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Farm to market: Moon Dog Farms breathes new life into Houston's growing sustainable food movement

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Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 gardeners
Alex McPhail and Casey McAuliffe launched Sante Fe's Moon Dog Farms in the fall. Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 garden rows
After sitting dormant for eight years, the soil is finally springing back to life/ Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 logo
The official Moon Dog logo Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 gardener
Alex McPhail Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 growing herbs
Beans Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 garden rows
Kale Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 lettuce greens
Spring greens Photo by Julie Knutson
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 gardeners
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 garden rows
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 logo
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 gardener
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 growing herbs
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 garden rows
Moon Dog Farms Houston April 2013 lettuce greens

You could say the story of Moon Dog Farms starts sometime in the late '90s with one Galveston-area man's dream of having his own tree farm.

"These were all planted by the father of my aunt's husband," co-owner Alex McPhail explains, pointing down a strip of former pastureland covered with more than a thousand pear trees. "He was going to sell the trees once they matured. But once he died, the land was dormant for about eight years until we took over in the fall."

While the orchard remains decked out with a sophisticated irrigation system, McPhail and his partner Casey McAuliffe say they are mainly concentrating on a smaller patch of the Sante Fe property — one that is bearing an impressive cache of spring crops. Several rows are dedicated to providing red beans for Brennan's of Houston.

"The land is coming back to life, but it's taken a lot of work and a lot of compost," he laughs, adding that the effort has paid off. The owners manage to come home empty-handed each week from their Sunday stand at Galveston's Own Farmers Market.

"The land is coming back to life, but it's taken a lot of work and a lot of compost." 

McPhail and McAuliffe's journey to Moon Dog has taken several years and a rather circuitous route.

After finishing up at Southwestern University, the Texas native ended up in Austin, working for the Austin Film Festival and as a preschool teacher, respectively. Looking for a different path, the duo made their way up the East Coast to an organic farm in upstate New York and then back south to central North Carolina, where McPhail earned a two-year degree in sustainable agriculture while working at a farm near Chapel Hill.

When the McPhail got word of the available patch of family land in Texas, the two returned west to strike out on their own.

"There were farmers markets everywhere in North Carolina, so we didn't entirely know what to expect in Houston," McAuliffe says. "But the local food movement is really taking hold here, and it's wonderful to be a part of that."

By the fall, Moon Dog hopes to expand its relationships with regional restaurants and focus on reinvigorating the orchard.

"The one thing about farming in Texas is that there's no down time," explains McPhail.

"In places like upstate New York, you know you always have winter to rest and work on other projects. In the Houston area, though, we know we'll be busy throughout the year. But it's been exciting to start a farm and watch it develop so quickly. It'll be cool to see where we are in a few years at this rate."

On Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m., Moon Dog Farms will host open house with live music from Elija Ford, a ribbon-cutting ceremony, tractor rides, horseshoes, Buffalo Bayou beer and plenty of snacks. The event is free and open to all. Click here for details.

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