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Farmhouse Delivery: Beyond the Storm

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The Farmhouse Delivery family has proven that not even an Arctic storm can stop them from feeding their community.

By Cy White, Photos by Laura Hajar

There’s a chill in the air. Not totally unexpected on a February morning, but this feels…different. This is a biting cold, a freeze that slices through clothes, down to the bone. It’s eerily quiet. There isn’t even the phantom hum of currents, the mostly unnoticed sound of a house breathing with electricity. That’s when the realization hits: You don’t have power.

This was the scene most of Texas woke up to the day after celebrating Valentine’s Day. An unprecedented freeze clutched the Lone Star state by the throat and choked its citizens with a collective fear not felt since March of last year, when the COVID-19 virus hit pandemic levels. For weeks many were left without electricity (which meant no heat) and burst pipes (no water). The roads remained unplowed and dangerous to walk on, let alone drive upon. Then a new fear spread like a thick sheet of ice over Lake Travis: How are we going to get food?

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Photo courtesy of Boggy Creek Farm

For farmers this ubiquitous uncertainty took on a different shade altogether. Entire crops, lost. Animals in danger of freezing. With no electricity, ethical dairy producers like Richardson Farms had no means to milk cows primed for regular milking. This, of course, is a gateway for leaking and infection. Hens were not only refusing to lay eggs, they were freezing to death.

Then there was the horrific realization that Austin communities, their own neighbors and employees were left with few necessities and fewer answers. Farmhouse Delivery, an online service that delivers fresh food from their own farm as well as a multitude of farmers and artisans sourced throughout Texas, was put in an even more precarious situation.

Where it All Started

The Farmhouse story is layered. It all starts with a young woman named Stephanie Scherzer who had an interest in horticulture. When the opportunity arose to buy her own land, she and her partner, Kim Beal, did so, and Scherzer got a flash of inspiration after eating her first farm-grown foods and experiencing farmer’s markets.

“I was doing it as a hobby,” she reveals. “I love farmer’s markets, the community of people. But I just said, ‘Man, this model is so challenging, to work full time, then have to go on the weekends.’ So I thought I’d try to sell to some restaurants. I had friends over at Vespaio, and they taught me how to bundle things and just worked with me. Then I was like, ‘I really would like to feed my people and my community and let my neighbors taste this food and other producers my size. Why isn’t that out there? Why doesn’t that exist? How do we do it cleanly?’ So it kind of started out as an idea of a CSA, but more if I could buy from other farmers and if we could bundle it together with the best thing in season, and get it to people’s doors.”

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Stephanie Scherzer, founder and CEO of Farmhouse Delivery

With a history of building from the ground up and incredible resiliency, Farmhouse Delivery has proven its ability to weather any storm. “That’s what’s been really hard with COVID and stuff,” Scherzer says. “Farmhouse really thrives in this crisis.” However, this was an unprecedented weather event the likes of which Texas in general, Austin in particular, could have never foreseen. “I don’t think we knew how devastating the lack of power [was going to be],” she says. “February is our coldest month, but we can have really erratic temperature changes. I think what was really hard with this storm were the days that were below freezing, when we never came out of that.”

Unprecedented Freeze

There are layers to the complexity of navigating a freeze like this. Yes, Austin has had its overnight frost-overs, as in February 2011, when temperatures got as low as 17 degrees. Austin isn’t a tropical island. Winter still is an eventuality that farmers have to plan for, never mind how unpredictable Austin’s weather can be throughout the year. “Farming in Texas is just so challenging because we can shift 60 degrees in a day,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “Is it spring? Is it freezing? So conservative farmers were like, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t have a lot on the ground in February.’ Farming’s gambling,” she continues. “So they’re pushing the envelope and pushing what they can and trying to get away with it.”

However, nothing on the scale of this year’s Arctic blast has occurred for over 30 years—back in December 1989, when temperatures hit a bracing 4 degrees. How does one plan for several days of freezing weather in a state that doesn’t even have basics like salt and snow shovels, let alone snow plows and winterized pipes? Ultimately, at this point, the goal is to just survive and help as many as you can when you can. “We took in six people during the storm,” Scherzer shares. “I have a 2-year-old and a 9-year-old, a dog and two cats…a fish tank that didn’t make it.”

First Priorities

You can’t talk about the storm without emphasizing the very real peril of the first day after the snowfall. The aftermath that followed crippled Austin, many of its citizens without water and food several weeks after officials declared the city back to full functionality. With each passing day, Farmhouse Delivery had to readjust and adapt, in ways perhaps they never would’ve imagined. With a bevy of produce, dairy and various artisans relying on the online delivery service to get their goods to the general public, Farmhouse Delivery’s first priority was how to ensure those under their purview were taken care of.

“We thought Three Sisters Farms were going to be okay, but the entire Sisters crop is gone,” Scherzer says, unable to mask the hurt and concern in her voice. “The onions, they’re not sure about. We were a week or two weeks from artichokes coming from the Valley, and he just hasn’t even responded to our call. These are larger growers. The ones around us, we did have warning that it was going to be [a bad storm], and we were trying to make plans as best we could,” she continues. “We just reached out to everyone and said, ‘Look, whatever you can harvest just bring it in and we’ll find a home for it.’ Our warehouse was full because of that.”

Emotional Stress

But let’s be honest here. This was never just about the storm. After the snow actually settled, Austin’s general population took to their yards, to the streets even, to take part in one of the few “real” winters they’d ever experienced. Many Austinites, people who’ve called Austin home for decades, revelled in the promise of snowmen and angels, snowball fights, taking a chomp of a fresh layer of powdery flakes—many for the first time in their lives. Then the next day, more snow, more ice. The temperature kept plummeting. Suddenly the electricity for many cut out, then cut out for everybody on the grid. Burst pipes, houses and apartments flooded with the literal rainfall coming from their walls and ceilings.

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Photo courtesy of Steelbow Farm

Finegan Ferreboeuf of Steelbow Farm

How are you feeling right now? How did the freeze affect your farm? Did you lose product and if so how much?

We are feeling slightly relieved, eager to get back to work and grateful to our community for all of the support. Going into the storm we were expecting a total crop loss in the field. In the hope of preventing that we did utilize row cover to protect most everything in the field. After the snow melted and the ice thawed, we were able to assess the damage, and we were pleasantly surprised that a lot of our crops pulled through. That said, there was a substantial amount of crop loss, around 30%. We had to suspend sales and pause the weekly veggie box subscription. The farm has definitely taken a big hit, but we will replant and reseed and keep on growing food for our community.

What are you doing to mitigate the effects? Will you be able to replant?

In order to make up for lost income we are feverishly planting, and we are planning on upping production for the spring and summer. The good thing about growing food in Central Texas is that we have a large window for most crop production. The good thing about farming is there is always another season, another chance. We are committed to growing and feeding and changing our local food system. Winter Storm Uri has only deepened our commitment to creating resilient farms and healthy, thriving communities.

What can people do to help support your farm?

The best way to support us is to join our Veggie Box program. It will be back up and running again in early-mid March. The Veggie Box is a subscription of organic, restaurant-quality vegetables and some add-ons as
well. If interested visit our website,
steelbowfarm.com, or follow us on Instagram @steelbowfarm.

This wasn’t about a couple days of snow and ice. This was about trying to survive, and many people did not. As of the writing of this article, the Travis County medical examiner had processed over 80 casualties since Feb. 13. That’s just the number reported. The final count was still unknown and will likely take months to fully process. While some might not be directly related to complications with the storm, it’s fair to say that several dozen were.

“The impact emotionally of all the stress and everything,” Scherzer says. “We have close to 90 employees, and I think 75 were affected. That’s when it really flipped for me,” she reveals. “We brought everything in and said, ‘Okay, we’re not gonna come in on that Friday.’ [That] was the plan. But it was worse than we thought, nobody could drive. Just seeing the images…I had employees who had water coming out of their ceiling fans, the sides of their walls. Someone’s car exploded. Another one’s engine cracked. So just the labor and having to flip and work 16-hour days, I felt all this responsibility because we did have all this food and our community was starving.”

The Community is Hurting

With cries for help whipping in the wind, local organizations like Austin Mutual Aid, Austin Street Forum, Central Texas Food Bank and DAWA Heals took up the mantle and dug in with hands and feet to help those who needed it most. There again, Farmhouse Delivery was ready to go to work.

“We worked with skeleton crews around the clock with who could come in or not,” says Scherzer. “We kind of worked a nine-day stretch because we worked through the weekend to get everything from the week that we all missed and into our regular week. Then with everybody panic buying…I came in Monday and we already had sold the biggest [number of orders], even since COVID, that we’ve ever had.”

Scherzer had to stop all online orders because the demand was just too great. “We literally just physically couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was packing boxes, our marketing team was packing boxes. Everybody got hands-on. Then we did flip and do some essential boxes, where we allowed people to drive through,” she continues. “We sold out of those in less than two hours. So we had two days of just pick-ups. A minority of those people weren’t even regular customers. They’d just heard from friends of friends and needed some food, so we kind of just took what we had.”

When emergency provisions became difficult to provide across the city, again organizations stepped up to the plate to fill in the gaps. Farmhouse Delivery was right there, raising money and corralling food donations in ways that could truly help their community. “Predating to the beginning of COVID, the team launched the Donate a Box program,” says Victoria Villarreal, a freelance PR consultant for Farmhouse Delivery. “As of April 1 [of last year], customers could donate a box, and it made it really easy to find those organizations. Over $84,000 has been donated to organizations throughout Texas that are chosen by the Farmhouse team.”

“I figured if we had this many people coming through, we better do something to help our community as well,” Scherzer adds. “We knew our community was hurting. I think we worked with 10 different nonprofits. Saffron Trust is one that we just started, and we’re going to be ongoing with them, which I’m really excited about. We helped a farmer in Houston that got their tractor stolen, bought laptops for kids at American Youthworks; we bought food for Good Work Austin.”

The Unknown

The trauma of the unknown: Is my water running? Is it clean? Will my electricity be on tomorrow? How am I going to feed my family? The entire city of Austin was in limbo (some neighborhoods still are), wondering what their next steps should be to protect themselves. Farmhouse Delivery took on a burden of responsibility to not just themselves, but their employees and their families. Scherzer’s first thought was about those around her. “Just talking to Dorsey (Barger of HausBar Farms), she’s like, ‘I’m still dealing with the trauma. I’m not pushing myself to do what I can do.’ But on the restaurant side of it, the demand was really hard. The fact that it happened right at Valentine’s and everyone was expecting this push, and then it just went away. Double whammy.”

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Dorsey Barger & Gustavo the Goose (HausBar Farms)

As a group with that much pressure on their shoulders, surely the Farmhouse family was deserving of some aid of their own. But when speaking on what kind of help she received, there again, Scherzer puts the focus back on the people around her.

“We kind of take care of our own,” she says. “We checked in on all our employees. I can’t tell you how many landlords and apartment complex managers I spoke to in both Spanish and English, raising some absolute hell for the employees who aren’t getting the responses that they need. We’ve been cooking internally a lot, family meals and also takeout meals for people. We made huge batches of carne asada so people just didn’t have to worry about that. We’ve started carpooling, picking people up so they can come into the office. We balanced out everybody’s pay so everybody got what they would’ve gotten whether or not they could make it in. We’re really supportive of each other.”

So now what?

How do we heal, recover from something like this? The weather in Austin, being as temperamental as it is, would have you believe the week of Feb. 14 didn’t even happen. One week after one of the most devastating weather events in recent history for the state, the temperature was around 75 degrees, birds were singing, skies were blue. There wasn’t a spot of moisture on the ground. It’s like the entire state’s slate was wiped clean, and we were somehow supposed to just move on.

The recovery process for everyone continued well after the storm. In fact many people are still trying to pick up the pieces. “For farmers, they till the fields,” Scherzer says matter-of-factly. “You assess the loss, and you pull out what you can. And you just plant more seed and start over, essentially. Farmers are pretty resilient, and this is what they’ve committed to. So they’re gonna fight to the end.”

Through it all, Scherzer passes no blame. Sure, she’s had her moments of anger and disappointment. “This was unprecedented, even for the Midwest,” she says. “Our system failed. I think that’s the biggest emotion afterwards. I’m just angry, I’m just really pissed off that, you know, dollars over people. It’s just so clear, and it’s so wrong, and the impact has been so great on the lives of so many people. To think a four-day ice storm could bring Texas to its knees is just mind-blowing.”

But she’s determined to keep any negativity about what could’ve been done and who should take responsibility out of her circle. Frankly, that’s not what’s important. Even in the wake of the mandatory mask mandate being lifted, restaurants and public spaces being completely re-opened, it’s always about keeping her employees safe, keeping her neighbors safe, keeping her family safe. No storm, not even a pandemic, can change that for Scherzer.

“Internally we’re going to figure out how we can navigate a bit better,” she says. “Because I don’t do it perfectly. A lot of it is grit, and we’re just a very determined group. The people that work for me, I always say we’re like in Rudolph, the [Island of Misfit Toys],” she says, the comparison puffing out of her on a breathy chuckle. “We’re kind of a mixed group. People believe in what they’re doing and that’s why they’re there. They really care about what we’re doing.”

Passion and Grit

Her passion for farming, for creating life and hope for those who find it hard to create any for themselves, is at the forefront of her mind. Her latest flare of inspiration comes from helping new farmers succeed. “There’s a new group of women farmers that are emerging that are younger that personally within Farmhouse we’re going to shine a light on,” she reveals. “It’s kind of the next generation.”

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Carol Ann (left) and Tracy Geyer of Boggy Creek Farm

Tracy Geyer of Boggy Creek Farm

Please share a brief description about the damages to your farm.

Like all of the other farms we’ve had great losses in the fields and even in our hoop houses and greenhouse. We lost about 50% of our crops in the fields, 25% of crops in the hoop houses and seedlings in the greenhouse.

For an entire week during the storm we were unable to open our farmstand, so we lost income there. It took an additional two weeks to assess the damages to our crops. We grow from seeds, so we had to order more to replenish our spring seedlings.

The hens all survived. Carol Ann slushed through the snow and ice numerous times daily, carrying boiling water and breaking ice so they had fresh water to drink. Due to not having electricity for five days, we had many pipes break, including two breaks in our well piping. Our field manager, Monica Sanders, walked 45 minutes each way, twice daily to check and change out propane tanks (we had to buy more), generating heat in our greenhouse to minimize fatalities.

What are your top needs to get back to work (seeds, new equipment, fixing property damage, etc.)?

Because we save money when the farm is doing well, and we are so diverse in our farmstand offerings (meat, dairy, baked goods, etc.), we are prepared to suffer losses when disaster strikes. This has gotten us through many horrible times; we know it would be foolish to think the good times will last forever.

Fortunately we don’t need outside assistance other than for people to shop at our farmstand. We genuinely appreciate the support we receive from the community.

Will you be back to a “normal” sense of business? Spring? Summer?

We gradually will be back to “normal.” We are planting continuously, and as long as we keep doing that it will be a great spring! Farmers must be able to be resilient; when we are knocked down, we get right back up! We never give up!

The Farmhouse Delivery family is a strong unit, built on a love of fresh food, growth and creativity. That family’s matriarch, Stephanie Scherzer, is a shining example of what it means to give willingly and from the heart. The farmers and producers around her are testament to that. “It’s been a really challenging and exciting year for me,” says Scherzer. “It’s proved all of my hard work, that regional food systems and this type of local distribution works to feed your community. When everything was breaking on a national level, our relationships and our partners stayed strong, and they could grow with us. As hard as it’s been, it’s also been really exciting because of just that hard work,” she continues. “This is real, and as crazy as the world is getting, I think more and more we need to learn how to feed our community closer.”


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