Long before the bright beams of a morning sunrise peek over the storage facility next door, Michael and Sarah Farris are busy with the day’s chores. Milking 60 to 70 goats and feeding chickens and pigs — plus a horse and donkey — top a long to-do list. Every day.
After that, the onion and blackberry plants growing in the small field north of their sunny yellow house will be needing attention, as will Homestead Farms’ aquaponic system in the nearby green house.
With housing developments and strip malls popping up all around them, and a Fort Worth road project poised to take a painful bite out of their land, the Farrises are working hard to preserve their little corner of country living — and share it with their urban community.
Tuesdays through Saturdays, they open up Homestead’s slice of simpler times to visitors. A small, rustic billboard on Keller Hicks Road invites passers-by to turn into the property’s pebbled drive for a visit to the tiny farm store. There, raw goat milk is available for purchase in glass bottles along with pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken products and seasonal produce from their own field and those of other local growers.
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While there, visitors are welcome to wander and visit the goats and pigs, look in on the laying hens, check out the fruit and veggie patch and greet Boo — a laid-back giant mix of Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherd who is usually found sprawled out in the yard or on a wooden porch.
For preschool and elementary children, a popular offering is Homestead Farms’ farm camp, which gives youngsters a chance to help milk the goats, feed the chickens and plant seeds in the greenhouse.
“They get to be a farmer for the day,” Sarah says.
Children’s birthday parties are also popular, with activities that include visiting animals and taking a hayride in the back pasture. Homestead also sponsors special events around Earth Day and hosts summer camps and a pumpkin patch in October. From the store and the tours to the parties and special events, the idea behind Homestead Farms is to remind people where everything in their pantry and fridge comes from.
“People are extremely separated from their food source,” Sarah says. “That’s where I’d like to see our farm bridge the gap.”
Laura Miller, county agent for Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, says that agritourism and marketing products fresh from the farm are ways that small operations in city areas can find success.
“There are people who enjoy interacting with the farmers who produce their food,” Miller says. “And it’s a great experience for children in urban and suburban settings to see where their food comes from.
Milk and more
Homestead Farms’ biggest seller at its store is goat milk, which is bottled straight from the tank where it is collected during milking.
Every day, Michael milks 60 to 70 goats, with each producing about a half-gallon of milk, on average. He uses a milking parlor adapted from the days when his father had dairy cows on the same property. The floppy-eared Nubians — chosen for the high butter fat content of their milk — calmly munch feed while the milking machines do their work. A clear glass pipe overhead delivers the milk from the goats to the refrigerated 60-gallon tank. After every milking, the parlor and equipment are cleaned thoroughly.
Goat milk is becoming popular because it is much easier to digest, Sarah says, and some people prefer the taste.
Marty Smith of far north Fort Worth has been purchasing goat milk from Homestead Farms for three or four years.
“I wanted raw milk for my children, so I went and visited the farm,” Smith says. “They’re so clean and knowledgeable. I was sold. Now I buy meats, veggies, eggs, butter and yogurt there. I’m in there every week.”
While Michael and Sarah don’t grow everything they sell, all their wares are produced by area farmers, ranchers and growers that the Farrises have vetted to be as organic as possible.
Homestead Farms is also a pickup site for Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an Austin-based organic produce cooperative with a farm in Denton where members pay dues to pick up a box of locally grown food each week.
A century of family farming
On the wall of the farm store is a plaque from the Texas Department of Agriculture recognizing the Farrises as Family Land Heritage honorees, meaning their land has been in continuous agricultural production by one family for more than a century.
Michael is the fifth generation of his family to farm the land there, and he wants to keep the operation going.
“I’ve been here my whole life, with my family before me farming,” Michael says.
His great-great-grandfather started the farm and passed it down. His grandmother, Minnie Browning, still lives in a cozy ranch house on the property. He grew up working alongside his father, John Farris, who died six months ago.
Michael graduated from Keller High School in 2001. He met Sarah while doing high school rodeo competitions. Sarah was a barrel racer at Southlake Carroll High School. Later, Michael graduated from Texas Christian University with a degree in ranch management; while Sarah earned a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from Texas Woman’s University. The pair married seven years ago and started Homestead Farms as newlyweds. Daughter Sammy Jo was born in 2011 and has the run of the place in her flower-embroidered cowgirl boots.
Sarah says, “I love that we’re all together all the time. We work seven days a week a lot of hours, but we’re together.”
Looking to the future
The Farrises constantly are looking for ways to expand their small business and reach more people.
A few years ago, they won a greenhouse at an auction. Michael’s dad wanted to try aquaponics, a symbiotic system of raising plants and fish together, with the fish providing nutrients for the plants, which, in turn, purify the water for the fish. Currently, they’re growing Swiss chard and lettuce, starting seeds in several table-tank combinations with koi, catfish and tilapia. A pump circulates water between the fish in the tank below and plants growing above.
They’ve also started raising a handful of heritage-breed pigs called Hereford hogs which are red with white faces — similar to the cattle breed. Heritage-breed pigs are raised in fields, not cages, and at Homestead Farms, a pair of growing rust-coated piglets have a movable pen in the produce patch. They provide natural fertilizer and tilling just by doing what pigs do.
Late this winter, the Farrises planted a half-dozen rows of blackberries in their produce field. If all goes well, they say, they’ll have a “pick your own” patch in a year or two. With creativity and commitment, they hope to continue their small farm despite — and in conjunction with — the area’s rapid development.
Miller says there are 1,278 known farms in Tarrant County, with the median size at 15 acres, Homestead Farms’ current size. “Most is traditional pasture land that will probably be developed in the future,” Miller says. “It’s hard to do it in an urban area.”
Those who succeed are those who diversify — entrepreneurs who offer a little something extra beyond selling what the land produces.
Smith, the devoted customer, says, “I love supporting small businesses, especially a farm in the middle of the city. They have great service and great quality food.”
Meanwhile, signs of progress have hit close to home, and require flexibility from the urban farmers. The Farrises have been working with the City of Fort Worth on right-of-way issues for a roundabout planned at Keller Hicks Road and Park Vista Boulevard. Already, the city project has forced the family to abandon plans to use a house they’d recently purchased on Keller Hicks as their farm store. Despite such obstacles, the couple perseveres in their goal of reinventing the family farm.
“I don’t want to see it die. I don’t want it to be another housing addition,” Michael says. “I just always figured if I could make just enough money to not go get one of those ‘real’ jobs, I’d keep going. I’m trying to preserve the family heritage.”
4160 Keller Hicks Road, Fort Worth
Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Farm camps are available for ages 2 to 12; tours and parties scheduled by appointment.