Making a Difference From The Ground Up: New Farm Institute.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series that features the 2014 grant recipients of the Austin Food and Wine Alliance Culinary Grant Program.

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Close your eyes for a second and imagine an Austin that isn’t defined by high-rises or heavy traffic. New Farm Institute, a nonprofit located on Green Gate Farms in East Austin, has a vision for this city, and we can’t help but be inspired by it. The nonprofit’s mission is to educate, assist and inspire a new generation of sustainable farmers. Co-founder of the institute, Erin Flynn, wants to help cultivate an Austin where people can walk to where their food grows, and enjoy gardens and farms without even leaving their neighborhoods.

Last year, The Austin Food and Wine Alliance gave out $30,000 in grants, and $10,000 of this was awarded to the nonprofit New Farm Institute to help bring their vision to life. New Farm Institute believes that healthy, organically grown food has the power to bring people of all walks of life together; from college students seeking out an alternative Spring Break experience to Escoffier culinary students and even refugees from Nepal and Congo. They want to offer the community more than just food to feel good about, but also a place where they can work together on something greater, toward a more beautiful Austin.

How did the New Farm Institute come to life? What sparked this nonprofit?

New Farm Institute grew organically, sprouting from members and customers hungry to learn about our organic, sustainable systems. Creating a public farm designed to engage people in hands-on activities is still a pretty far out concept for Texas. Texans tend to think “cattle” when they hear “farm.” My family has ranched in Texas for generations, but my husband and I wanted something entirely different. Our farm is the result of many, many people saying, “Hey, what if we tried this…”

For instance, when our CSA customer Robyn Green told us her eight-year-old son wanted to learn how to catch and kill a chicken, that got us thinking about involving children in farm to table. That activity led us to create Farm Camps for adults and for children, which led us to consulting for beginning farmers. One thing leads to the next.

Why is organic farming so important to you?

,p>During our years working in public health—my husband was at the Center for Disease Control and I was at the American Cancer Society headquarters —our efforts focused upon raising awareness about disease prevention and treatment. That set the stage for us becoming passionate science-based advocates for healthy living.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of being a farmer for the past ten years has been meeting people who shop with us only after they’ve been diagnosed with a chronic disease like cancer or diabetes. Many people don’t appreciate the importance of eating certified organic foods until their oncologists recommend that they choose “clean” foods. That’s one of the reasons why we put a great deal of effort into our classes, camps and workshops. Being outdoors, learning about nature and helping others, especially children, develop gardening, cooking and farming skills is therapeutic for body and soul and what we love most about our jobs.

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Why do you believe farms are so important to the Central Texas region?

Austin’s rampant development is making farms, especially organic ones, even more important than they have been in the past. Farms harvest and clean water, provide the best tasting, healthiest foods possible, and mitigate climate disruption. But most of all, they provide soothing green space in what is quickly becoming a sea of cement. I think we should all imagine what Austin would be like with more gardens and farms, not less.

Ultimately, we believe local, organic food is a national security issue on par with Homeland Security. Austin depends on California for its food. What happens if California’s drought continues? How will that affect us? Having discussions and policies about food security—where it comes from and how to improve distribution—only strengthens our community.

Can you tell me about some of the programs that you’re proud to offer at NFI?

Our School-to-Farm program is one of our favorite programs and grows each year. Our initiatives include: hosting field trips for all ages (from kindergarten to college), visiting schools, providing resources to gardening teachers, and using our farm as a classroom.

It’s incredible to see the transformation that occurs as students take ownership of the farm and its processes. For three years, fifth graders have spent Fridays at the farm for four months at a time. They are included in all aspects of the farm, from making compost to making change at the farm stand. This hands-on work helps them experience how sustainable systems are interconnected. Over the years, students have created farm signs, designed a self-guided farm tour for visitors, created videos about sustainable systems and installed a new livestock area.

Another rewarding partnership is with Multicultural Refugee Coalition’s Farm Link program. One morning each week, we host refugees, many of who farmed in their former countries, and they help in the fields in exchange for vegetables. Being on the farm is a joyous experience for them and we love the delicious meals they share. We hope to accommodate more refugees as soon as funding is found for additional transportation.

What goals were you able to achieve with the Austin Food and Wine Alliance grant you were awarded?

The AFWA grant enabled us to strengthen our ties to Multi-Cultural Refugee Coalition’s (MRC) Farm Link program. We’ve been helping refugees farm here for more than a year and want to do more, including helping them create their own farms and food products. This work led to an opportunity to partner with City of Austin and University of Texas’ Coleman Coker’s architecture class, which takes on a community project each summer.

The City of Austin owns a great deal of floodplain property that they’d like to farm so we worked together to create a mobile rest station for people working in fields and floodplains. Our “Farmer Rover” is a one-of-a-kind mobile farm tool that serves as a place to eat, rest, store equipment, and have a bathroom. It’s perfect for floodplains where permanent buildings are not permitted. The students created a sleek, modern design.

What’s next for NFI?
Some of our goals include:

  • Growing our camps for adults and children. To do this, we are seeking sponsors to invest in infrastructure and help us provide more scholarships.

  • Increasing our capacity to host and train more volunteers and visitors.

  • Developing more innovative programs to showcase area farmers, CSA members and sustainability experts. Upcoming talks range from fruit tree propagation to what individuals can do about climate change.

  • Finally, our newly launched Keep Our Green Gates Open campaign is designed to raise awareness about the lack of farmland preservation policies and our historic farm site, which was purchased by an Arizona-based developer in March. Currently, there is not one policy on the books protecting Austin’s farmland.

You can find out more about NFI programs and events, as well as find their farmstand hours of operation on their website.