Kids Galore at Swede Farms
Tim and LeeAnne Carlson of Swede Farm stand in their pasture in the early evening light. They’re surrounded by their goat herd and walk comfortably among them, fondly petting them as they discuss the farm. Two of their youngest human kids, Dixie and Seth, wander nearby, listening in while three more of their 12 children work nearby to fix fencing on the goat enclosure. As a couple, they’ve led their family and farm through the challenges of the last 13 years, and continue to succeed by adapting to ever-changing markets, business models and family needs.
Space to these farmers means more than the wide-open spaces that the average Houstonian might associate with farmland outside of the metro area. To LeeAnne Carlson, the space that makes up their farm is filled with “opportunity, possibility, responsibility and obligation”—including the opportunity and possibility to make any number of land stewardship decisions or turn farm business dreams into a reality. Those dreams, however, are always paired with responsibility and obligation: caring for and milking goats every day, veterinary bills, fixing fences and supporting a family of 14 while doing it.
Beyond the 10 acres that make up the farm, a far bigger space is needed to make the farm work. If Tim and his family couldn’t make the drive to Houston farmers markets twice each week there’d be no way for the farm to survive financially. In some ways, this means that their farm encompasses not only the 10 acres that the Carlson Family owns but the 50 miles they drive to Houston weekly to sell their products and manage farmers markets. While they moved to Waller, Texas, for more space, Tim and LeeAnne are constantly reminded that those who leave for more space in rural areas are always tied to the city in some way to sustain their life outside city limits.
When they purchased the farm in 2004 it wasn’t meant to be a farm business, just a family home with space for their growing brood of children to play and a few goats for education and fun. In 2008, they realized that they had to make their goats start paying their way when Tim lost his job.
Tim says: “We came from the city really not knowing anything, so we did the shotgun approach: We tried everything from honeybees, pigs, horses, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks and turkeys. We just did everything until finally goats stuck.” They dreamed of having a market onsite to sell raw milk to customers but discovered that no one would make the drive to their location. So instead, they’ve been bringing their milk, cheeses and other goat dairy products to markets throughout the Houston and Austin metro areas for over nine years.
They currently keep their herd of 40 goats on ¾ acre, and rotate the fenced space around the property every year. While they wish they could grow their own hay, an extension agent advised them that it wouldn’t be possible to do so successfully on their land. So they supplement their goat’s grazing with local hay they pick up from College Station. “Learning how your land can provide for you and what it can’t do is an enormous part of raising animals,” said Tim.
Swede Farm has sold its goods at 32 markets around Houston and Austin. While this might not seem like a huge number, it demonstrates the volatility and continual change of the farmers market space and opportunities for small farmers and ranchers to distribute their products in our region.
In October 2015, Tim started Memorial Villages Farmers Market, followed a year later by Meyerland Farmers Market. His daughters Katarina and Christin help him with managing them now. Starting and managing farmers markets provided Swede Farm with the opportunity to stay financially viable. It’s clear they’re excited about being able to support and encourage the success of other local growers and producers. And these markets have made a difference for more than just Swede Farm: “We have sales estimates that show there’s over a million dollars in the pockets of farmers and food artisans in just over 14 months, that wasn’t there before,” said LeeAnne. “That’s incredible. It’s really exciting.”
Now in their early 50s, both LeeAnne and Tim have decided to go back to school. Tim went back to the University of Houston for a second bachelor’s degree, this time in liberal studies. Initially inspired by the desire to continue learning, he discovered one of the benefits was having access to affordable health insurance for the family, something incredibly expensive to afford for full-time farmers. LeeAnne returned to finish the BA that she had started back in 1986, and has gone on to begin the MFA program at the University of Houston to pursue her passion for writing.
It might not look like a Norman Rockwell depiction of a family farm, nor should it. Local farmers and growers are constantly adapting to changing land, customer preferences and market opportunities—and success can be defined in many different ways.
For Tim, success is achievable: “We want to create a quality product that allows us to make a living on the farm and to leave a legacy for our children, should they desire to continue farming.”
So what will Swede farm look like in the future? It’s hard for the Carlson family to guess. New homes are popping up around their property and they know that changes in the area—including larger housing developments—could lead to headaches in the future if their new neighbors aren’t interested in both the benefits and challenges of living near a farm.
Tim and LeeAnne are still taking it one day at a time. Part of what drives them is their dedication to and belief in why they started raising goats in the first place: “We’ve always been committed to providing milk for those who truly needed it.”