Author's Note: Every once in awhile, a story will possess me. Like, this one. A trip to the Urban Harvest Farmers Market in Houston sent me on another journey. An hour or more west of Houston, around curves and through a red gate, another world opens.
A squash led me to Glen Miracle. Strolling the Urban Farmers Market, I spotted the gorgeous green pumpkin, sitting plump atop a table, and bee-lined over like a bird dog.
“That’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen!” I told the man wearing suspenders and a moustache.
“It’s an Upper Ground Sweet Potato squash,” he said, looking down and opening his hands to the pumpkin. Working hands. As beautiful as the pumpkin I thought.
Just underneath the table, a chalkboard read LAUGHING FROG FARM. A frog was drawn there too, all fat and happy like it’d just finished a fine meal. It had. A 100 percent organic one.
When Glen Miracle and his wife, Kenan Rote, turned onto their newly purchased property near Hempstead, a road didn’t exist. No big deal, though. The place was just what they wanted. “Wild space, trees, surface water, good aquifer (underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock) and little to no development,” Miracle explained.
It was land they would get to know. Learn from. Eventually, live on and grow from the ground up. Literally.
“We had a desire to grow everything we eat,” Miracle said.
“Listen,” Rote said, “even the frogs are laughing at us."
For the first three years, they were busy building a house. Miracle designed it. He’d been drawing one since the fourth grade. “It’s not wide,” he pointed out, “because we didn’t want it to encroach upon the trees.” It doesn’t.
“We wanted to make it look like it was here. That it belongs,” he said. It does.
Once the house was finished, they started growing the gardens. A few years later they took their produce to the Gardener’s Corner in Houston. “The first day we sold $89 worth and two years later we were hooked,” Miracle said. This is their fourth year of trying to sell everything.
What’s everything? Currently, in order of priority, it's fruit trees, squash, winter greens and eggs. The eggs seldom get to market because they’re sold out. Their Road Island Reds and Black Copper Marans produce 10 to 12 dozen every week.
To Rote, the chickens are her babies. Especially one wry (crooked) rooster called QUASIMODO. All walk up to her like MOJO and LITTLE, two great dogs. So do the horses, but that’s another story.
You’d never know it, but as a kid growing up in Kentucky, gardening wasn’t Miracle’s passion. “Then,” he said, “it was a chore. You couldn’t watch TV until you snapped beans.” I knew the sound. Remembered the smell.
Their day starts at 5 a.m. (well, Rote's a little later) and they work until 7 p.m. Then, they go to the blue chairs by the pond and talk about the day, taking notes. They call themselves “students.” Reading and studying, whether it’s on weeds, chickens or sheep, is as much a part of their farm life as performing chores. They are a tag team.
This boots on the ground education plus book learnin’ appears to be paying off. The fruit trees look as fat and happy as the frog on the chalkboard. Growing in their yard alone are four plums, a crabapple, a Meyer lemon, eight Peach, one orange and a Satsuma tangerine.
Most amazing of all, though, is “Hulda,” a tree named after a woman who once helped care for Rote’s mother. “This woman planted a seed in a pot,” Miracle explained, “and it grew for four years surviving several freezes.”
Thanks to Miracle's grafting talent (he grafted five different citrus fruits onto this one tree) “Hulda” today gives off Meyer lemon, Republic of Texas orange, Orlando tangerine, Seto Satsuma mandarin and Page mandarin. I’ve seen this with my own eyeballs.
Eventually, they want to get the soil so good that they don’t have to till. Kenan called it “no-till.” Toward this goal they raise Gulf Coast Native Sheep. The Natives are small fine-boned sheep, resistant to disease and foot rot. To avoid parasites and improve the soil, they move them from one area to another every one to four days.
Reading and studying, whether it’s on weeds, chickens or sheep, is as much a part of their farm life as performing chores. They are a tag team.
They do this with the help of RINGO, a donkey, and DOS, a ram. “His mother’s name was UNO,” Rote added.
Why Gulf Coast Native I wondered. “Well,” Rote said, moving her fingers like tickling the ivories, “they have these dainty little tillers on the front end of their legs, a fertilizer on the back end, a weed eater on the front . . . I mean what more could you ask for?”
How do they see the future at Laughing Frog Farm?
They’d like to teach classes that “help people learn how to live with a rhythm that works with their life,” Miracle explained. This could be anything from fruit trees to cooking squash. Rote would like to teach Earth Chi-Gong for women. Miracle wants to teach a class on the business end of farming.
For those wondering how the name Laughing Frog Farm came about, here’s the story. It was during those early days when there wasn’t a road. The day had been challenging enough but just at the end of it, Miracle’s truck got stuck. Between the truck and the tractor, he jumped back and forth trying to get unstuck until finally, he surrendered to mud.
“We just popped open a beer and sat on the back of the truck,” Miracle grinned, just like that toad on the chalkboard. That’s when the name came to them. “Listen,” Rote said, “even the frogs are laughing at us."