The scene was reminiscent of an old-fashioned barn raising, where friends would turn out to help a farmer build a new barn, and then celebrate the accomplishment. But on this Saturday in December, what was being raised was a new covering for a damaged greenhouse at Acacia Farms in Bayview.
The greenhouse, some 30 feet by 130 feet, lost its plastic covering in a freak windstorm earlier in the year and, with planting season falling behind, farm owners Bud and Susanne Cooke needed the covered garden beds back in production to nurture young tomato plants that were in pots crowded among squash and peppers in another large greenhouse.
The day before, north winds accompanying a cold front gusted to 40-plus miles an hour and played havoc with smaller plastic covers protecting the tender beginnings of broccoli, cauliflower and lettuce plants. Covering the large greenhouse would have been impossible in those conditions, but Saturday brought a sunny day with light winds.
Bud coordinated the preparation of the canopy and assigned jobs to the volunteers. When the time came, everyone sprang into action and the heavy plastic was pulled across the supports, billowing in the light winds as the friends struggled to keep it under control. Once the cover was in place and secured to its base, the group feasted on a meal prepared by Susanne.
“We had to take this whole greenhouse apart and fix it and redo it so it really put us behind,” Bud said. “Our tomatoes should have been in the ground a month ago. But that’s farming and you might as well roll with the punches or otherwise you are going to bed crying at night.”
Bud and Susanne started Acacia Farms in 2008, joining what has become a proliferation of small family farms raising organic crops throughout the Rio Grande Valley. The colorful and nutritious produce harvested on these farms drives a growing number of farmers markets in the area. For these small growers, like their larger commercial counterparts, farming is a tough business that is largely dependent on the whims of Mother Nature, who can be their best friend or their worst enemy.
“Yesterday, without a doubt, the devil was busy,” Bud said about the howling north winds that damaged some of their smaller plant coverings and threatened to foil the large greenhouse repair.
Bud and Susanne both grew up on small family farms in Minnesota, scratching out a living from the land. “That’s how we lived, we ate everything we grew,” Bud said. “About the only income we had was from the wool from the sheep and the cream from the cows.”
As a young man, Bud went to work operating heavy machinery. He did that until he had enough years to become fully vested in the company’s profit-sharing plan. He cashed out and landed in Bayview, where he and Susanne started out growing tomatoes more as a hobby than a business. “We just gave them away and had fun doing it. People just went crazy, it was the best tasting stuff. People would say we needed to start selling, so we doubled the size of the garden and we sold everything we grew.”
The business started out small, with Susanne selling small amounts of produce at Harley’s Beer Garden in Bayview on weekends after friends encouraged her. “The first week I sold about $12 but in a few weeks I was selling $100 and I thought, this could be a business.”
As more gardens were tilled and more crops were planted, selling the fruits of their labor did become a business for the Cookes. “It all sold so we put in another garden. And all of that sold. And then we went over here and put in another garden,” Bud said as he pointed out the different growing areas on the Acacia Farms property along the banks of a resaca. “It’s just been a wonderful experience for us.”
As Bud and Susanne moved into the business side of selling their organic produce, they became regular vendors at farmers markets in Brownsville, Harlingen and South Padre Island, among others. “We used to do seven markets a week and we had employees,” Bud said. “But for every market we did that’s what one employee would take in. So, you know, I said the math isn’t working here. We were breaking even. What’s wrong with this story?”
During the harvest season Acacia Farms opens its gates to customers on Fridays, and on Sundays they still set up shop at the Island farmers market. “We still sell absolutely everything we can produce with just Susanne and I doing it.”
Along the way the couple refined their business approach by keeping detailed records on things like what produce was most popular, times of year that drew the most customers and when they could expect Winter Texans to start showing up. “We have gotten to where we can predict it and so we can pick and pack pretty much what we need every time,” Bud said.
Although behind schedule this year, Acacia Farms planned a return to the Island farmers market in January with lettuce, salad mix, chard, kale and other vegetables. “The carrots, beets and cauliflower will be ready soon,” Susanne said. “The tomatoes will take a little longer.”
The couple is dedicated to using only organic methods, and all their crops are grown from seed. “We don’t bring in any plants from anywhere else,” Bud said. And the business has become more than a full-time occupation during the growing season. “We do this seven days a week, never less than 12 hours and sometimes as much as 16 hours.”
Green bell peppers ripen in a greenhouse at Acacia Farms. (VBR)At one time Acacia Farms operated all year, but again, Mother Nature had something to say about that. “We used to be open 12 months but it just gets too hot so we shut down for the summer,” Bud said. “You just throw seeds at the ground and don’t get anything out of it, maybe 10 percent.” During the worst heat of the summer, Bud and Susanne return to Minnesota to vacation and check up on another farm they have an interest in. But the end of summer and early fall is dedicated to planning for the next growing season, maintaining their equipment and greenhouses, and maybe adding another garden plot.
Staying true to the early days of Acacia Farms, when they gave away the fruits of their labor to friends and neighbors, the Cookes still show their generosity as a way to give back to the community. They donate the first cuttings of every crop they grow and give it away to people in need. “We always give the first harvest away,” Susanne said. “It’s not a religious thing, it’s just something we do.”