East Austin urban farm raises awareness about agriculture

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After selling her restaurant’s share many years ago, Dorsey Barger now invests herself in two more responsibilities: maintaining the farm and the guest house in her backyard.  

With the support of her partner, Susan Hausmann, Barger opened Hausbar Urban Farm and GuestHaus, an organic farm in East Austin that raises chickens, supplies local restaurants with fresh produce and even provides its own lodging for visitors through Airbnb. 

Though she has built a successful operation out of farming in the city, Barger said she didn’t grow up doing so.  

“I grew up not even knowing how to pick up a decent vegetable from the grocery store, much less knowing how to run an urban farm,” Barger said. 

Although it’s now an established source of fresh crops, the idea for Hausbar and the guest house didn’t just spring from the ground. Barger said her childhood dream had been to run a restaurant in a house — a dream she realized as the co-owner of Eastside Cafe in East Austin. There, she gardened crops and ingredients to be used for the cafe’s menu.

“I just fell completely in love with it and filled every space on that property with vegetables and flowers and herbs,” Barger said. “I thought, ‘This isn’t enough space. I want to raise even more crops for the restaurant,’ so Susan and I decided to buy property close to the restaurant to start additional space to grow food.”  

At the new property, Barger dug the garden by hand. She said she fell in love with the farm and decided to sell her share at the cafe to focus on her new project.

Barger and Hausmann fixed up the house on the lot and settled into it. Not long after, they moved an additional cottage onto the property with the aim of renting it out as a guest house one day. 

After moving onto the property, Barger found that independent farming required adjusting to Austin’s predominant weather patterns: very hot and slightly cold. As a result, she splits her crops up into cool- and warm-weather crops. 

For Austin chefs such as James Dumapit, co-head chef at Chinese restaurant Old Thousand, East Austin farms such as Barger’s are indispensable. Dunapit said Old Thousand buys most of its ingredients from Barger’s farm, which is only six-minute drive from the restaurant. 

“I love her and everything she stands for, and I think that this (arrangement) is kind of like the American dream for me,” Dumapit said.

The guest house on the farm attracts just as much attention. Visitor Erin Wehmeier stayed two nights at the house with her daughter while visiting Austin earlier in April. She said she appreciates the special touches Barger adds to the house, such as using organic milk for her coffee and letting her daughter open the chicken coop every morning. 

“(Barger) went out of her way to make you feel like you were her guest,” Wehmeier said. “To be honest, she inspired me. I’ve always been a gardener, and I think I’m going to buy a chicken coop and get some chickens in Nashville.” 

Though Barger maintains beneficial rapport with the community, she did run into some issues with the city. In 2012, complaints from neighbors prompted a city inspection, which found several code violations on the lot, forcing Hausbar to shut down.

As a result, urban farm supporters began calling for changes to Austin’s urban farm code. Barger said she worked with the city to clear up the violations on her lot and was eventually allowed to open the farm again.

Despite the hardships she’s faced, Barger said the situation has been a learning experience. The debate had involved much of the community and aligned well with the mission of the farm. 

“The whole farm is really about raising awareness,” Barger said. “It’s about how food systems can work, how an urban farm can fit into a city, and how food should be raised.”