Farmer Heroes | June 10, 2005

Going Hands-On with Mike Nolan and Oasis Gardens

Austin, Texas

Mike Nolan is the farmer on the popular Oasis Gardens, a 9-acre certified organic farm in Austin, Texas. Oasis also serves as a Community Supported Agriculture farm that enlists participation from its members. The members participate in all aspects of farming, Mike explains, from planting to weeding to harvesting. It’s a hands-on CSA, which is different from a delivery CSA. Unlike a CSA farm where shares of local food are dropped off and picked up in boxes, Oasis’ hands-on CSA farm is dependent on the members actually working for their food. “It’s hard work” Mike says, “but people are really excited to be here.”

Part of the reason for the members’ dedication to the farm is the sense of ownership and community that comes from working the land with their own hands every week. Oasis Gardens grows two seasons of crops, which in Austin is just about year-round work. In return for fresh veggies each week, Oasis CSA members pay a monetary fee and also commit to several hours of labor per week. On Sunday, members harvest the vegetables for the Monday delivery shares, which helps Mike out greatly.

Another reason Oasis has a year-long waiting list for the hands-on CSA shares, is that being a member of Oasis is fun! Every week members bring in the harvest at the end of the day, then gather in a circle. The members hold hands and share community announcements to let each other know what’s going on in Austin. Once a month, after they split up the harvest, they enjoy a pot luck meal right on the farm. Sometimes there’s music, sometimes they hold workshops — a canning workshop is coming up for those who have never canned their own vegetables.

Peter Fleury, a professional landscaper and yoga teacher, bought the farm in 1998, but the land has been in production off and on since the 1800s. “This part of Austin was called the ‘Spinach Capital of the World’,” says Fleury. “They used to load the cans right onto the trains that ran next to the cannery.” A railroad trestle still stands opposite the farm entrance.

After a decade of corn growing, the land then lay fallow from the 1930s to the present, used only as pasture for dairy cows.

When he has time, Mike brings food from Oasis Gardens to the Austin Farmers Market. Last year, Mike had a plethora of basil. He talked to his friends at the Sustainable Food Center who run the farmers market, and they suggested he rent some kitchen space and make pesto. Mike sold all the pesto he could make. “I’m hoping to do that again,” he said, “I’d like to hire someone to just make pesto.”

Mike and Peter are hoping to buy surrounding land and expand Oasis Gardens. With such a dedicated base of concerned food buyers, and a year-long waiting list for the hands-on CSA shares (the delivery shares don’t have a waiting list!), Oasis is sure to be around for a long time as part of the family farm food system of Austin.

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