By Keith Sparks
For as long as the Liberty Hill community has existed, agriculture has played a huge role in its economy. The agricultural community of Liberty Hill includes an incredible variety of products, personalities, and people, each of which has their own unique take on homesteading.
Jackass Honey Farms
One of the most unique homesteaders in the community is Jackass Honey Farms. The 16-acre honey farm on County Road 287, run by Jodi Zachmann and James McCumber, was established just over five years ago, when McCumber introduced Zachmann to the subject of honey farming. McCumber had worked on a 300-hive honey farm in Corpus Christi while he was a high school student, and was considering opening one of his own in Liberty Hill.
“One night, he started talking to me about how passionate he was about bees, and I’m not going to lie, when he first started talking to me, I’m like ‘I don’t care about bees. If they all died, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all,’” Zachmann said of her initial reaction.
To humor McCumber, Zachmann picked up a book on the subject of the biology of the honey bee and how the components of a hive work, and, to her surprise, immediately fell in love with them. The more research Zachmann did on the topic, the more “obsessed” she became. Now, she explained, “It’s become an addiction.”
“I borrowed a book from him that I thought he had read—come to find out he’d never read it—I sat down and read the whole book cover to cover, and I was texting him while he was at work like, ‘Did you know this? Did you know that?’” she said.
Zachmann said the realization of how many foods bees are responsible for is what sparked her passion, explaining that one of every three bites of food can be attributed to bees and their pollination. She listed strawberries, blueberries, squash, watermelon, peaches, apples, and more as foods that would struggle to survive without the help of bees. The ripple effect of losing those foods would travel up the food chain, affecting deer, turkeys, chickens, and cattle, among others.
“Thinking about that, and thinking what it’s going to be like for my son and his kids and his grandkids and the generations to come. It’s important that we do this,” Zachmann said. “It’s important that we save the bees, and I get a lot of joy out of it.”
Shortly after discovering her passion for bees, Zachmann and McCumber came up with the company’s unique name and created business cards and a Facebook page, advertising their free removal of honey bee swarms.
“Swarm removals were, like, crazy calls coming in,” she said. “We’re one of three beekeepers that I know that do it completely free of charge. We don’t charge for gas, even, to go out there. If people want to donate, they’re welcome to, but we never request a donation. We never request payment for swarm removal, because nobody budgets their money thinking ‘Oh, I might have bees come through this month, so I’ll need to budget some money for that.’ I know what it’s like to be a single mom and not have money to take care of that. If you charge even $60 for a swarm removal, people are going to be like, ‘Well, a can of Raid’s only going to cost me $5. It’s cheaper to do that and kill the bees.’ Well, we don’t want them to do that. We want to save the bees.”
Many of the local school districts, police departments, fire departments, homeowners, builders, and other members of the community “have Jackass Honey Farms on speed dial,” according to Zachmann, as they’ve come to rely on the business for their expertise in removing bee swarms on their properties.
“Our main source of getting the bees is by going out and doing those swarm removals free of charge,” Zachmann said. “We have a lot of people that follow us, and people that post on buy, sell and trade sites like, ‘I have this bee swarm. What do I do to get rid of them?’ and people are like ‘Call Jackass Honey farms.’ I mean, we’re like the Ghostbusters. You call, we’re there.”
Today, the Jackass Honey Farms property is undergoing some major changes as they begin to work on a large pond and plant a number of different fruit trees and wildflowers, in order to attract and retain more honey bees. McCumber, Zachmann, and her seven-year-old son are currently in the process of planting vitex trees, pear trees, Mexican plum trees, cherry trees, peach trees, apple trees, yaupon holly, Russian sage, Texas sage, privet, yellow jasmine, and more.
According to Zachmann, the better they can accommodate the bees on their property, the less likely it is that their bees will have to travel long distances to find what they need to survive. The leading cause of honey bees’ death, according to Zachmann, is wear and tear on their wings as they fly around in search of pollen.
Jackass Honey Farms currently has more than 200 full-size hives, with the expectation for that total to rise to 500-plus within the next two years. Zachmann and McCumber take pride in their hives being “treatment-free,” meaning no chemicals are used for pest control or other purposes.
Because of that, part of Zachmann’s regular responsibilities include checking for pests and diseases in the hives every other day, which she never does without her bee suit. She also checks to see if any of her colonies are short on honey or pollen, so she can provide the resources they need in order to survive if they are unable to fend for themselves.
Zachmann and McCumber sell honey, creamed honey, honey barbecue sauce, and all-natural honey soap. The majority of their business is done at The Market at Indian Mound Ranch, a Liberty Hill farmers market that features products from a number of local homesteaders, including farmers, gardeners, textile manufacturers, and more.
The Market at Indian Mound Ranch
Every Saturday during growing season, Susan Jones Anderson and a number of local homesteaders gather at The Market at Indian Mound Ranch to sell honey, produce, eggs, beef, baked goods, jewelry, and more.
Anderson was born and raised in Liberty Hill, though she spent five years in South Padre Island managing a restaurant before moving back to Liberty Hill in 2013 to care for her mother. When her father passed away in 2015, she inherited the 500-acre Indian Mound Ranch, and decided at that point that she wanted to do something different for a living after having worked in the restaurant industry for more than 20 years.
“A couple of years ago, I had a huge garden, and I had 60 or 70 chickens, and I decided that I was going to go to Wolf Ranch or Sun City (in Georgetown), but then I thought, ‘Well, that’s silly. Why don’t I just go up to my front gate and sell it?’” Anderson said.
Anderson garnered interest from some other local homesteaders, mostly by taking advantage of social media, which led to the creation of what is now The Market at Indian Mound Ranch.
“First of all, I never want to work for anybody else,” Anderson said of her reasoning for starting The Market. “Being able to support myself and support what I do here. I met so many really cool people, local moms that were trying to support their families and were trying to increase their income from where they live, instead of trying to sell what they know, and it’s all been just such a really, really cool thing.”
Anderson personally raises more than 100 chickens and a handful of ducks, manages a garden, and sells seven or eight cases of her “almost world famous” dill pickles every week. For her, the most rewarding aspects of running The Market are the returns that she sees her vendors receive, and a renewed sense of community that she remembers feeling as a child growing up in Liberty Hill.
“I’ve got moms that are paying for baseball uniforms and school supplies,” she said. “I’ve got people that are supplementing their retirement income. I’ve got disabled people that are supplementing their social security. In doing that, we have managed to bring together the community again. When I was a kid, we used to all go to market days down at the VFW. Now, that’s been lost. Somehow, I think we’re kind of bringing it all back, which is really, really cool.”
The goal for The Market at this point is to continue to grow, starting with more produce and farm goods and continuing to add on to the variety of local artists that sell their handcrafted goods at Indian Mound Ranch. Anderson hopes that the continued growth of The Market will spearhead an integration between Liberty Hill’s newer residents and its natives, so the newer residents can gain an understanding of Liberty Hill’s culture.
“The main thing is to build the community to where everybody that’s old-school Liberty Hill and the new people coming in can join up,” Anderson said, “and they can sit and they can visit, they can interact with each other, because we’re becoming such a big community that the old local natives, like me, we’re getting lost with the new people coming in. These new people coming in don’t have a clue who we are, and I want those new people coming in to meet us. We’re all good people, and we all have the same vision.”
Each of the vendors who sell goods at The Market is local, and by “local,” Anderson means from Williamson County, or, at the very furthest, from north Travis County or Burnet. Her less-than-stellar experience with other “local” farmers markets in the area whose vendors were from “all over the map” is what led her to commit to such a localized market. She explained that many of these markets require a fee as high as $65 a day for each vendor to set up a booth. Anderson’s fee is currently $10 a day, and she aims to keep it that way, in order to allow small-time homesteaders to continue to make a profit.
“I want them to be able to make a living,” she said. “Do you have any idea how many eggs you have to sell to pay a $65 booth fee? That’s not feasible. So I went, ‘Okay, well, we’re going to do this for real reasonable, and I hope that everybody can come and pay the $10, then they can go home and they can buy school supplies, or they can buy school pictures for their kids.’ I’m very fortunate that I have the resources where I don’t have to make a living from what I do, because if I had to make a living from what I do, I’d be sunk.”
Dr. Dewayne Nash
Another one of Liberty Hill’s modern-day homesteaders is Dr. Dewayne Nash, a former doctor who was forced to shut down his practice after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2010. Today, Nash and his wife manage a 700-square-foot raised-bed vegetable garden and about 15 chickens.
For those that don’t know what a raised-bed vegetable garden is, it’s a strategy used to combat the rocky soil often found in central Texas that requires gardeners to literally raise their vegetable beds in order for the roots to have enough room in the soil to survive.
“If you’re going to garden around here, pretty much if you garden west of the interstate, in the hill country of Liberty Hill, for example, you pretty much have to do raised gardens, because the soil is so rocky,” Nash said. “As you get east of I-35, you’ve got that black soil that’s really good for farming, but on this side, you pretty much have to bring in dirt and do raised beds. I use limestone rocks, so mine is raised up about a foot and a half, and I brought in good soil that’s about two feet deep. If I tried to garden without doing that, my soil depth is only about a foot, so it’s not enough to garden in.”
Nash’s garden isn’t meant for profit. His primary goal is to provide he and his wife with fresh vegetables, and, when they overproduce, to provide gifts for family friends. His 15 chickens typically produce between five and eight eggs per day, which he and his wife use for gifts and their own consumption.
While gardening was only a part-time hobby while Nash worked in the medical field, his retirement has allowed him to dedicate more time and energy to it.
“I grew up in the country, so I’ve always had at least a small little garden,” Nash said. “Then when I moved out there where I am now about 15, 16 years ago, I started small and I expanded it. I have seven brothers and sisters, and everybody gardens. I spend a lot of time talking to people, like I did with my patients. In between seeing them, I’d encourage them to plant an organic garden and stuff like that.”
At the moment, Nash’s garden includes Swiss chard, English peas, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, and more. His day-to-day responsibilities include monitoring his chickens, collecting the eggs, and harvesting his garden when the time is right. He also spends his time assisting Habitat for Humanity, where he often helps the organization plant gardens for other Central Texas residents.
The most rewarding aspect of organic gardening, according to Nash, is the unique flavor of the foods he’s able to eat right out of his garden. He explained that even the freshest organic produce at the grocery store doesn’t have the same unique flavor that his vegetables do, due to the fact that he’s able to eat them immediately after harvest.
“Every morning, I eat my eggs the chickens laid the night before,” Nash said. “It’s just so fresh. Right now we have fresh peaches, and I’ll just reach over and grab a peach and eat it off the vine. I mean, you can’t buy one in the store that tastes that good. Of course, I’m all organic, so I know there’s no poisons in it. Or if I go down there, I have a real long 40-foot asparagus bed during asparagus season. I just walk by there, pick a couple of them and eat them raw. If you go buy asparagus at the store, even if they may be organic, the flavor is just so much better. I know I’m eating something that’s not contaminated; it’s fresh, and just…the flavor. One thing I’ve gotten to appreciate over the last 15 years is just the flavor of food.”
Joe Schram, the owner of JOLI Farms in Liberty Hill, has dedicated his life to teaching others about natural and sustainable farming practices. On his own property, Schram raises sheep, donkeys, and chickens, but his deepest passion is for the unique practice of aquaponic farming.
“Aquaponics is a combination of hydroponics, which is the raising of vegetables using water and liquid nutrients, and aquaculture, which is the raising of fish,” Schram said. “We have a standalone tank with fish in there, which we feed non-GMO fish food, and the fish produce a lot of minerals in there that you can’t find in the ground.”
The water out of the fish tank is pumped from through gravel beds, which helps filter it, and Schram’s vegetables are actually grown in the gravel beds themselves. The water then drains from the gravel beds into what is called a deep-water culture raft. The raft, which Schram has several of, is about 18 inches deep, eight feet wide, and 60 feet long. On top of the raft sits two-inch thick Styrofoam through which Schram’s lettuce grows.
“They’re in a little net cup in a hole of that Styrofoam, and the roots reach down into the water and, what’s happening, the fish just naturally put ammonia in the water through their gills and through their feces,” Schram said. “That ammonia, if it builds up, will kill fish, but what happens is that our system turns the ammonia into nitrates, which is what we call the nitrification process. Plants take those nitrates up as fertilizer, and they’re happy to have them.”
Essentially, Schram’s plants are cleaning the water for the fish, and the fish are providing fertilizer for the plants. The only things Schram and his team of volunteers have to add are small amounts of magnesium and iron.
“I mean, how much cleaner can you get?” Schram asked. “We only use five percent of the water of any other form of farming or gardening, and we can grow twice as much. We find that things grow twice as fast in the aquaponic system, and if you give me an acre of ground and an acre of greenhouses, I’m going to grow 10 times as much produce.”
Schram’s goal, through speaking engagements and teaching agricultural classes, is to spread the message of aquaponic farming to as many people as he can. He teaches an annual class for the Williamson County Master Gardeners organization, and has spoken on the topic at chambers of commerce, horticulture clubs, and gardening clubs.
“We exist to teach people to grow food,” he said.
Schram makes a profit by selling his products to local restaurants, including Blue Corn Harvest in Cedar Park, Monument Café in Georgetown, Sweet Lemon Inn and Kitchen in Georgetown, Jack Allen’s Kitchen and Reunion Ranch in Georgetown, and the local Liberty Hill Bakery. Schram also hosts a farmers market once a week, and sees lots of visitors come through the gates of JOLI Farms to buy veggies, eggs, and other products straight from the source.
Although Schram’s prices are higher than those at most supermarkets, he explained that his products will improve health, thus saving his customers money on medical bills in the long run.
“The price of veggies for the typical Liberty Hill person, you know, they’re used to going to HEB and buying a head of lettuce for 99 cents, and ours is three and a quarter,” he said. “We try to explain to them that iceberg lettuce at the grocery store has zero nutritional value, and ours is full of nutrients. We don’t grow iceberg; it’s not sprayed with pesticides and things like that, so it’s a much purer product for you. You’re either going to pay the doctor, or you’re going to pay the farmer.”
Each day, Schram’s responsibilities include harvesting, plant maintenance, product delivery, running the farmers market, reseeding beds, and monitoring and feeding his livestock, among other things. His staff of seven volunteers, which he explained is key to his operation, each assist him two to three hours a week, on average.
Schram explained that he hears from lots of people that want to learn how to farm aquaponically. The easiest way to do so, according to Schram, is by jumping in headfirst to volunteer at JOLI Farms.
The agricultural roots of Liberty Hill have run deep for decades, and despite the growth the community has seen and will no doubt continue to see, it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon. Zachmann, McCumber, Anderson, Nash, and Schram are only a handful of the dozens of Liberty Hill residents making a difference through homesteading. Modern homesteaders are popping up in the Liberty Hill community seemingly every day, and local events like The Market at Indian Mound Ranch are making sure that their lifestyles remain sustainable.
To contact Jackass Honey Farms, visit www.facebook.com/jackasshoneyfarms or call (512) 484-1101. To learn more about The Market at Indian Mound Ranch, visit www.facebook.com/imrmarket, visit their website at www.indianmoundranchtx.com, or call (956) 312-9263. To learn more about JOLI Farms, visit www.jolifarms.com.