Story By Hannele Rubin
Photos By Jack McFarlane
Does October make you pine for pumpkins? Or perhaps you like sweet bell peppers, which grow so succulent in Texas that local farmer Andrea Merritt says they “taste like apples”? Or maybe the cooler days have you hankering for fresh fall produce like broccoli, cabbage, kale, beets, and Brussels sprouts?
Well, you can now get your incredibly fresh and extremely local produce at The Farm at Millican Reserve. Earlier this year, Merritt and the farm team broke ground on a nearly three-acre farm there as part of the 2,700-acre mixed-use development’s drive to support “sustainable agriculture, art, recreation, and wildlife conservation.” You don’t have to live at the Millican Reserve to reap the bounty; subscribers to The Farm at Millican Reserve CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) pay upfront to receive a basket of straight-from-the-soil goodies each week. Merritt expects some 30-plus individuals and families to “subscribe” for 6- or 12-week shares (at $200 and $300 a share, respectively). If you enjoy getting your hands dirty, you may be interested in a discounted “work share” involving a three-week commitment of three hours volunteering at the farm per week. “It’s an opportunity to learn and grow food together,” Merritt says.
The farm also sells produce to local restaurants and donates to the Brazos Valley Food Bank. Merritt is the new full-time executive director of the Millican Alliance, a nonprofit organization that partners with local groups to build “healthy community around nature.” The farm was built on a defunct riding arena at the Reserve, which offered some valuable infrastructure for the new project: a fence, some open space, and a water source. “Repurposing,” she says, “is a reflection of a broader vision of the project.”
Another part of the project’s vision: roughly 1,000 acres at Millican Reserve have been set aside just for wildlife conservation.
“I think that’s a really important piece of how and why we grow the food out there, with as little negative impact as possible,” she says. “We grow to and beyond organic standards. We aren’t organic certified yet,” she adds, but that will come.
She also expects her subscriber base to reach 50 shares next spring — and continue to grow. She anticipates eventually expanding the farm by another 10-15 acres. There is talk about adding an orchard and perhaps a pick-your-own program, she says, but at the moment, almost three acres is just enough.
Because the farm at Millican Reserve is not yet producing at full capacity, Merritt supplements farm shares with produce grown in her family’s home garden in south College Station. Merritt, her husband, and two daughters, have sold home-grown produce since moving to College Station 11 years ago, running a CSA from their two parcels of land for the last five years.
“We moved to Texas and hadn’t even painted the house before we started installing a garden,” she says. “It’s been a fun way to raise the kids – they’ve always had a garden,” she adds. “It’s not just a hobby, but a lifestyle.”
(Full disclosure: the Merritts are neighbors and my family has subscribed to their CSA; the veggies were plentiful and sublime!).
It’s a lifestyle that began in northern Michigan, where Merritt grew up tending her grandfather’s Victory Garden; many families there built so-called Victory Gardens to increase food supplies in times of war or shortages.
Before moving to Texas, she and her husband Dr. Lavell Merritt lived in suburban Maryland. There, “we converted our front lawn into a garden,” she says. Merritt also tended “foraging gardens” of medicinal and edible plants at the Audubon Naturalist Society and worked with the Capital Area Food Bank on a farm-to-table initiative.
Now, in addition to tilling the land, keeping “a good-size flock” of chickens, and running the Millican Reserve’s expanded summer camp, Merritt is partnering with local schools and home-school groups, veterans organizations, teachers from Texas A&M University, and other community leaders to increase the science, art, farming, and nature programming there.
After long days on the farm, she admits to often feeling dog-tired. But being responsible for so many worthy projects keeps her energized.
“I feel so fortunate to be involved in things that inspire me and make me want to work so hard … I get to love the things I do and that’s awesome,” Merritt says. “It’s an amazing feeling.”