Urban farms thrive among the mansions in Texas

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

Ron Jenkins/The Fort Worth Star-Telegram/AP
Lynn Remsing of Gnismer Farms poses in his Arlington,Texas, corn field.

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

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."

Before expenses, produce sales are in six figures, he said. Equipment sales this year so far have tripled because of demand from niche farmers and, if the current trend continues, will top $1 million for the year, he said. The Remsings won't disclose profits.

The Remsings' venture is not without the risks all farmers face.

A freeze knocked out 60 percent of their strawberry crop, in which they had already invested about $56,000 for planting, plastic sheeting, and drip-irrigation tape.

"We recouped only $16,000," Lynn disclosed.

"Things vary, but you look at a seven-year average," he said. "Here's the gamble: If you don't know what you're doing, it's a hobby."

He also had waged a five-year fight with the Tarrant Appraisal District to get an agriculture exemption. A district agent couldn't believe that anyone could make money on 7 acres, but Lynn presented five years of records proving that the family could. The exemption was granted, reducing property taxes from $15,000 to under $10, he said.

Aside from growing interesting varieties of produce without heavy use of chemical fertilizer or pesticides, the Remsings are also bringing Dalworthington Gardens back to its roots as a New Deal planned community that sold, on easy terms, small plots of 2- to 5-acre subsistence-farming homesteads.

In the mid-1930s, a few residents farmed full time, while many families had at least one breadwinner commuting to Dallas, Fort Worth and Arlington, the three cities that form its name.

According to the city's Web site, Eleanor Roosevelt recommended the area as a subsistence-farming community in 1933 after visiting Dallas Morning News bureau chief Carl Mosig, a family friend who had bought a 15-acre farm nearby.

Applicants were highly scrutinized by a federal agency. Initially, only whites could sign up, and they had to earn less than $200 a month.

It's not known if political affiliation hurt or helped, but the original 79 homesteads were said to have ended up largely in the hands of Democrats.

They even had their own "socialized" health plan to which residents contributed $1 a month, giving them access to services provided by several Arlington physicians, according to a 1935 Fort Worth Press article.

However, members of the "new Utopia" revolted after fencing, piped water, and other promised infrastructure failed to arrive in a timely manner. In protest, residents renamed a street that had honored Eleanor to Park Drive, but kept Roosevelt Drive intact.

Now, 62 percent of the community is registered Republican, and only the Remsings farm commercially.

To compete with cheap produce from California and Mexico, Lynn says he has to "work harder and smarter."

Miller says the farmer is always trying new things to make the most of his small holdings.

"It's pretty amazing. I would never have thought of intercropping my corn with asparagus here," she said, referring to planting two crops in the same field together.

Now Lynn is working on technologies that permit tomatoes to be planted 40 days earlier in the season to compete with hothouse producers at a fraction of the growing cost.

Asked whether neighbors in Dalworthington Gardens have a problem living next to a working farm, Lynn replied: "Actually, the rich people — the doctors and the lawyers — come and bring their children. It's the Joe Blows who grew up in the country and say they could do it themselves but don't."

Editor's note: For more on gardening, see the Monitor's main gardening page. Our blog archive. Our RSS feed.

You may also want to visit Gardening With the Monitor on Flickr. If you join the group (it’s free), you can upload your garden photos -- and possibly win a prize. Deadline is Aug. 11. Join the discussions and get answers to your gardening questions.

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