From film to farming: An actor and filmmaker leave the 9-5 to revive a generational family farm in Texas

Alex McPhail and Casey McAuliffe , Owners of  Moon Dog Farms in Santa Fe, Texas

Alex McPhail and Casey McAuliffe met in college and instantly were inseparable. After college, they moved to Austin, Texas and both started work – Casey as a preschool teacher and Alex as the screenwriter director for the Austin Film Festival. In Austin they became more and more interested in local agriculture and began to devour books analyzing the current state of farming in the U.S. This research motivated them to become big supporters of their local farmer’s market in Austin. The desire for adventure and to learn first-hand what farming was really about inspired them to quit their 9-5 existences, put a camper on the bed of their truck, their dog Saxton in the backseat, and drive to upstate New York to work on an organic farm.

 

After several seasons at that farm, Casey and Alex began to feel like farming was something worth pursuing for the long term. While still cutting their farming teeth in upstate New York, a small parcel of family land in Texas was offered to them, but they felt too green to take it on. They knew they required more skills and knowledge before making a real go of it on their own. They decided to move to North Carolina so Alex could go back to school for sustainable agriculture. Casey continued to work full-time for several farms near his school.

 

After Alex graduated, Casey said she needed one more city adventure before settling down in rural Texas. A theatre major and performer her whole life, Casey yearned to spend a year or two in New York City chasing her acting dreams so she wouldn’t look back later in life and wonder “what if?” The couple moved to Brooklyn and spent an exciting year attending casting calls and working in film production. In January 2013, they packed up their Brooklyn lives, settled into Alex's generational family home in Santa Fe, Texas and started Moon Dog Farms.

 

Moon Dog Farms is constant work in progress and the heavy rains that have plagued Southwest Texas in recent years have left their fields flooded and their vegetables rotting on the vine. Fortunately, flower sales and an established orchard on the property have sustained them through their significant climate-related losses.  

 

“We are thinking about starting a tilapia farm,” Alex joked. “Honestly after the hardships we’ve faced this year with the weather, the only way to make it through is to keep laughing in the rain.”

 

Casey and Alex’s solidarity as a couple is obvious immediately upon meeting them. They are devoted to one another and towards their share vision of turning Moon Dog Farms a viable and sustainable business. They believe that local farms have the power to strengthen their communities, becoming hubs that connect people to the land and to one another. In a state where big agriculture holds strong, Casey and Alex’s small-scale organic farming operation is a bright glimmer of hope for the future. (Click here to jump to their interview)

 

www.moondogfarms.com

 

 

Q & A

What inspired you to move to the country? 

Several years worth of talking about our food and shopping our farmers market in Austin while working city jobs (I was a preschool arts teacher, Alex the Screenplay Competition Director for Austin Film Festival) led to us seeking an outdoor life. Alex simply wanted out of an office, I wanted to know more about how to grow honest, ethical food. Mainly, we wanted an adventure.

 

Our first farm took us to Brewster, New York where we worked on an organic vegetable and flower farm. That experience gave us a taste of something we liked very much, and we decided then and there that a farm was in our future, although we had no idea where that farm might be. Soon after that, some long-forgotten family land was offered to us, located way down on the Gulf Coast prairie lands of Texas. There were barns, a tractor, rainwater ponds, an old orchard, and we were the luckiest pair of unsuspecting goobers around. We were flabbergasted, and after scooping our jaws from the floor, decided we needed to make ourselves more worthy before we could move back to Texas. We made plans for Alex to attend school for sustainable agriculture and for both of us to work on more farms.

 

In the midst of this, I waylaid us with a last-minute wish to live in New York City. I've been a performer for a long time, and felt like making one last stand before settling in fully to an overall-clad life. Parts of New York life were spectacular. Other parts made me long for the overalls, and eventually those parts won out. I realized I didn't have the hustle in me to make that life feel worth it—or rather, the hustle took up all the space and I was left wishing for more trees and bugs. Alex, on the other hand, knew he was destined for a distinctly non-city life at the start. He humored and supported me, and we had plenty of jolly times while we lived there for that short while, but a year later we were living in North Carolina, with a stronger determination to make our own farm. Alex attended school and we both worked for several small farmers, absorbing as much as we could. Once his program was over, we headed for Texas and arrived to the farm January 1st, 2013. It's been just 5 years since we began the journey that led us to Moon Dog Farms, and we definitely got that adventure we were looking for.

 

 

What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?

For us, our life here doesn't feel like “country living.” Our proximity to Galveston and Houston means that the main “city” draws are relatively nearby—we can drive 20 minutes to Galveston for a great meal and a movie, or drive an hour and be in the sprawl that is Houston and do nearly anything. We rarely do the latter, but the presence of Houston is keenly felt in our region. Honestly, I'd say our situation feels far more “rural-suburban” as the towns that surround our home and farm range from Houston's bedroom communities filled with big-box stores to very small, very poor communities with little more than a bank, post office and dollar store. This area of Texas is refinery country as well and we're deeply embedded within oil culture. 

 

 

What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?

We miss restaurants, coffee and bars. Specifically, a solid nearby restaurant with any kind of fare we could retreat to on a Sunday after a long week and a chaotic market day. A spot that offered decent coffee with a seat and no drive-thru, and a watering hole that carried a little more than Budweiser.

 

 

Would you ever go back to an urban existence? 

Perhaps, if we become millionaire farmers. In all honesty, we can't think of the scenario that would take us back to a big city, but we've always said the right adventure could tempt us. 

 

 

What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?

Find a landscape you love, or find something you love in it. Get used to bad coffee being available everywhere, unless you live somewhere impossibly dreamy in the Northwest.

 

 

When you go back to visit the city what is the first thing you do?

Pick up a first-rate iced coffee.

 

 

Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?

At risk of being dangerously mushy, I believe we draw most of our inspiration from one another. I push myself hard for him and he works endlessly for me. If working with nature and growing food didn't fulfill us we wouldn't have made it this far, but I don't believe we could keep going if we weren't constantly buoying and admiring one another. 

 

 

Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city?

More gray hair. 

 

 

Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?

Until recently, every day was slightly different for us. As we live in a different site than the farm property, we typically rise early (but not milk-the-cows-early, there's no livestock that needs that yet) and powwow in our kitchen over breakfast, pouring over the agenda we make at the start of ever week. Some items get crossed off and inevitably new ones are added. Then we would load up the truck with whatever was needed for the day and head out. Apart from the hot months, we'd always bring lunches with us and eat at the farm. In the summer however, it's a much-needed break to come home at the hottest part of the day and rest for a few hours in the AC before heading back and working until sun down. Typically, true summer for us is from mid June—mid September.

 

Once at the farm, all bets are off. Depending on the season, it might mean the day is devoted entirely to weeding or transplanting successions of carrots, lettuces, radishes, etc. In the Fall and Winter, we get a reprieve from the onslaught of aggressive coastal weeds and heat, and thus the crop fields require slightly less maintenance, leaving us freer to tackle projects. This is the time for putting new installations in the orchard, pruning and burning, building, cleaning, etc. This past year we installed hundreds of feet of new underground irrigation to reach our newest fields. We've yet to use it, in a stroke of perfect farm irony, this has been the wettest season we've experienced, and flooding has been the theme of 2015.

 

I (Casey) always took around 15 hours away from the farm to hustle for Galveston's Own Farmers Market, which I manage. Often I'd be at my computer composing newsletters, emails and following up on this or that, but also visiting the sites of prospective vendors, meeting with city or state Hoo-has, or scurrying to complete any number of tasks needed to make the market run smoothly.

 

It was just under two months ago that I took on an off-farm part-time job working in the Children's Department of our nearby library, which has thrown our routine of the past 2 years into a wave of transition. This change came fairly suddenly, and we hadn't planned on me taking an additional job, but the opportunity presented itself at a moment when it seemed right. I have Lupus, and we'd noticed that since we'd moved here and started the farm, I'd had far more complications than ever before. Stress, sun exposure, extreme physical labor, etc. and my doctor was certain farming was the cause of it. We'd already begun to contemplate how I might cut back slightly from farm labor while still earning money when a friend notified me of the library job. This paired with the fact that I'd always wanted to work in a library and do miss working with children on a steady basis meant we decided to hurl ourselves in a different direction and figure out how it would all work.

 

Thus far, it means I rise earlier each day to accomplish my computer-centered farm/farmers' market tasks, work at the library three days a week, and spend all other days at the farm. We try to maintain one day off as we did before, but that's gotten harder. Generally, Tuesday is our grocery store, errands and sit-around-with-cocktails-in-the-afternoon-day with a bit of work squeezed in at the elbows. 

 

 

What do you appreciate most about your life in the country?

I appreciate the feeling of space as I work in the fields. I appreciate the land Alex and I shape and work. I appreciate that I'm closer to insects, birds, animals, flowers, trees, dirt and water more than almost everybody I know and that those intimacies aren't to be taken for granted.

 

 

Is there a specific place or space that makes you feel inspired? 

Beyond the bayou that runs behind our house, there's a sprawling cemetery. One of the most helpful things to do when the pot's about to boil over is to mix a drink, scamper across the gas pipe that connects our lands, and just walk. We've talked out a good number of problems that way, and come up with one or two inspired ideas. There must be something about so many old headstones that manages to calm my future-thinking brain, and I suppose Alex might really do it for the bourbon.

 

 

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