariposa, located north of Interstate 40 on Washington Street, is the same soil Toby has been nourishing for years at his property west of Amarillo, fertilized by compost, worm castings and waste from his own farm animals.

“Everything you see in this greenhouse is planted in our soil,” he says, pivoting to indicate the expanse of the market, which opened in May on property formerly home to Howard’s Greenhouses. “Our soil is what we’ve created. It’s live soil, full of nutrients. Worms are in it. There are no chemicals. [Plants] can grow densely and intensely with this soil.”

An expansion of Tierra Linda Natural Farms, Mariposa represents the humble beginnings of a larger dream Toby has for the small market. Central to its growth is his use of aquaponics – a symbiotic food production technique that combines aquaculture (the nutrient-rich by-products of fish and other aquatic animals) with water-based hydroponics – to produce a more sustainable and faster-growing produce.

As an example, he points to a lettuce plant growing in water, compared to another that had been traditionally planted in soil at the same time. The soil-based sprouts were barely finger-sized and wouldn’t be ready to harvest for another two months. The nutrient-soaked aquaponics plants, however, were 20 times bigger, reducing the growth timeframe by half.

“Isn’t it a beautiful crop?” Toby asks. “It’s delicious. It’s not uncommon for me to pick it and eat it,” he laughs. Nearby, employee Kayla Fuller maintains pohu oyster mushrooms, grown from bags that hang from the greenhouse ceiling.

Mariposa is also home to flowering plants, sunflower sprouts, rainbow and red chard, buttercrunch and romaine lettuce, pattypan squash, kale, herbs, and more. In addition to the diverse plant life, the walls of the greenhouse are decorated by colorful artwork produced by neighborhood children, all depicting vegetables and farm life.

Also within sight is a poster displaying statistics about hunger in Amarillo. According to the poster, one in five people within the city limits are considered “food insecure,” a recently coined phrase describing residents who aren’t certain where their next meal will come from. The High Plains Food Bank reports that nearly 15,000 children in Potter and Randall counties lack food security.

As passionate as he is about healthy soil and sustainable growing methods, Toby is equally zealous about addressing hunger within our community. He believes a commitment to producing and purchasing local food can help solve some of these problems. “We want to create living wages,” he says. “We want to go back to our ideals.” Ideals, he says, which include “knowing your neighbor and shopping with that neighbor.”

In Toby’s view, sustainable local food systems – from simple community gardens to more complex hydroponic systems like those at Mariposa – can help solve some of our city’s poverty and hunger problems.

These are challenges Toby has experienced personally. When he was 13 years old and living in Canadian, his family suffered a house fire the week before Christmas. He remembers all the churches in the community banding together to provide clothing and shelter. People placed gifts under a tree for Toby and his family, who had lost everything.

Though the fire occurred more than two decades ago, Toby is still inspired by the example of a community joining hands to help a family in need, and hopes the locally grown produce at Mariposa can spark a similar spirit of compassion and togetherness. Though he realizes his farm and greenhouse won’t soon provide “a 5-minute answer” to a complex problem, he does believe that reconnecting Amarillo with the land – and Amarilloans with each other – might be a good first step, starting with every single person who visits his market.

“We have had people from all walks of life,” he says of his clientele, shouting to be heard above the blast of water as he sprays a row of chard. “They are all coming in our doors and they believe in strengthening ourselves. They recognize good food… People can come in, shake my hand and see what we’re doing.”

Back at 3H outside Clarendon, Kathy Hommel agrees that the surging interest in local food crosses cultures, economic stations and generational lines. She sees it in the customers who visit her stores over and over again. “There’s not an age that’s not interested in [local food],” she says. “Young, middle-aged, older people. They’re all wanting to come back to something that they feel good about.”

More than anything else, that emotion is what really fuels the local food movement. Whether food lovers are drawn by nostalgia, taste preferences, community support or environmental impact, they are captured most by how homegrown food makes them feel. “It’s peace of mind,” Kathy says. “They keep saying ‘Promise me you won’t ever close this store down.’”

As long as they’re supported by a passionate population who shares the Hommel family’s love for fresh beef, produce and eggs, that’s a promise Kathy and 3H intend to keep – as do the hard-working owners and employees of Paidom Meats, Cimarron Organics, Honey’s Farm Fresh and Mariposa Urban Market.

“There’s been a big buzz phrase that’s developed in the last few years: Know your farmer, know your food,” Ronnie Kimbrell says, inspecting a greenhouse full of organic tomatoes. “You develop a relationship with your farmer, and the farmer develops a relationship with you.”

Relationships, community, and a return to simpler times: that may be the true benefit of Amarillo’s growing locavore trend.

Drew Zerby contributed to this story.


Living Off the Land
We asked our homegrown food experts to share their favorite recipes with us. Enjoy experimenting with a few nontraditional entrees and sides along with tried-and-true ways to prepare hearty beef dishes.

Honey’s Farm Fresh, Greg Baker

Rabbit Baked in Milk
1 or more cut-up rabbits
1 can evaporated milk
Small amount of oil, salt and pepper

Brown rabbit in skillet with oil. Place in a baking dish and pour evaporated milk over top. Cover with black pepper and a little salt. Bake for 4 hours in a 225-degree oven. Serve warm.


Italian Rabbit
(from “Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits”)
1 rabbit, cut up
1 large onion
2 (8-ounce) cans tomato paste
½ teaspoon garlic salt
½ teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon sugar
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Put rabbit in salted, boiling water. Cover and simmer until tender. Remove rabbit, set aside to cool, and remove meat from bones. Add all other ingredients to broth and simmer for 1 hour. Return rabbit to broth and simmer until rabbit is warm. Serve over cooked spaghetti.


Tropical Rabbit
Marinate a cut-up rabbit overnight in fruit juice, such as pineapple or orange. Put in slow cooker with enough juice or water to keep moist. Check to make sure pot does not go dry. Add a packet of taco seasoning and cook on low for several hours. Meat will fall off the bone. Remove bones and serve on tortillas or over rice.


Mariposa Urban Market / Tierra Linda Natural Farms, Toby Lankford

Quick Caramelized Onion Swiss Chard
Caramelized onions add savory flavor to wilted Swiss chard. Choose as a healthy side to round out your dinner menu.
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cups sliced yellow onion
Dash of baking soda
12 cups chopped Swiss chard
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil; swirl to coat. Add onion and baking soda; cook 10 minutes or until browned. Add Swiss chard and water to pan; cook 3 minutes or until chard wilts. Stir in vinegar and freshly ground black pepper.


3H All Natural Beef, Kathy Hommel
(recipes from Texas Beef Council)

Maple Bacon Beer Burger
1 pound ground beef (95 percent lean)
¼ cup beer
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
4 whole wheat hamburger buns
4 slices 25 percent reduced-fat cheddar cheese
4 extra-thick slices Maplewood smoked bacon, cut in half, cooked crisp

Combine ground beef, beer and Worcestershire sauce in medium bowl, mixing lightly
but thoroughly. Lightly shape into four ½-inch thick patties. Place patties on grid over medium, ash-covered coals. Grill uncovered, 8 to 10 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill 7 to 9 minutes) to medium (160 degrees Fahrenheit) doneness. About 2 minutes before burgers are done, place buns, cut sides down, on grid. Grill until lightly toasted. During last minute of grilling, top each burger with cheese. Place burgers on buns; top with bacon slices.

Makes 4 servings


Grilled Beef Chimichangas
1 boneless beef top sirloin steak, cut ¾ inch thick (about 1 pound)
1 package (1.25 ounces) 30 percent less sodium taco seasoning mix
2 teaspoons vegetable oil, divided
1 can (4.5 ounces) chopped green chiles, undrained
1/3 cup coarsely chopped, unsalted dry-roasted peanuts
1/3 cup chopped roasted red bell peppers
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 cup shredded pepper jack cheese
6 spinach tortillas (10-inch diameter), warmed

Cut beef steak lengthwise in half and then crosswise into 1/8-inch thick strips. Place beef and taco seasoning mix in large bowl; toss to coat. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add half of beef; stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes or until outside surface of beef is no longer pink. Remove from skillet; keep warm. Repeat with remaining 1 teaspoon oil and beef; return to skillet. Stir in chiles, peanuts, bell peppers and cilantro. Spoon 2 heaping tablespoons cheese into center of each warmed tortilla. Top with about ¾ cup beef mixture; fold bottom edge up over filling, fold in sides to close; secure with toothpicks. Repeat with remaining chimichangas. Spray outside of each with nonstick cooking spray. Place on grid over medium, ash-covered coals; grill uncovered 3 to 5 minutes (over medium heat on preheated gas grill, uncovered, 5 to 7 minutes) or until lightly toasted and filling is heated through. (Can also be baked on baking sheet in 350-degree oven 15 to 18 minutes or until heated through.)

Makes 6 servings

by Jason Boyett

Jason is a journalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, and the author of more than a dozen books. His most recent is “12 World Religions: The Beliefs, Rituals, and Traditions of Humanity's Most Influential Faiths”, published by Zephyros Press. Learn more at jasonboyett.com.
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