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Family keeps farm going strong

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Oct. 13, 2011 - When a realtor showed Dale Ringger and his family the Bastrop County property that has become Fruitful Hill Farm, he asked Dale, "Where are you going to put the helicopter pad?" It wasn't a ridiculous question because there wasn't a road leading directly to his property.

Ringger, his wife Amy and their six children -- two girls and four boys -- went to work on the place. After they built about a half-mile of dirt road, they were ready to start work on the property itself. They set to clearing parts on the remote, and mostly wooded, land and experimented with ways to make a sustainable living from it.

"It was basically wooded with some open areas," Dale said. "At the center of the property you have a nice view of Bastrop in one direction and Smithville in the other. There's a wet-weather ravine that runs through it. It's just a remote, quiet piece of property that hadn't been touched in quite some time."

It was just what the Ringgers had been looking for. An accountant by trade, Dale and Amy wanted to raise their children in a rural environment. They wanted them to work on the land and reap the fruits of their labor in a way that's not as common as it was a generation ago when Dale and Amy were growing up on farms in Indiana. The couple came to Texas about 11 years ago and started looking for land and found Fruitful Hill Farm.

They built the road, cleared some of the land with a bulldozer and drilled a well, hitting water at 480 feet in the deeper Wilcox portion of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer. They built a small cabin, sold their home in Austin and moved to the cabin. Dale and Amy went to work and they put the children to work, too.

"The reason I did this was to raise my family here, not as a place to make a lot of money. I grew up in the country and had opportunities to explore the countryside and I wanted to give my kids something similar if I could," Dale said. "The whole concept was to raise a family and work together, which would give us a lot of flexibility. We wanted a place without a lot of restrictions and we wanted to have some animals."

The Ringgers were told that Longhorn cattle would be a fit for their property, but that turned out not to be the case; there wasn't enough pasture during dry weather. Another farmer suggested chickens and goats; that turned out to be the right combination.

Today, the farm has about 500 chickens, some goats and four acres where the family grows about 30 different kinds of vegetables. The six children, all home-schooled on the farm, range in age from 12 to 22, and all have had a hand in making Fruitful Hill into a working farm. They sell at Austin farmers markets and to select businesses in the area; Amy also runs a clothing business from the farm.

The farm started by selling eggs, which still accounts for about half of the farm's income. They got an old cotton wagon and converted into a mobile "eggmobile," complete with nest boxes. The chickens eat grass and bugs in the pasture and are supplemented with a high-variety feed mix. They are moved about once a week from one part of the pasture to another. Dale likes to move goats in front of the chickens because he believes a variety of animals helps cut down on disease.

"The goats won't make the chickens sick and the chickens won't make the goats sick," he said.

The pasture is chemical free and the garden is in position to be certified organic once Dale decides the operation needs that designation.

"Right now, we're selling directly to the customer," he said. "Our customers are our inspectors."

Dale sees a time when the operation may change and he works as an accountant for small businesses and farmers, what he calls a "vertically integrated something." While he likes his quiet and remote piece of property, he also likes people and he enjoys going into town. Children, he noted, "come up quick and leave." After devoting most of the last decade to his family, he said it may be time for a slight change of pace.

"Personally, I enjoy business and so I enjoy going into town and interacting with people," he said. "I didn't buy this place to get away from it all. I just wanted a place to go where it is quiet and where we could raise a family. The only noises we have out here are from wildlife -- crickets, birds, the rustling of the weeds. It's nice."


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