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Urban farms thrive among the mansions in Texas

They prove it's possible to make a living from a 7-acre 'front yard.'

By Barry ShlachterFort Worth Star-Telegram/AP / July 24, 2009

Lynn Remsing of Gnismer Farms poses in his Arlington,Texas, corn field.

Ron Jenkins/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP

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DALWORTHINGTON GARDENS, Texas

Lynn and Cynthia Remsing have a 7-acre front yard in this small, increasingly affluent Tarrant County city now dotted with $1 million mansions.

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But theirs is like none other in the community of 2,400 surrounded by Arlington.

What started out as an after-school project by their two children has evolved into the Remsings' livelihood. They produce tons of commercially rare — or just plain delicious — varieties of onions, garlic, okra, seedless tomatoes, corn, leeks, artichokes, rhubarb, blackberries, and strawberries.

In fact, Lynn, who has become a natural proselytizer for niche agriculture, takes particular pride in that his fruit has "no shelf life."

It is sold the day it's picked, and he recommends eating it quickly to enjoy the freshness that commodity varieties often lack because they're bred for transcontinental hauling.

Lynn and Cynthia left their jobs to become full-time urban farmers. He gave up a white-collar career with a national paper company in 2001 and she retired from AT&T three years ago to intensively cultivate the plot with scaled-down but high-tech equipment that they also sell.

Lynn, who grew up on a North Dakota farm and studied botany in college, even designed and built one machine: a two-person strawberry picker, very slowly self-propelled by an 8-horsepower Honda engine.

His wife handles sales and back-office duties, and pitches in during heavy harvests.

The two ventures, Gnismer Farm Equipment and Gnismer Farms, complement each other, Lynn said. (Gnismer, pronounced NAIZ-mer, is Remsing spelled backward.)

Farming around urban areas in Texas has been upstaged by producers in California, Florida, and Mexico in recent decades, with the result that "fresh" produce in local supermarket bins could have been shipped 1,500 miles.

If conventional wisdom holds that north Texas can no longer compete, Lynn begs to differ. He's convinced that with the right approach, the right equipment and the right skill set, a person can make farming pay even on expensive Metroplex land.

Laura Miller, a commercial horticulture specialist who serves Tarrant County for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, says Lynn not only has made his venture work, but has been more than willing to share what he's learned with others.

The Remsings' produce business, including the pick-your-own berries unit, caters to an expanding "eat local" trend, Ms. Miller said. Yet there are still few farmers like them, and demand outstrips supply.

In an upcoming newsletter, Miller rattles off other urban and semi-urban producers in the area: Homestead Farms, a goat dairy; vegetable and grass-fed beef venture in Kelle;, and Roanoke's Henrietta Creek Orchard, a pick-your-own apple and peach farm.

Moreover, the Cowtown Farmers Market in Fort Worth offers products grown within 150 miles.

Gnismer Farms has been careful as a niche, urban grower by producing high-value crops, like a tiny Italian garlic variety used to flavor bottles of olive oil.

"Otherwise you can't justify it considering the cost of land," Miller said.

Revenues come from its fruit stand sales, pick-your-own business, deliveries to restaurants and stores, and a special arrangement with a large Arlington employer whose workers place orders online and receive weekly drop-offs from Cynthia. Retail prices are competitive with major supermarkets, the Remsings say.

"It's hard work, but this is a lot more satisfying," said Lynn, 60, interviewed when the temperature hit 102 degrees.

"And there's no one to answer to."