Travaasa Austin: One Organic Farmer’s Dream Come True

17 Nov, 2013

by Bruce E. Boyers

Organic farmer Kim Grabosky has found her ultimate dream job: running her own farm, utilizing all the sustainable methods she has perfected. As manager of the 3.25-acre on-property farm at Travaasa Austin—an exclusive experiential resort and spa in Austin, Texas—she has a built-in clientele that utilizes all of the fantastic produce she can deliver. The crops she is growing grace the plates of highly discerning diners at this premium resort, as well as the faces and bodies of those partaking of spa treatments.

“There are a lot of twentysomethings like me who are getting involved in farming now,” Grabosky told Organic Connections. “They have plenty of skills but they don’t necessarily have the capital to purchase land; so this was a really amazing opportunity to put to use the skills that I had and to have my own creative freedom. And I have a guaranteed market.”

A Career Path Steered by Passion

Grabosky didn’t start out to be a farmer—in fact her college major was in photojournalism. It was work in that field which ultimately led her quite literally to the farm field.

“I was in Rochester, New York, doing an undergrad photo project about local food access,” she related. “I ended up on a CSA farm outside of Rochester that had been there for a long time. I was photographing at this farm for over a year, and they finally put a pitchfork and a shovel in my hands, making me jump in with the work.

“I really wanted to learn more about the actual process instead of simply photographing it, so I took on a year-long internship on the farm to find out how it worked. As soon as I started I realized it was going to be a lot bigger than just the short-term learning endeavor.”

Indeed it was. Upon completing her degree, Grabosky made her way to Austin, where she spent several years lending her talents to Johnson’s Backyard Garden organic farm, working her way to farm manager there. Then Travaasa called and she has never looked back.

From the Ground Up

Travaasa actually didn’t have its own farm at the time; Grabosky has created it from the ground up. “They’d been planning for it but they needed someone to take on the project,” she said. “There were contractors that installed some of the initial infrastructure for it—some of the buildings and waterlines and electrical.” But the rest was up to her.

Grabosky hit the ground running and has produced an astounding variety of crops in the farm’s first season. “I really like diversity,” she commented. “Right now I have beets, carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, okra, melons, tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, summer squash, spinach, lettuce, braising mix, arugula, turnips, mustard greens, cilantro, dill, lots of different herbs, and an orchard that’s starting to come up.

“Within the many types of vegetables there are tons of varieties. I’ve been doing six to ten varieties of most of the crops that we’re growing. That gives me an opportunity to really play with color, play with heirlooms, and play with varieties that have specific and unique characteristics.”

Therein lies one of the distinctive aspects of what Grabosky is doing for Travaasa Austin. While the restaurant sources from other local farmers as they always have, Grabosky raises produce not available anywhere else. “I am growing a number of crops that other farmers aren’t providing for our restaurant,” she said. “For example, right now I’ve got quite a few varieties of basil that I don’t usually see on the market. I have some purple Brussels sprouts growing. I have decorative kales that I don’t normally see coming off a farm. We have a red burgundy okra that is very beautiful. We did some gold-fleshed melons and some light-fleshed melons that were really unique.

“We also have edible flowers. We’ve done squash blossoms a few times, which are hard to transport fast enough to go from field to kitchen to plate. Even if other farms could produce them, they might not hold up the right way.”

For the Spa

Grabosky also sees to a wide variety of crops used in spa treatments. “For the spa we have a perennial herb garden, with a lot of lavender, lemon balm and all kinds of mints as well as flowers,” she said. “I’m in the process of learning how to make teas and tinctures and various medicinals, and I’m excited to see how we can work more with the spa in the future.”

Soil Vitality

A primary secret of Grabosky’s success is the quality of the soil in which her crops are grown.

“We haven’t really had any trouble producing high-quality crops because the soil is already very fertile,” Grabosky explained. “The property is down on this flood-line area. There’s a creek that runs year-round along the back of the property. The reason that the soil we have is so rich right now is because there’s been flooding; there’s a lot of silt on the field. So even though it’s extremely alkaline, it’s just packed with nutrients.”

Naturally, with her considerable experience, Grabosky is improving that soil. “We started composting last December,” she continued. “They have nine horses on the property, and so we can collect all the manure from the horses as well as from the flock of ninety hens. We also add all of our kitchen table scraps. We make our own compost and put it on the fields pretty much with each planting.

“Additionally we apply seaweed, and we undersow a lot of our crops with cover crops that help fix nitrogen back in the soil. By doing this we’re making sure that we’re not depleting the soil reserve that is there.”

Guest Response

The proof of all her methods of course is in the flavor—and the resort guests have been raving. “It’s really nice because we do tours five days a week and different classes,” said Grabosky. “Usually by the time people are coming down to see us they’ve already had a meal in the restaurant, and that’s mostly been their way of interacting with the food. When they come on the tours we’ll normally walk through the field, having people taste-test. It’s funny: a lot of times you give somebody something to eat and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s okay; I don’t really like tomatoes,’ or ‘I don’t really like arugula,’ or whatever. Then they try it fresh off the plant and they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know! That’s the best (whatever it is) I’ve ever had!’

“I do think we have a high-quality product, but I also think that speaks to how far people have moved away from eating fresh food—because fresh food is delicious. I believe most people just haven’t had really fresh food and so they don’t know what they’ve been missing out on.”

Off and Running

Grabosky has most definitely come out of the starting gate with a bang—and there is much more in the works. This spring she’ll be bringing in bees. She’s putting in an innovative rain bed to grow crops while greatly conserving water. She is engaging in seed saving to finely hone the best crops to grow on the property, and also working on compost tea to enhance the compost she is already using. In addition, she will be offering more and different classes for the guests, in both culinary and spa areas.

But overall she is just very happy to have landed in the position she is in. “It’s absolutely beautiful to go there every day,” Grabosky concluded. “It is so lovely to work outside and be around other people that value what you’re doing and are interested in the organic food movement. It’s a small work environment and they’ve been really flexible in giving me open, total license to create my own vision for it. It’s been a big challenge and an honor to work on this project from scratch.”

For more information on Travaasa Austin, please visit www.travaasa.com/austin/.

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