Ecosystem Gardening in South Texas

When people think about the fight against global warming, the frontline of the battle against climate change, they don’t usually think of Texas. The South is infamous for its once booming oil industry and its old school farming and ranching practices passed down from generations. But just because there’s a mold doesn’t mean everyone fits it. Enter Emory Richie, the third generation landowner of EcoRich Farm in the Paluxy Valley. EcoRich sits at the northern border of Texas Hill Country, nestled upstream of the Paluxy River on Richardson Creek. The land is owned by Emory’s parents, but Emory resides there with his wife and son and tends to the land full time.

From the road, the property doesn’t look like much. A gravel path bordered by barbed wire fence leads to a grove of oak trees and eventually to a guest house, and a second leads to Emory’s temporary home – a double wide trailer surrounded by what, to the untrained eye, looks like someone’s forgotten vegetable garden. There is an abundance of livestock roaming the property, a few ponds fed by rainwater, and shade in the form of pecan trees – all staples of a run-of-the-mill Texas farm. But within a few minutes of talking with landowner Emory, any illusions about what EcoRich is or isn’t begin to shatter.

At first light, Emory guided us on foot through a series of cattle trails down to Richardson Creek. After a brief climb down the embankment, the creek was visible through a dense ground cover and bore water as clear as any you’d buy in a bottle. It had been a while since the last rain so the water was no more than ankle deep, but with the right amount of rain, Emory said, this river produces the only white water in Texas. He chuckled, recalling his 20-plus mile canoe trip to Glen Rose over class III rapids. It’s not all recreation, though. Emory receives frequent visits from the Environmental Protection Agency as his stretch of the creek is used as a standard for EPA clean water testing.

We piled in to Emory’s single cab farm truck and traversed the network of overgrown trails that divide the property. Emory pointed out his favorite swimming holes, the spot where he and his wife got married, and a patch of land where he is currently growing 18 different variations of pecan trees. “Pecan trees remove carbon from the air. If everyone did this, we wouldn’t have a problem.”

We crossed the street onto another piece of EcoRich’s 1000-plus acres. At one point, Emory told us, he was in negotiations to turn this flat, hundred-acre stretch of plain into a sustainable solar farm. In an area dominated by nuclear power, it would have been a breath of fresh air for the Paluxy Valley, providing clean, renewable energy for hundreds of homes. Just as negotiations were closing, FEMA redrew the flood maps to include the proposed site of the solar farm as a flood plain, quelling any hope Emory had of building on the property.

“This land has never flooded before. I lost a potential 3 million dollars on that deal.” Emory laughed, and then told us the burms that he maintained to redirect water flow on the property ended up attracting herons during their southern migration. “At least I was able to help the herons out.”

After half an hour of surveying the property from the side window of the farm truck, we circled back around to Emory’s double wide where the truck came to a full halt. Emory led us to the garden next to his house which looked like less of a garden and more of a forest. The fruit trees and vegetable plants wove together with the natural grasses and weeds and the only visible divide was the buffalo grass that paved a sort of trail system. We followed behind Emory as he told us about his ecosystem approach. “Every plant works together so that eventually, it can take care of itself. If we got rid of all the weeds, the grasshoppers would go straight for the good stuff.” Emory paused, reached up into a tree, and handed us a small fig.

“I’m kind of an environmentalist,” Emory shrugged between descriptions of fruit trees. His method of ecosystem gardening – growing a diversity of plants in the right spots, all of which are adapted to the climate – is one that he hopes can be a model for other people to reduce pesticide use and help combat climate change. It’s a long game and there’s a good chance that the bulk of the benefits won’t be redeemable for another 20 to 25 years, but Emory seemed excited to pass this place down to his kid(s). “If all goes well, some of these trees could be around for 150 years.”

Emory has faced a lot of challenges in his short time tending to EcoRich. Whether it’s red tape from the government or just a bad harvest season, his struggle is indicative of the fight against climate change. It’s uphill, it’s bureaucratic, and the rewards of all that hard work may not even be seen in our lifetime. But the governing principle of EcoRich is one that should ring true for everyone: do everything in your power to leave the place better than you found it.

Matthew is a photographer, writer, and transient car-dweller with a backlog of adventure plans. Follow along on Instagram @mthwhntr.

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