FIRST-TIME FARMER & MASSAGE THERAPIST
London, San Miguel Allende & Austin to Garfield, Texas
Getting to Whirlaway Farm in Garfield, Texas one must drive down country roads passing tidy homes, sprawling farms and the occasional yard full of broken cars. The homestead is organized, with a menagerie of animals grazing freely, a greenhouse full of Spring starters and trellises of peas reaching for the sky. A Ducati Monster is vehicle park out front, Francesca’s preferred method of transportation. Francesca Hernandez is a fearless woman of many talents who has turned her passion for food and agriculture into a lifelong pursuit to educate others on sustainable land management and food production. Francesca studied landscape architecture in college and worked for several years in the field until she realized that her true passion was agriculture, specifically growing bio-diverse, organic food. Whirlaway Farm and Garden started as a seed of an idea while Francesca was working as a city planner for the city of Austin; a place where city people could come and reconnect themselves with the food they eat. She dreamed of finding a piece of land away from the chaos and traffic of the city where she could build her first farm. She calls Whirlaway Farm her self-designed “graduate program.” Learning as she goes, she continues building a community of city people from Austin who make the 30+ minute drive to attend workshops, demos, dinners and help work the land. When Francesca bought the property it was little more than a scrubby 3-acre lot covered in weeds. She got straight to work, digging irrigation, building a yurt, erecting a greenhouse, putting in fencing, buying animals and planting. A former vegetarian for 19 years, Francesca didn’t feel right raising animals for meat if she was detached from the butchering process so she decided to learn and do her own slaughtering. She wishes that everyone who chooses to eat meat would partake in that process at least once because “Everyone would eat less meat, or at least eat it more mindfully.” Although she doesn’t enjoy the taking of life for food, she ensures that each of her animals live a happy and free existence. This year she developed and launched a line of goat-milk bath and body products, selling them on her website and at farmer's markets. After a long day of chore rotations, her favorite activity is to pull a blanket into the yard, listen to the serenade of her animals settling in for the night and gaze up at the stars – they shine so much brighter here than they do in the city. (Click here to jump to her interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
As a child, I always fantasized about living on a farm. And as a “city kid” I have always been fascinated by the country homes I visited. Life always seemed freer and I always felt more awake, in a deep sense, in the country. When I decided not to go to grad school, the decision to make a foray into farming my “graduate program” emerged in my mind, and it stuck..
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
The hardest part was making the move! After much, much searching, I found this perfect piece of land… and then I had a huge breakup, a foot surgery, and it began to feel as if I would never be able to actually make the move here.
Once I recovered and made the move, there was this terrifying reality of “what now?” Because I had literally only ever had 2 chickens and a small garden, but suddenly there was this big piece of land and all these ideas and it was extremely overwhelming knowing how to move forward. Fortunately, I am blessed with good friends, mentors, and fortune, and a lot of things happened rather organically.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
I think the most surprising thing was that it was not as peaceful as I had imagined. There are always sounds - birds singing, dogs barking, guineas making a ruckus and neighbors revving their engines. It is not always idyllic - in the beginning, the work was just unrelenting. So much had to happen to make life out here possible. I had to fence my property, have electricity run, get my well working and put in water lines; I had to make it livable!
I didn’t really have many expectations, thank goodness. I was in a very dark place when I first made the move, and I was astonished by how therapeutic it was to drag a blanket out into the field, lay beneath the stars and feel the miniscule weight of my existence. It was incredibly liberating. I saw so many meteors that first summer. I sometimes say that the sky healed me.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
My first night sleeping in my yurt, there was so much SOUND: dogs barking, owls hooting, crickets chirping and roosters crowing. I’m a very light sleeper and I remember laying there thinking, “what have I done?” And then proceeding to have one of the deepest slumbers of my life.
I still use outhouses and shower outside year round. I initially thought that I would put running water indoors immediately because I didn’t think living that primitively would work for me, but clearly it does.
The only thing I really miss about the city is accessibility of resources - having a grocery, hardware store and friends’ homes at a stone’s throw away. I miss being able to bicycle wherever I care to go.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Probably not, I say probably because I try to leave everything on the table in life. But I have a hard time imagining living in a flat in a city again.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
Be emotionally prepared for isolation. Be open-minded. Know that you are way tougher than you think you are. Let yourself be uncomfortable and see how it helps you grow.
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
Usually I am going into the city to buy supplies and to socialize, so we could basically say: Hardware store, grocery store and a friend date.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I feel like sort of an inspiration whore - I am literally inspired by everything. I feel really lucky because my work is sort of far-flung. Massage is easy (I’ve been a therapist for 17 years) and I just love to walk the streets of the human body and ferret out the roadblocks, felled trees and clear the way. It’s been sort of surprising, but butchering animals has really given me a stronger understanding of tissues and body structures. With landscape design, I am always trying to mimic nature, in that I want things to make sense visually and geographically. I enjoy designing with native materials and plants. Ordered chaos is sort of my calling card. I suppose nature is the inspiration for almost everything I do. It feels like a great honor to be able to harness, replicate, or highlight natural forms and patterns.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away
from the city?
Very much so, I learned patience out here, which I never expected. I take on less, and spread myself thicker, biting off only what I can chew. I’ve become very comfortable with death as well, which astonishes me.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence? How does it compare to the day to day in the city?
My day starts when the sun comes up; the time of course varies by season. I feed, water and let all the animals out, with a cup of tea in hand. Depending on the season, I may have to milk some goats. Then I move to the greenhouse and garden. There is always weeding, planting, or some unfinished project to work on. Always. Honestly, I will spend all day working on one task or another and then my day ends as it began - as the sun goes down - I will do the whole routine in reverse: feeding, watering, milking and penning up the animals. Then I am free to read, cook or go into the city for social activity.
My days in the country have this wonderful rhythm to them. They are bookended by the sun coming and going and the same set of chores. I know that may sound tedious, but I am a person who has never had a routine! I mean it. Aside from tooth brushing and a morning cup of tea, I’ve just always been sort of willy-nilly. So I find this very grounding compared to a day in the city. Here I only have to deal with animal antics, injuries, illness and the odd unannounced visitor, whereas in the city there is just so much chaos coming from so many directions.
What do you appreciate most about life in the country?
I love the space, the freedom and the winged migrations passing overhead. There is such magic in nature. It is so wonderful to be connected to all of that.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Sure, showering outside for one. Walking naked to my outdoor shower late at night. Sometimes sleeping outside if I fall asleep stargazing. Dancing in the rain. Sleeping with the door open. Drinking wine in the afternoon while I pull weeds if I feel like it. Wearing really weird filthy clothes and no bra and letting my hair run wild and not composing myself in front of neighbors and the odd unexpected visitor. I guess I’ve always been a little feral- I really see that about myself now. Living in the country has allowed me to really embrace that in this super nourishing, healthy way. I feel very unselfconscious and free. I think there are 2 mirrors on the property, and I don’t look in them every day.
Is there a specific place or space that makes you feel inspired?
The garden is really one of my happy places. I feel like a magician when I put seeds in the ground and then a few months later have these massive food-bearing plants everywhere. It truly is mystical. And I am obsessed with the soil. I’m always examining it, smelling it, reveling in its richness. Learning the succession of insect emergences has been fascinating. I’m always learning in the garden and every season is different.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I have people tell me all the time, “You are living my dream,” and I always laugh a little to myself, because I actually think a lot of what I do out here would be a nightmare to most people. I mean, it is really, really, really, hard work, really disappointing and sometimes heartbreaking when you don’t know what you’re doing. There is so much failure involved in learning to farm. That is the first gauntlet you must pass through: abject failure. It isn’t always picturesque. Sometimes it rains a lot, and then you are living in a mud pit and it is just disgusting for days. Sometimes animals die unexpectedly. Sometimes you lose an entire crop. You are governed by forces beyond your control - the weather, the seasons, time constraints and the personal limitations we all experience.
I think it is important to remember that while the country attracts a lot of people who are interested in personal expansion, growth, love of nature and the like, it also attracts a lot of unstable people - radical extremists, drug addicts and degenerates. And you MUST make friends with your neighbors, because you are going to want and need them at some point. If you don’t make any effort to meet your neighbors, people will talk and their speculations can be really strange and off base. You cannot be an island; you must create a community in the country if you want to have a comfortable life.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
I am actually really excited about the coming year. I will be launching a bath & body line of soaps, lotions and some basic hair care, that is all goat milk based. I more or less see this as the turning point, where I may be able to make a rather decent living and continue farming for fun. Money has never been my top priority, but the farm has got to pay for itself, and I truly believe that this is the year it will do so.
This spring I will build a nice outdoor kitchen and dining structure where I can host dinners and workshops, which has been my plan all along. I really want to share the farm environment and create a place where my insanely talented community can share skills with those who want to learn.
Also my partner will be moving out here and we will be married here next year, which will be such a sea change after living alone the past couple of years. I welcome the change.
My ultimate goal is to be on the farm full time, making lotions and potions. Doing the odd landscape design job and only going into town for commerce and entertainment. The less time I spend driving and making money with my hands (massage), the more time I have for creative projects and the innate calm I feel being outside the city.