Do-Wop and Germinating Seeds: An Interview with Rain Lily Farmer David Burk

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David Burk’s sunny outlook and generous spirit are a daily source of inspiration. Our love affair with farmer Dave and his food-growing ways goes way back. When we started Farmhouse Delivery in 2009, he was one of the first growers to bring us food, and our customers couldn’t get enough of the carefully-tended and harvested greens, root veggies, and herbs he and his partner Melody grew at Montesino Farm in Wimberley. When it came time earlier this year to hire a new full-time farmer, we couldn’t believe our luck: David and Melody were moving back to Central Texas from a stint in the Pacific Northwest, looking for a new gig. Chances like this only come around once, so it didn’t take long to offer Melody a job as our buyer and David a job as our head farmer at Rain Lily. We got up early one morning to ask David to dig a little deeper and share with our community his inspiration for growing food, tending chickens, and greeting the sun each morning with a great big smile.

Tell us about Rain Lily Farm.

Rain Lily sits on four acres–it’s a long, thin piece of property running along Boggy Creek in East Austin. There are three main features: the residence, an older home surrounded by elm, pecan, and cypress trees; the farm and orchard, and the back, which houses Rain Lily Design and Landscaping. The farm is pretty tiny, less than an acre, and a third of that is an orchard with fig, peach, apple, plum, persimmon and pear trees. The area that runs along Boggy Creek is lined with 12 foot olive trees which fruited for the first time this summer. Our chickens and ducks enjoy the shade and protection of the trees in the orchard as well as the insects and grasses that grow there. The fields include 20 100′ rows which produce a variety of organic goodies year round. We grow many heirlooms vegetables and flowers, save seeds, and throw parties and benefits.

Why raise food for a living?

Raising organic food is my passion. I have a love/hate thing going though. On the one hand, when I am raising food and animals I am excited to go to work. I get to work outside, I am my own boss, I get to be a part of the seasons and hang with the animals, birds and insects. I get to be a part of their growth. I get to help. I believe the desire to be in nature, to work with and to preserve, is inherent in every human. The same is true with cooking over a fire and dancing and loving one another. On the other hand, I am constantly struggling financially. And physically. I like to say that farmers are gamblers. Seriously, we should all be going to Gambling Anonymous meetings. Every season is like stepping into the unknown. I don’t care how many times you’ve grown corn, or asparagus, or apples, it doesn’t matter how well your crops grew last year. Last year has nothing to do with this year. When it comes to organic growing, so much depends on mother nature and timing. If there is a plague of harlequin beetles or the rains never come or the rains come too early or too late, it can destroy your chances of production completely. Most organic farms are run with a minimum of machinery. Rain Lily doesn’t have a tractor. We don’t have any implements that seed or cultivate or harvest. We have a wheelbarrow. And a hoe. And lots of heart. We are okay not having these tools though. We are happy to use our backs and hands because we know we are taking care of the land. We know screech owls and tiny frogs and black swallowtail pupae can live here. We encourage them. If they are happy, we are happy.

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What is special about the food you grow?

The footprint of the food we grow is as small as it gets.

What inspires you?

Seed catalogues.

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Give us a little overview of a “day in the life” of Farmer Dave at Rain Lily Farm.

My alarm always goes off 30 minutes before the sun begins to rise, no matter what time of the year. Right now that means 5:30. In January, it’s 7:30. I am guilty of pressing snooze sometimes for sure. Then coffee. I must have it. Most often, I rise bleary-eyed, stumble around for my teapot, light the stove top and fall back in to bed until I hear the water boiling. Once I fill my mug with coffee and cream I step outside and head towards the birds. “Good morning, birds!”, I always say. Once they are fed and watered, I wander back through the rows and plan my day. If I have an order I start with harvesting. I don’t harvest every day. I need work days too. I love the work days, probably because they come less frequently. If it’s a work day I take a few extra minutes to make a plan. Those days I have an extra cup of coffee and spend ten or fifteen minutes just looking at the farm. I make a list. Rarely am I able to complete the list, and if I do, I just add to it until the sun goes down and I say, “Good night, birds!”

What would we be surprised to hear is part of your “job description”?

Scrambling to sell an amazing, just-harvested, organic product. Having too many tomatoes. Too many figs. And nowhere to sell them because the market is saturated. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

What do you feel is the biggest obstacle faced today by folks who want to raise food sustainably for a living?

Their community’s level of education about where their food comes from. Seasonality.

What is a farmer’s role in our society?

To grow beautiful, nutritious food while taking care of the environment.

Why should we buy local food?

Local food is sexy. It is harvested when ripe and ready to eat. It doesn’t get fumigated with chemicals and radiation during transit. Less travel times mean less pollution. Eating local supports your neighbors. It adds diversity to the diet. Eating local means eating in season.

What is the best news in food you’ve heard recently? 

That there are more and more younger folks getting in to farming than ever. And that they are sticking to it. That it might not be just a fad anymore.

What do you wish more people knew about growing food?

That growing food is a real job. That it takes guts. That you need to be innovative and intelligent in order to be successful. The image of a farmer is still a bitter, dirty, and unsuccessful white man in the eyes of most of society. I wish more people knew how diverse and caring and thoughtful and hard working their small farm community was.

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What inspires you?

Mountain streams and an open road. Do-wop and germinating seeds.

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What is one thing everyone can do (or a few simple things) to create a better, stronger food system? 

Eat in season. Visit farms. Real ones… and volunteer. Reconnect with the land. Dig potatoes and pull fresh carrots from the soil. I believe that visiting a farm adds a real perspective to where food comes from. We can watch documentaries and visit farmers’ markets all day long but it doesn’t give a good representation of what it takes and how it feels and its importance.

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What are you cooking this week?

Smoked pig, bok choi, chili, tom yum, pickled beets, and big salads.

Favorite breakfast: coffee

Favorite comfort food: anything smoked over eight hours and mashed potatoes

Favorite book about food: The Foxfire Series

Favorite cookbook: Seven Fires and anything by Cooks Illustrated

Favorite in-season veggie: cauliflower

Favorite food indulgence: pizza

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