Off the Grid

By Amanda Venable / Photography By Sophie Covo | February 01, 2014
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What does a Gulf War vet have in common with fresh water mussels, solar panels and wormwood? They’re all about to find their home just a few miles southeast of San Antonio in Wilson County, where an up-and-coming ranch by the name of Mesquite Field Farm will take the word “sustainability” to the next level.

The concept: a 20-acre cattle and chicken ranch totally powered by solar, wind and water that can sustain 20 head of cattle, chickens, a family and gardens.

“We’re off the grid here,” Mr. Doug Havemann said proudly. “Go look at our meter, it’s at zero.”

Mr. Havemann, a U.S. Army veteran-turned-computer-architect for Panasonic, is the mastermind behind the ambitious project. Together with his wife, Melissa, the San Antonio resident has literally been sowing the seeds for what he believes will be a farm unlike any other.

“There’s no book for this. That’s the fun of it,” he said.

But the initial inspiration and some guidance did start with a book Mrs. Havemann picked up at the Las Vegas Airport, Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.”

“That’s what got us started on this journey,” she said.

The Havemann’s plan is to produce 24 kilowatts of power — all the energy needed to independently run their home and farm operations.

At 25 feet, a constant 15-mile per hour wind will keep the three wind turbines the Havemanns are installing spinning and producing energy. Already, two green 10-foot wide, 9-foot-tall recycled shipping containers serve as mother ship to Mesquite Field Farm’s solar power, as well as a temporary place for the Havemanns to hang their hats on weekends. One container is fitted with a wood stove, which will be moved into the house they plan to build on the property.

For now at least, the containers look more like small trailers. The Havemanns cut windows into them and run lights with energy from the solar panels that line the rooftop.

Water, fish and mussels

Energy also comes from hydrodynamic water flow as it runs down from one pump in the farm’s valley to a second and third one downstream from small waterways the Havemanns dredged on the property.

That’s where the freshwater mussels come in.

Mr. Havemann realized the river width is the perfect size for freshwater mussel cages. In a perfect symbiotic relationship, the mussels filter and cool the water as it flows through the cages while they get ideal nutrients to eat.

“I can’t wait to taste them,” Mr. Havemann said about the mussels. In the meantime, birds that visit the ponds bring another food source: fish.

"We have bass thanks to the birds — we never saw birds out here when we bought the land. That’s what I’m most proud of right now, seeing the birds return,” he said, explaining he also enjoys fishing at the property.

Besides raising cattle and chickens, the Havemanns are already dedicating an acre of land to grow wormwood for local chef Stephen Paprocki who will use the plant (technically a weed) to make Texas absinthe, a distilled, high-proof alcoholic beverage. You’ll also find two-row Barley on the land, which Mr. Havemann is growing for a local microbrewer.

Getting back to their roots

The farming lifestyle isn’t foreign to the Havemanns, who have been living in San Antonio proper for 22 years. Mrs. Havemann, who Mr. Havemann calls the Chief Executive Officer, Marketing Department, Ways and Means Committee, Chief Financial Officer and the love of his life, spent time as a child visiting her grandparents’ horse farm in San Benito. Mr. Havemann grew up on his family’s farm in Orange Grove. Though it never went to full production, they had a half-acre garden, and Mr. Havemann raised his own Future Farmers of America rabbits and pigs.

And while Mr. Havemann will be producing cows and chickens now, don’t call him a rancher, because he’ll insist he’s a grass farmer. It took the couple six years to nurture the grass growing across the property. Looking at the land now, you would never know cacti and mesquite overran it just a few seasons ago. The Havemanns cleared the land, planting 26 native grasses on 16 acres of the land. They even dug stock tanks to ensure that Mesquite Field Farm would always have a water source, regardless of the climate.

“We want to be completely self-sustaining,” Mr. Havemann said. “I don’t want to buy power from anyone. I don’t want to buy water from anyone. I’ve been a lot of places where they didn’t have water. I saw what that did to the people and the animals and the land.”

One of those places Mr. Havemann is referring to is Iraq, where his 11-year Army and Army National guard career included serving in Operation Desert Storm. There, the Iraqi military called his battalion “Steel Rain.”

His war experiences now motivate his desire to create a self-sustaining — or rather self-reliant — solution for rural living, which is an integral part of Mr. Havemann’s objectives for the farm he is building from scratch. His 6-foot-4-inch stature and booming voice are hard to miss, but you see a soft side of Mr. Havemann when he’s at the farm.

Havemann’s happy cattle

“Babe, stop it,” he said to a cow veering off from the herd. He had a bucket of food pellets in one hand, while hand feeding a second cow with the other.

“We hand feed exclusively,” Mr. Havemann said. “We want our cows to have the best life possible from the moment they set foot here to the moment they leave.”

The cattle are rotationally grazed. No chemicals are used on the cattle or on the farmland. And if you’re wondering about those food pellets, Mr. Havemann will tell you their cattle eat grass “like herbivores were created to eat.”

Mrs. Havemann said caring for the animals and the land that is like therapy to her husband, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his time serving overseas.

“This is the best place for him. War is life or death — and when you’re out on this farm, it’s life or death,” Mrs. Havemann said. “You either care for the animals and they live or they don’t. It’s about teamwork.”

The Havemanns plan to have veterans work on the land, saying it will help others who also suffer from PTSD.

“Veterans are always looking for a way to get away from stress. What stress do you have here?” Mr. Havemann said with a smile.

With the country breeze, happy cattle, and fresh water mussels on the way — Mr. Havemann’s point is well made.


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