Drive through East Texas along our many country roads and you’ll likely encounter farmers and ranchers raising cattle and cultivating crops.
While much of the region’s agricultural land is devoted to grazing pastures and hay, some area farmers are shaking things up with uncommon crops, new growing methods and youthful energy.
The Tyler Loop visited three unique East Texas farms to see what makes them stand out among the crowd.
Crafton Family Fungus Farm
Most farms need acreage and quality soil to thrive, and when the weather gets bad, farmers have to adjust. That isn’t the case for Coast Guard veteran Jerrimia Crafton and wife Jessica, owners of the Crafton Family Fungus Farm in Tyler.
Even though “farm” is in the name, the Craftons have no pastoral scene with rows of crops or roaming livestock. Instead, Jerrimia Crafton grows mushrooms in a bedroom of his South Tyler home.
What started out as a hobbyist side project is becoming a full-time operation for the former food service workers fresh to East Texas by way of Bakersfield, California.
“I didn’t plan on doing this,” Jerrimia Crafton said. “I bought Jessica a little ‘Grow Your Own Mushrooms’ kit from Home Depot because she likes mushrooms so much. In four days, we had a half pound of mushrooms. I thought, ‘Oh, this is quick and easy.’”
The Crafton’s former home in Bakersfield spoiled them with widely available culinary mushrooms beyond portobello or button mushrooms found at most grocery stores. Now, they want to bring those specialty varieties here.
The couple can grow dozens of pounds of mushrooms in a matter of weeks, in hopes of supplying East Texas restaurants and farmers’ markets with a dazzling array of edible fungi.
The mushrooms start out as microscopic spores suspended in a sugary jelly, which Jerrimia Crafton spawns in sealed bags filled with a growth medium. Once the spores take over the bag, he transplants them inside a “fruiting chamber” resembling a closet-sized greenhouse — only this one is cool and foggy.
“Because I work inside, I control the conditions,” Jerrimia Crafton said. “I don’t rely on temperature, I don’t rely on seasons, weather conditions, even time of day.”
The result is a crop of mushrooms that go beyond simple salad toppers in flavor and texture.
When cooked properly, the Crafton’s lion’s mane mushrooms can taste more like crab legs than fungi, while their rose-colored clumps of pink oyster mushrooms parallel the rich flavors of pork bacon.
“In California, there’s plenty of vegan restaurants,” Jessica Crafton said. “Almost every [meat] is replaced with the portabella or some sort of mushroom. We’ve seen videos where people have done everything from making bacon-like dishes to a pulled pork kind of thing.”
However, the couple will assure customers their mission is not to convert Texans to veganism. The Craftons hope to deliver fresh ingredients and ideas to local restaurants who otherwise would not have access to gourmet mushrooms.
“The goal is to go local,” Jerrimia Crafton said. “… Anything restaurants are doing now with mushrooms, ours will just make it better. It’s a different option that’s a cut above.”
We think of farms as places for creating new growth, but sometimes the crops for the food supply deplete soil quality faster than farmers can replenish it.
When the soil loses nutrients vital for plant growth, farmers have to bring them in from outside sources like fertilizers, costing them time and money.
At Ornan Farms in Hawkins, farmer Shay Eddy — an alias used at their request — has created a system to do the exact opposite. They foster healthy soil development through an agricultural practice called permaculture.
You won’t find all of Ornan’s crops growing in rows. Instead, each plant thrives off relationships with nearby organisms intentionally planted for maximum benefit to the plants and soil.
“What we’re doing out here is bringing in support species,” Eddy said. “So for every fruit tree, you’ve got several of these support trees that pull nitrogen out of the air, and then you’ll chop them down and it’ll create more mulch and more soil.”
The soil-boosting partnerships created by Ornan’s plants mean Eddy rarely needs to use fertilizers or even pesticides for healthy growth. With the right mix of mulch, farm-made compost and flowers to attract pollinators and nitrogen-fixing plants, Ornan can sustain a “food forest” full of a diverse mix of edible plants.
Eddy considers spreading permaculture tactics a high priority, which is why Ornan farms will eventually use onsite facilities for training visitors on their methods and philosophy.
“In the Bible, God grabbed up the soil, and he formed man from the soil,” Eddy said. “So it’s like an illustration that your life comes from the soil. You better take care of it… We’re destroying and losing so much topsoil every year.”
Most of the food grown at Ornan Farms doesn’t actually make it to farmers’ markets or retail locations, but rather the family table. Their main cash crop is flower arrangements full of zinnias, sunflowers, dahlias, gladiolas and more.
Multiple money-saving tactics helps Ornan Farms keep growing despite its small retail footprint. Eddy maintains a solar array for power and dries clothes outside. Their system of native plants and terraced landscapes keeps the soil lush with groundwater, so Ornan spends less on irrigation.
Just like the roots of old trees in Ornan’s forested acres, the permaculture mindset runs deep within everything on the farm. But all people need to practice self sufficiency on their own, Eddy said, is a garden.
“People used to have gardens. Around the turn of the 19th century, everybody had a garden. Now you’ve got people going to Lowe’s and buying ornamental bushes, and then they’re paying someone to trim them instead of allowing their leaves to fall down and decompose and create natural soil.
“Instead of growing these bushes, they need to grow tomatoes,” said Eddy.
Tyler Berry Farm
Ask someone to picture a farmer. They may describe an older person with a seasoned career in agriculture. The stereotype has some basis in truth, as the average age of an American farm owner is 59, according to data collected by the US Department of Agriculture in 2017.
Marshal and Addie Wiggins of the Tyler Berry Farm are bucking this trend by taking the reins of their family’s land, both at age 24.
Even though the berry farm and a nearby Christmas tree farm have stayed within Marshal Wiggins’ family for generations, the newly minted farmer said he hadn’t grown anything until starting a pea garden around a year ago.
“(The Lord) told me to eat from the earth for 30 days — no exercise, just fruits and vegetables. I lost around 45 pounds. That inspired me to grow a garden.”
Marshal Wiggins’ first pea garden turned into a full-scale adoption of his grandfather’s original berry bushes, planted at the farm in the 1980s. The bushes still produce fruit each April to June, and the Wiggins’ will let visitors pick berries themselves or buy berries pre-picked.
The couple also cultivate strawberries, peas, peaches and a more unorthodox product: the farming lifestyle.
The Tyler Berry Farm Facebook page, run by Addie Wiggins, documents the couple’s headfirst journey into their new lives, allowing followers to keep up with their successes while missing out on the hard work of farm labor.
Addie said the couple also incorporates “cute,” Instagram-worthy products and moments into their farm tours, like selling photogenic strawberry lemonade drinks or providing photo opportunities at the farm’s scenic pastures.
Developing a romanticized farming aesthetic has helped the Wiggins’ draw in more attention from young people looking for a fun weekend escape without facing the real pressures of farm work.
“[Social media] doesn’t see the full picture,” Addie Wiggins said. “They see what we post online, they see this cute little farm family or a little homestead page, and people enjoy that stuff. But they don’t see the day-to-day work. It’s not just cute Facebook posts.”
The berry farm lost an estimated 80% of their expected blueberry yield due to the harsh conditions of February’s winter storm. The decades-old bushes made it through to fruit again next season. Meanwhile, Marshal Wiggins is planning to diversify the farm’s output and grow their retail footprint to include local farmers’ markets.
“We’re trying to bring the community out here with things like a firework show or a pumpkin patch,” Addie Wiggins said. “Families can come out and ride the hay rides, enjoy some apple cider and some popcorn. Just bring in things for them to do.”
It may sound like hard work reshaping a farm with little experience within a matter of months, but Marshal Wiggins called the past year at the farm one of the happiest of his life.
“You’re literally doing what man was put here to do,” he said. “We are supposed to sow seeds. All I do is put a seed in the ground. God grows the rest of it.”
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