The Tull family sat waiting patiently for a visitor who was about 20 minutes late. Toby and Pam sat in lawn chairs. Melanie and Brandon shared a swinging love seat. Cows milled about a few yards away. A mole stuck its head out of the ground just behind the tree that was providing shade for all of them. Birds were singing on this breezy Thursday afternoon.
The Tulls own and operate Home Grown Farm in Gholson. Brandon and Toby also manage a hydroponic lettuce farm, and Toby co-owns Happy Harvest and is the founder of Bare Bucha. Pam started Home Grown Farm on a smaller piece of land in China Spring, and she also works in the Office of Sponsored Programs at Baylor University.
They told their story to Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley on that recent Thursday, sharing how what started as a dream has turned into a family endeavor.
WACOAN: How long have you had the farm?
Toby: In its original form, it started in 2011. That was my mom out in China Spring. Then my brother jumped on board later in 2011.
Brandon: She started in the spring. I really came on in the fall.
Toby: And then Melanie helped on and off from 2011. But really, she kind of took over the beef part of it in 2014. And I came on board in 2013.
WACOAN: What did you have in China Spring?
Pam: We started out with the vegetables. I went and bought a couple of beehives to pollinate. We had 7 acres total but only farmed 5. It was really basic at the very beginning.
WACOAN: What prompted the move to this location?
Toby: Mom and Dad got a divorce. Dad wasn’t too passionate about the farm anyway, and at that point, we needed to grow. He still owns the original property. It’s been in his family for decades.
WACOAN: So you had started Home Grown Farm in China Spring?
WACOAN: Pam, what sparked the idea in the first place?
Pam: I really just had a vision of being able to grow vegetables. I wanted to do the honey. And I always dreamt of the kids being involved and having a family farm. It was my vision, but the boys, without them, this absolutely would not have taken off.
Brandon had the passion for farming. He loves to do it. And Toby, with his passion for technology and marketing. And Melanie just jumps in and does whatever, whenever. She’s been our cheerleader all along, and then started in with the beef.
Melanie: We grew up farming, so it was kind of a lifestyle before all this.
Pam: When the kids were young, we lived on a feed yard and did a lot of the feed yard work. Also, they did a lot of ranching and farming, but it was more on the corn —
Toby: More big food. It was all the nastiness that ‘Food, Inc.’ exposed. We kind of lived that.
Pam: I wanted to get away from that and really grow food naturally and do it the right way. We started out small, and we’re still not all that big, but we’re a lot bigger than we were when we first started.
WACOAN: I’m a city boy. Can you tell me what a feed yard is?
Brandon: A thousand cows in confined spaces.
Pam: And only fed grain.
Brandon: I remember, when I was a kid, finding out what they were feeding [them], and this was before the mad cow [disease] scare of the mid-80s. They would feed cows, cows. The fat and whatever was left over, they would just run it through and mix it up with the grain.
Then they found out they couldn’t do that because it was causing mad cow disease, which comes from an animal eating the same species. Brains, spinal column, anything that’s neurological, and it causes a neurological disease.
Toby: Home Grown Farm is everything opposite of that.
WACOAN: Melanie, the farm’s website says you have a master’s in social work. Are you working in that field?
Melanie: I’m a social worker at the Family Health Center. I work with mental health. I’m working on my clinical license right now.
WACOAN: Have you been doing the farm thing your whole life?
Melanie: Kind of. The lifestyle. We had a country lifestyle, but I’ve been in and out, with going back to school.
Toby: She’s the auxiliary. When things get real bad, you call Melanie.
Mel’s got her own priorities and her own career goals that sit outside of farming. Mel knows that when Brandon and I call and ask for help, that’s as close to 911 as you can get.
WACOAN: What kind of emergency would warrant a call to Melanie?
Melanie: The large orders.
Toby: It’s usually that we’ve underestimated how much work there is and we need extra hands. Or there’s a freeze coming through, and we’ve got to cover everything and we’ve got six hours to do it.
Melanie: Or we’ve got to harvest everything before that freeze comes.
Toby: Usually when we call Melanie it’s weather-related. Pending doom coming.
Brandon: Or we need to harvest 75,000 cucumbers in two weeks.
Melanie: I was much more involved up until the last year. Once I started working on my clinical licensure, I have to study quite a bit.
I’m helping build a program at Family Health Center, and that’s taken over quite a bit of my time.
WACOAN: The website says you’re also the house counselor. Do you settle disputes, or what does that role entail?
Melanie: I don’t know if I would say that I settle them. As a family, it’s more of a joke that I’m the house counselor. I’m the counselor by education, but we all are at some point.
When I’m super frustrated, the boys and Mom are able to counter that. When the boys are really frustrated, we’re able to counter that. We do a good job of switching hats and balancing it all.
We’re all pretty in tune to each other. We’re probably closer than the typical family. We rely on each other pretty closely.
WACOAN: Brandon and Toby, do y’all also have jobs elsewhere?
Brandon: The farm’s my deal.
Toby: We have Home Grown Farm, and then Brandon and I also manage Urban Produce, which is a hydroponic farm in Waco. Brandon and I do two businesses together. Then I have two other businesses: Happy Harvest and kombucha.
WACOAN: What is Urban Produce?
Brandon: It’s a hydroponic lettuce farm. The plants float on water. The roots hang down in the water, and that’s how they get their nutrients. It’s an enclosed facility, so everything from the water temperature to the lights is controlled.
We took that over January 1 of this year.
WACOAN: What kind of lettuce do you grow?
Brandon: We have five varieties: butterhead lettuce, green leaf, red leaf, red romaine and a green romaine.
Toby: You can find two of those in local H-E-Bs. Hydroponic is the only way to grow lettuce year-round in Texas. In the winter it’s too cold, and in the summer it’s too hot.
With hydroponic, you control all the variables and can provide a consistent item, consistent quality, most of the time.
WACOAN: What got you into hydroponic growing?
Brandon: They approached us.
Toby: The investors behind that needed people to run it. They knew we had the farm and had heard good things about Home Grown Farm, so they called us and asked us to manage it.
WACOAN: And Happy Harvest is —
Toby: It’s a farm-to-table version of Secret Chef, [which sells premade meals to-go]. My business partner is Juanita [Barrientos]. She wanted to expand her business, and we were looking. From the farm perspective, you have all this ugly produce that is not shelf quality but is better than what most people buy. It’s not uniform. It’s ugly.
I’m an entrepreneur in spirit. I like having a lot of things going on. Juanita and I started Happy Harvest. She’s got a nutrition degree from Texas A&M and her culinary degree. We have a whole menu of stuff that people order there.
Our farm-to-table dinners are the union of Happy Harvest and Home Grown Farm. Juanita is the chef for our farm-to-table dinners. Our staff at Happy Harvest come out and execute the food [preparation] side. Brandon and the Home Grown Farm team harvest the vegetables and get all the proteins together.
They hand it off to Happy Harvest. They do their stuff. Then the Home Grown staff and team run the event out here [in the barn], and the Happy Harvest crew is in the kitchen getting the food ready.
WACOAN: Does Happy Harvest have a storefront?
Toby: We do. It’s at 611 Bowden [Street]. And you can order online. The menu changes based on what’s available at the farm. And then there are times when Home Grown Farm can’t provide what we need, so we use other local farms.
At the [Waco Downtown] Farmers Market, all four companies come together. Bare Bucha, Happy Harvest, Home Grown Farm and Urban Produce all come to the farmers market, and we have a giant booth with all the products there.
WACOAN: Bare Bucha. Tell me about that one.
Toby: Kombucha is a fermented tea. It’s very hipster. It’s very, very West Coast.
Brandon: It’s very good for you.
Toby: It’s a fermented drink. I’ve loved kombucha for a long time, but I couldn’t find anything on the shelf that I really liked. So I started brewing it for myself, then sampling it out.
Melanie and Mom said, ‘You’ve got to sell this. It’s better than anything else you can buy.’ A few other friends tasted it. I finally got Brandon on board. He’s not a big risk-taker, food-wise. When I got Brandon hooked, I knew I had something special.
Brandon: It helped my stomach. That’s when I realized that there is something to this.
Toby: Because it’s a fermented drink, it adds bacteria back into your gut that you lose through stress, smoking, drinking [soda] and coffee, just the stress of life.
Your gut bacteria controls a lot of your metabolism. Your depression, your moods, a lot of that is determined in your gut. You ferment this tea, so it tastes a little vinegary. And this is where I have the edge. I think my tea has a better flavor than where most people start out. I use all organic fruits and vegetables to flavor the tea. Then you bottle it.
It’s sold at Drug Emporium, the Silos, Dichotomy. Pinewood Roasters is about to start carrying it. Yoga Pod is about to start carrying it.
WACOAN: How did you get into kombucha?
Toby: I used to live in Dallas, and that’s where I kind of got hooked on it. I traveled extensively before I came back [to Waco], and that’s where I acquired the taste for it. I knew there was no one else in Waco doing it, and I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?’
I’m pleasantly surprised there’s a pretty faithful following now. It’s kind of a thing for a city to have its own brand of kombucha. It’s not as good as local honey as far as helping with allergies, but because you brew it locally, it can have that same kind of effect. Every brand tastes a little bit different.
A lot of people were excited to see that Waco had its own brand of kombucha.
WACOAN: How did you come up with the name?
Toby: I named it Bare Bucha — B-A-R-E and not “bear” as in bear country — because I was really shooting for a real pure flavor. A lot of [other brands] will go grab juice and mix it in there and bottle it and go. It doesn’t taste as clean.
Melanie: You add sugar to kombucha because the live bacteria feeds off of the sugar.
Toby: Some kombucha is not too different from a soda, whereas I really try to be mindful of how much sugar there is. It does get processed out.
That’s the biggest compliment that people have said about the kombucha. There’s a texture and a flavor and a consistency there. It just tastes clean.
Melanie: Toby was guzzling kombucha before he went and traveled. We say ‘hipster,’ but truth be told, I think all of us have some hipster in us because we have a healthy, holistic natural bent.
Toby: We’re just leery of medicine. ‘OK. I have a headache. Do I have to take aspirin?’
Our family doesn’t immediately jump to medicine to resolve things. We’ll try to level out our diets or do something on that level before going to medicine. We’ll get sick and kind of run its course before we go to the doctor.
We’re not hipster and we’re not granola, but we slant that way.
Melanie: I remember I started drinking kombucha more or less on a dare. I saw Toby drinking this weird-looking stuff. I remember being in Mom’s kitchen and drinking it.
WACOAN: Back to the farm. How much land do you have?
Toby: We have about 130 acres. We own 50. We lease 25 here and another 60.
Brandon: That 60 is hay, and this 25 is for grazing and hay.
Toby: At any given point, we’ll only have about 20 acres in production.
WACOAN: What all do you grow on your 20 acres?
Toby: It depends on the season.
Brandon: We’ve grown everything here, just about: greens, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, radishes, turnips, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, okra, cucumbers.
Toby: And we just shipped 20 tons of radishes to New Jersey. The entire Eastern coast of Blue Apron [customers] are eating our radishes. [Editor’s note: Blue Apron is an online service that delivers meal kits with portioned ingredients and recipes to customers, who can cook the meals at home.]
WACOAN: And Brandon said earlier that y’all harvested 75,000 cucumbers. Was that for one order?
Brandon: That was Blue Apron.
Toby: Cucumbers about that big.
WACOAN: So about three inches long.
Toby: Yeah. Tiny.
WACOAN: So how do you harvest cucumbers?
Brandon: By hand.
Toby: Bent over.
Brandon: Wearing a bag. You’re bent over for eight to 10 hours a day, however long it takes.
Toby: And you can’t harvest all of them. Some of them are ripe and some aren’t.
Brandon: You have to pick by size.
Toby: You have to walk these rows every day.
Brandon: Every day. Same rows. And you harvest every single day for two weeks.
Toby: For eternity.
Brandon: Then you have to wash them.
Toby: And sort them. If it’s too big, it can’t go, or if it’s been scratched, got a bruise on it.
Melanie: If whenever you snapped it off the vine, you snapped it too close, then it goes bad too quickly.
Toby: And all while trying to make sure that it gets off of the plant and into refrigeration as fast as possible. Because it was June in Texas, it begins dying the minute you pull it off the plant. You’re in this constant —
Melanie: Go, go, go, go, go. We didn’t even stop for lunch. It would be, ‘This cucumber is too big. Eat it.’
Toby: That was an all-hands-on-deck harvest. We called in staff from other companies. Juanita and the girls from Happy Harvest were out here.
Brandon: We were asking friends. Anyone gullible enough to answer our phone calls.
WACOAN: How did you get hooked up with Blue Apron?
Brandon: They called us.
Toby: They found our website. Honestly, I blew them off because I thought we were too small, they were too big. No way we’re going to make that work.
I decided to call them back, and they said they were really committed to using small local farms. That’s where the best food is. They took a risk on us, and we took a risk on them.
We just had a conversation with them this morning about future crops, and I think the relationship with them is going really well. I think we’re both learning a lot.
I think Blue Apron is learning a lot about small local farms and how a big company can adjust its logistics and what they need to do in order to accommodate local farms. So many people say, ‘We use local,’ and it’s complete b.s.
Brandon: Or they bought something local once, and put ‘local’ on their menu. And we’ve run into this lots of times.
Toby: They realize it’s too expensive.
WACOAN: When you go to the farmers market, it’s not inexpensive.
Toby: That’s the cool thing about getting people out to the farm. If you let one person get out in that field, they’re going to understand why local food [costs so much.]
We don’t pay our workers a penny a pound like they do in other states or in other countries. We pay our workers livable wages. That’s very important to us. Our workers are just like us. We don’t pay them any less or treat them any differently.
Brandon: And they make more than us sometimes.
Toby: Whenever you try to pay someone a livable wage, food costs just go up.
I totally get that local food is still a bit of a luxury for a lot of people. It’s not the most accessible. Ever since we started this, I wanted to make our food more accessible to lower-income families. I have a business degree from Baylor, and five years into it, we still can’t figure out how to make local food cheap.
Brandon: Unless we do it a cheap way. Unless we take advantage of workers and exploit our workers. The food system in this country is largely built on the backs of immigrant workers.
If you want to get rid of immigrant workers, in some ways, that makes my job easier. Guess what’s going to happen? The cost of food is going to rise. Not my food. My food is going to stay the same price. But everybody else’s is going to come up. Because they’re going to have to pay somebody $10 an hour to go out and harvest. You’re not going to be able to do that to someone who has a legal citizenship. And that’s just the fact of it.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about what you offer to the public. Weekly, monthly, quarterly boxes, right?
Toby: In 2013 we all thought, ‘Something has to change. The farm is not progressing.’ So we offer our customers the ability to buy straight from the farm. You get to choose what you want. If you want to take weeks off, you can come and go.
The first way to buy from us is online. The second way is at farmers market. Urban Produce, you can get at H-E-B. And we have some value-added products that Mom will do in a commercial kitchen. We do chickens. We piece them out, and when you piece them out, no one wants the back and rib of the chicken, so Mom takes that and makes the most amazing chicken broth available. It’s called bone broth.
Squash and zucchini are coming in, so we’re going to start doing zoodles, which are spiralized zucchini and squash that you can throw into a salad or use as a pasta substitute. If we find ourselves with excess product, Mom and I will put on our creative hats and figure out what to do with it.
WACOAN: Pam, I read where you’re the overseer of the bees. How many hives do you have?
Pam: Right now, I have 10. We lost a lot during the winter. It’s difficult because I don’t treat the hives with chemicals.
WACOAN: Did you lose them because that’s what happens in the winter? I’ve read some stories that other things are affecting bees, too.
Pam: They’re coming out more and more each year with natural ways to treat for hive beetles or wax moths or things like that. Wax moths go into your hive and breed and turn into a wormy thing that will destroy a hive. But hives can be really finicky.
It’s according to location. They really require a lot of sun, but not too much sun. They need more shade from the west sun and need to get the early-morning sun because it wakes them up and gets them going. In the fall and winter, the queen quits laying, and then she starts back up in the spring.
WACOAN: How much honey can you get from 10 hives?
Pam: Some hives just won’t thrive as much as others. It all depends on the queen. The queen is absolutely the one who’s the driving force.
Toby: Two years ago, when we had that really rainy spring, it literally rained so much, it washed all the pollen away.
Pam: And not just the pollen, it’s also the nectar. So people had all these flowers, but there was nothing there. There was no nectar. The bees were starving. There was nothing to feed them.
Brandon: To answer the question —
Toby: You’re looking at 270 eight-ounce bottles per hive.
Brandon: That’s the best-case scenario.
Pam: And the honey is really tasty.
WACOAN: Local honey is good, and it’s good for you, right?
Melanie: That’s how I survived grad school.
Pam: The key is how you’re putting your honey up. Is it being heated? Is it being strained and filtered completely, where there’s no pollen at all in there? The way we do it, I strain it —
Brandon: To get chunks of wax out.
Pam: To make it look nice. But you also need to leave enough pollen in there. It’s so fine and tiny, you don’t see it.
Brandon: You ingest that pollen —
Toby: It’s like getting a vaccine. Your body builds up antibodies, but it’s just with pollen.
Melanie: During grad school, I just stayed stocked with our honey. I have a little bit of a sweet tooth. I would get a teaspoon, maybe two, of honey, just to get that sweet tooth gone.
Whenever I get stressed, my immune system just tanks. I get sick pretty often. But during grad school, I got sick maybe once.
Pam: A lot of people start having allergies, and they run and go get honey. But the key is you stay on it consistently so your body builds that up for you.
Toby: The coolest thing I learned about honey while watching Mom do it is that honey takes on a different color, consistency and flavor, depending on what time of year she harvests. If she gets it in June or July, it’s going to be light-colored, kind of a wildflower kind of honey. Later, it’s going to be a real dark, mesquite kind of honey.
WACOAN: What kind of folks join the farm?
Toby: The demographics are all over the map. We’ve got Baylor students. We’ve got 75-year-olds who struggle with technology because everything is online.
Brandon: They want some good ol’ collards and right-from-the-field squash.
Toby: They want to support their local farmer.
Pam: They’re so sweet.
Toby: That’s the thing. I’ve been really surprised that Waco has risen to the occasion on supporting local farms and on kombucha.
Pam: It’s so encouraging.
Toby: I’ve been really impressed on how food-conscious Waco can be. Our farm-to-table dinners are not cheap. This past Saturday, we had 60 people out here under the barn. All different demographics. All different ages.
Brandon: From other cities.
Toby: Enjoying a truly farm-to-table dinner. Great conversations. There’s something really cool about bringing people together over a table and bringing them together over food. Of all the things that we do, the farm-to-table dinners are one of the favorites.
For us as the farmers, we literally see it from farm to table. Whenever you’re harvesting 80,000 cucumbers, you don’t see the table. You dream of cucumbers. You curse the cucumbers.
When you [have a meal out] here and see people enjoying it and saying, ‘I’ve never tasted a cucumber that good’ — it’s because Brandon picked that cucumber that morning.
Brandon: Or squash blossoms or purple dragon beans. Then I see what Juanita does with it. I’m not a cook. I don’t do a lot of cooking at home.
Toby: He’s a steak-and-potatoes kind of guy.
Brandon: Then Juanita does things with these beans and with local goat cheese that came from a mile up the road, and it’s delicious, and now, I get it. I get my side of it all the time. Now I get to see the consumer side of it.
Otherwise, when you’re out there picking beans all day, you’re like, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ Then you see the culmination of it when it goes full circle, from the field to the kitchen to the plate.
WACOAN: Where do folks come from for your dinners?
Toby: People come Austin, Dallas.
Toby: Word is spreading about our farm-to-table dinners. We’ve had people say this is the best five-star restaurant in Texas. You can’t eat like this anywhere.
WACOAN: What did you serve at your last dinner?
Toby: It was a five-course [meal]. The first was a beet carpaccio, which is traditionally a meat dish that we turned into beets, with almond ricotta. The second was carrots with goat cheese and some of Mom’s honey.
Melanie: I’ve gotten to where I don’t even look at the menu anymore because Juanita can get me to eat things that I, since childhood, have refused to eat. I’m not a huge cauliflower fan, but if Juanita’s made it, sign me up
Toby: Then she did a lentil and goat cheese tamale. Then we had a smoked chicken thigh with mole sauce and rice. And after the chicken it was a strawberry shortcake made with cornmeal. We’ve done some really cool menus.
WACOAN: What’s going to be the June meal?
Toby: We haven’t finalized that menu yet. We try to gauge what we’re going to have at the farm. We just sent a cow to slaughter, so I would assume would be the protein of choice at the June one. The last one was chicken, and we had lamb before that. We try to do the menus about three weeks out. That’s when we have a good sense of what Brandon’s going to have available.
WACOAN: What’s it like working with family all the time, especially you guys, since you have two businesses together?
Brandon: You go from being mad at each other and you’re yelling and you’re at each other’s throats, but you’re still family and you’re colleagues. You have to work together every day, especially me and Toby. Mom, I try not to bother her too much because she has a job at Baylor.
Toby: Brandon and I try to handle the day-to-day because it’s our full-time [jobs].
Brandon: But now the farm is just like part of us. It’s what we talk about when we have dinner. I don’t think that it’s right for every family, but for our family, it works.
Toby: It’s funny, because the farm has done different things for all of us. Mom and Melanie and I have always been fairly close. But Brandon and I, there was a time period we didn’t like each other. Now he’s one of my best friends, and I talk to him more than anyone else in my life. That’s solely because of the farm.
Brandon is the oldest, I’m the middle, and Melanie’s the youngest. Brandon and I are the exact opposites on everything. Brandon and I were never close because there was never any common ground. If Brandon said it was black, I would say it was white. There was no compromise.
Brandon: I was in athletics. Toby was a computer nerd.
Toby: Our paths went very different directions because of it. For Brandon and I, the farm has given us common ground and all the other crap has worked its way out because we have this. This has probably done different things for Mom and different things for Melanie and different things for Brandon.
WACOAN: Where did y’all grow up?
Toby: We grew up in China Spring.
Pam: And in the Panhandle.
Brandon: I grew up mostly in the Panhandle.
Toby: And another interesting thing is that we’re all five years apart. This year, Melanie turns 30, I turn 35, Brandon turns 40, and Mom turns 60. It’s a big year for all of us. Brandon and Melanie are 10 years apart.
Brandon: When we were growing up, I went to nine different schools in 12 years. Melanie went to one school for 12 years.
Our dad sold veterinary supplies to feed yards. In the ’80s, there was a lot of growth in that sector due to the industrialization of feed yards, so the companies were popping up, being very successful and being acquired by other companies.
He would move around a lot as the companies got acquired. The new company would give him a new territory, and we would move to that territory. We moved to Phoenix, Arizona, for a while. When we moved from the Panhandle back here to China Spring I was a freshman, so Melanie started school here.
WACOAN: The farm’s website says you have a financial services background.
Brandon: My degree is in communications, so basically what that meant was that you get a sales job. I worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield [in Dallas]. It was always kinda techy stuff, working on proprietary software and functionality or whatever. In Austin, I did educational software sales, then I did software sales for financial services.
WACOAN: I can’t think of a job further from software sales than being out here picking 75,000 cucumbers. How was that transition?
Brandon: I had gotten really healthy. Toby signed me up for a half-marathon, basically. I was always kinda athletic in school, so I took to it. I started getting really healthy and started getting really concerned about food and all this stuff.
And about that time, I watched ‘Food, Inc.’ Mom had this idea about the farm, and I was more concerned about running a business than a farm. I got involved, started helping out, then I thought, ‘Let’s give this a go.’ That’s when I switched over to the farm.
I was younger, so I very much appreciated the hard work. I’m working and I’m working out all day. It very labor-intensive and physical, and I like that.
Pam: Brandon’s always been kind of outdoorsy, though. He’s always loved to be outside.
Brandon: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to ride my horse over my thousand-acre ranch. You’ve got to win a lottery for that one.
WACOAN: When you were in China Spring, were you growing food just for your family?
Pam: We had started the business there. The terrible drought we had in spring 2011 and that summer is when I started the farm. It almost didn’t make it even before it started.
We made it through the drought of the spring and summer. Brandon started helping me in the summer. I think he really felt sorry for me in the beginning. We started getting some customers.
Melanie really helped me get it going.
I look back now and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ We went door to door taking onions we had bundled. Toby had gotten me a logo stamp.
Brandon: They went door to door and said, ‘These are from our farm. If you want anything else, let us know.’
Pam: We went around over on Lake Shore Drive to —
Toby: To the higher-income demographic who might be interested in local food. We did that for a couple of weeks, and I was so excited when we got a couple of orders.
WACOAN: Before you started selling, did you grow for your family?
Pam: I’ve always done that. We’ve always had a garden.
Toby: Her dad has an amazing green thumb.
Pam: I grew up that way.
Toby: He would have a garden that was just amazing.
Pam: We killed our own beef. We killed our own hogs. Dad had about 30 pecan trees.
Toby: It was like the Garden of Eden.
Pam: It was in China Spring. I grew up in China Spring.
WACOAN: When a farm member gets their box of produce, how long will that food have been out of the ground?
Toby: Hours before.
WACOAN: If I get a box next week, what will be in that box?
Toby: Well, you get to choose, but you could get kale, Swiss chard, broccoli, radishes, lettuce, eggs, squash, zucchini, cucumbers.
That’s the challenge with the online model. You’re not just trying to get people to eat local and to understand local food prices, but it’s about eating seasonally, which is even more challenging.
WACOAN: That makes sense because when you go to the grocery store, you can get everything all the time. Out here, you can’t.
Toby: And a lot of people don’t understand that. If it’s June, you’re not going to get broccoli or cauliflower. And honestly, you wouldn’t get lettuce, but now that we have the hydroponic place, you can get lettuce.
The biggest thing is that people don’t get that we’re growing in Texas. We’re not California. Move to the valley in California and you can get a hundred varieties —
Brandon: At 70 degrees, I can grow every vegetable there is. But it’s not always 70 degrees. We’re having a really great spring right now.
Toby: For the first time since I’ve been involved in the farm, we have both broccoli and squash. That never happens.
Brandon: I planted squash a little early, planted broccoli a little late. They’re crossing right now. In five years, I’ve never had both those things at one time.
Toby: We’re one of the most northern farms that try to do what we do that I know of. Most farms are a little bit south of us.
It’s because Waco sits on this climate zone where it’s very volatile. If we were 45 miles south, it gets a little bit more temperate and levels out just a little bit.
WACOAN: What do you do when you’re not working?
Pam: I think it’s always working. There’s always something to do.
Brandon: I hate being inside. When I go home, I sit outside. I don’t like being in the house. Mom doesn’t like being in the house. Toby can do it because he likes computer work and digging into the financials.
Toby: I like to hop. I like to be out on the farm a little bit. I like to be in the office. I like to do whatever I want.
Brandon: That’s the best thing about doing this. Somebody says, ‘What do you have to do tomorrow?’ I might know. I might not. It’s what needs to be done, and then, what I want to do.
Toby: I think this year, we’ve all decided it’s time for a vacation.
Brandon: When I started this, I wanted to do it because I didn’t want to take a vacation. I want every day to be a vacation. I want to enjoy what I do and be outside.
A vacation is great. After five years, I think we need one.
WACOAN: What might you do on vacation?
Toby: What we’re trying to do is decide if we want to do one as a family or should we go our separate ways. We do everything else as a family. Should we try a vacation as a family? Melanie’s getting married in November, so she’s got her honeymoon, so Melanie’s taken care of. And the other thing, when you’ve got chickens and cows and produce, we’ll have to figure all that out. But we’re going to try.
Brandon: If I’m going to be gone, it’s just going to be a couple of days.
Melanie: Then it’s finding someone to take over.
Toby: And I have to coordinate four businesses. I can barely turn off my phone. I’m a huge backpacker and hiker. I want to be where no one can reach me when I go on vacation.
Pam: I have to say, it’s been the joy of my life to watch them get so close, the three of them. It’s just been great. It’s exactly what I had hoped for.
Melanie: As Mom gets teary-eyed.
Brandon: It’s hard not to get emotional when talking about the farm.
Melanie: And each other.
Toby: You have your ups and downs. Your ups are high, and your lows are low. Because it’s family, you’re allowed to experience it at a deeper level.
When I worked in Dallas with a bunch of strangers, you don’t experience the emotions to the level you do with family because they’re strangers or they’re acquaintances or, best-case scenario, they’re friends you work with. When it’s your family, you feel it to a deeper degree.
Brandon: You’re not working with someone you’ve known for 18 months. You’re working with someone you’ve lived with and have known for 35 years.
WACOAN: And when you were working in Dallas, you were working for someone. Here, it’s yours.
Toby: We just work with each other. No one works for anyone.
Pam: And you take more pride in it. You don’t want to let the others down.
Brandon: We’re all in it. If something doesn’t work, [Toby] takes a hit. Mom takes a hit. My sister takes a hit. My family takes a hit.
Pam: When you have a family business, you are financially intertwined. It affects all of us.
Toby: There are four of us here, but we have so many friends and family who are part of this. We each have friends who have helped out and gone miles with us. You’re not going to capture it with just the four of us. We need Andrew here, and we need David here.
Brandon: When we started, I didn’t even have a tractor. I borrowed a tractor for six months to get this started. [A friend] just let me take his tractor.
Toby: There are four of us here, but we easily represent 50 people.
Brandon: It’s a community thing. Like the little old lady who used to come to the farmers market and buy one of everything we had.
Pam: And the people we took the onions to — the first people who signed up — were the ones who got this going.
Toby: Mom, Melanie and Brandon have had to take a step back from farmers market, and every week, it’s, ‘Hey. Where’s Melanie? Where’s Pam? Where’s Brandon? Tell them I said hi.’ There is a community behind this. A lot of people have sacrificed to make Home Grown Farm what it is.