Back to the Roost
If you’re looking for the secret ingredient to a delicious Thanksgiving turkey, you’d better get to know the Krauses.
For Travis and Mandy Krause of Parker Creek Ranch, the secret isn’t in the sauce — it’s in the soil.
“It all leads back to taking care of the land,” Mrs. Krause said of her ranching philosophy. “The health of the soil is connected to every other thing.”
Mr. and Mrs. Krause aren’t chefs. They are ranchers.
And in today’s world of industrial agriculture and mass production, their story is as unique as the soil that makes up the Krause family ranch, established as a homestead more than 50 miles southwest of San Antonio in 1846.
A PHONE CALL FROM INDIA
It was summer 2010, and Mr. and Mrs. Krause, then 25 years old, were 8,000 miles apart — and dating.
Mrs. Krause was in South Texas working for the Welder Wildlife Foundation teaching children about nature. Mr. Krause was in India educating the people there in ways they could live off the land.
While in India, he discovered “Pastured Poultry Profits” written by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, perhaps America’s most influential small farmer and vocal proponent of the eat-local revolution. Mr. Krause felt so empowered he made a phone call that changed the trajectory of the young couple’s lives.
“I know how we can make a living at the farm,” Mr. Krause said to his future wife. “We need to raise chickens.”
Two years later, they married and gave it all up to move to the family ranch in D’Hanis. Today, that land, once part of the Castro Colonies, is home to seven breeds of chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, rabbits (the “new white meat”) and their only ranch hands, Sonny, an 80-pound Great Pyrenees, and Bandit, a sheepdog mix.
VISITING THE RANCH
In the sky above Parker Creek Ranch, the setting sun cast deep colors while an ominous black cloud filled the horizon to the east, a South Texas rancher’s dream. We arrived at feeding time and Mr. Krause invited us to pile onto a tractor.
The young farmer looked certain and steady behind the wheel as he headed for the “home pasture” where the egg-laying chickens make their home. Only Sonny stayed behind, no doubt to catch up on some sleep before assuming her nocturnal post where she stands watch for coyotes and raccoons.
Mr. Krause almost immediately pulled over, studying the gray sky ahead. “The rain is three minutes out,” he announced. As we watched from the shelter of an open shed, Mr. and Mrs. Krause shared the story of how they met at Texas A&M University.
“I smoked him in mammalogy class,” Mrs. Krause said, holding out her finger and digging it into Mr. Krause’s forearm.
“That’s just not true at all,” Mr. Krause quickly interrupted.
Just then, the rain rolled in precisely as predicted by the young farmer, making it clear the young couple had developed a connection with the land.
While they are no strangers to open plains, what is particularly interesting about the ranchers is that they are so different from their peers in the industry. Most striking is their youth: just 27 years old, the Krauses are more than 30 years younger than the average rancher, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.
A 2011 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition notes access to land and capital are the biggest hurdles for those who want to farm or ranch, and in South Texas, land prices are stable and increasing despite the drought.
Mr. and Mrs. Krause did not share that challenge, but the funding necessary to start and run a ranch or farm — and the physical and mental fortitude needed to succeed — is ever attendant. The average farm or ranch in America grosses about $60,000 per year, and much of that is used to maintain the farm. Around Parker Creek, working farms and ranches mostly have disappeared, replaced by weekend getaways used for recreational hunting.
“What our parents have always told us is, ‘Look, go get a job in the city. Farming won’t cut it if you want to make a living for your family,’” Mr. Krause recalled. “You basically break all of the norms that society has created (to become a rancher today).”
REJECTING CONVENTIONAL PRACTICES
Breaking norms is something the young ranchers do well. Afier a 6 a.m. surveillance drive of the ranch, Mr. Krause drinks a hot cup of green tea and practices yoga. He dreams of creating a yoga studio next to the red hand-built cabin they call home.
Then there’s Mrs. Krause’s rancher rebellion: She’s been a vegetarian since her first year of college. “I met him and he said, ‘you’re a what?’” Mrs. Krause recounted. She’s quick to mention eggs and small amounts of wild game she hunts herself are new additions to her diet.
Even the Krauses’ day-to-day ranch operations go against the grain of America’s modern-day practices.
You won’t find antibiotics, growth hormones or GMOs in Parker Creek Ranch’s animal feed, Mr. Krause explained. And they feed their soil a cornucopia of natural ingredients — microbes, mycorrhizal fungi, molasses, fish emulsion, sea kelp and whatever else they think the pasture needs.
“We are trying to do things that have never been done in our area before, well, perhaps 100 years ago, but all of that knowledge is lost,” Mr. Krause said.
What they are trying to do is adopt organic and sustainable practices used by Mr. Krause’s great-great-grandparents to create the most environmentally friendly ranch possible.
Reaching total sustainability is the foundation of all Parker Creek Ranch activities: You’ll find Salatin’s Polyface Farm influence in the “portable egg mobiles” for the 100 percent free-range chickens and a touch of Amish inspiration in the moveable chicken coop. The coop with floorless pens resembles an airplane — the “wings” on either side provide the chickens and turkeys with shelter from the hot summer sun.
Chickens and turkeys are processed onsite in an exempt processing plant Mr. Krause built.
“It took me about six months,” Mr. Krause said. “Mandy was still working. Basically, friends would help me on the weekends, and during the week my 60-year-old mom would hand me tools.”
The young ranchers process up to 10,000 chickens a year in the facility, the first of its kind in the area and just the fourth or fifth in the state, according to Mr. Krause. They are also raising turkeys for their local customers.
The $25,000 upfront investment “almost ate us alive,” he said, but it was the only option “to do this so we’re sustainable in every way.”
The biggest societal norm these two rural pioneers are pleased to break is the need to grow. In a state where everything is bigger by design, the Krauses explained it’s not about quantity but achieving “a whole approach to living” that matters.
Mr. and Mrs. Krause process only 150 chickens a week for about 40 weeks a year, though they sell out each week through San Antonio’s weekend farmers markets and to members of their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
So what’s next for the rebels of South Central Texas?
“More than anything, we want to do more education. That is going to be our primary focus,” Mrs. Krause explained.
Their CSA materials read more like a treatise about sustainability than an alternative to grocery shopping. And that’s exactly what the Krauses want you to think about — having a “spiritual” connection with the land.
“People are craving to get back to nature,” Mr. Krause said. “You just can’t find that connect with nature in the city.”
Mrs. Krause agreed, predicting the farm movement among their generation will grow as more people want to know where their food comes from. The Krauses are now creating education workshops for children and adults about everything from making native seed balls to building rabbit tractors and protecting vegetables from insects.
“We’ve been learning a lot of this together; we are continuously learning,” she added. “Our focus is making sure we leave this land better for the next generation, revitalizing it for wildlife and for use for food production and both of those come back to the soil.”
You can catch up with the Krauses at the Southtown Farmers & Ranchers Market on Saturdays or Quarry Farmers & Ranchers Market on Sundays in San Antonio. At press time, there were still turkeys available, but the quantity is limited.