Texas Hail, Watermelon, Fire Ants and Luffa

We’re always interested to learn how others around the country are realizing their dreams of self-sufficiency. So, when I had an opportunity to talk with Carole of West Family Farm in Texas about their fledgling luffa sponge venture, I was thrilled – and took pages of notes.

Robert, Carole, Felecia and Blake West

Robert, Carole, Felecia and Blake West

I had much to learn about fire ants, Texas-sized hail, teaching dogs to tolerate (and not eat) chickens, and, of course, about luffa, that unusual gourd that produces a sturdy body-washing, pot-scrubbing sponge. Carole also told me about the drought that ruined their first test crop of flowers. That dreadful, depressing drought hit us here in the Ozarks a year later, but I knew exactly what Carole meant when she said the grass turned to dirt and they faced tough decisions about what to try saving.

Carole said her family left Colorado in 2009 to return to her Texan husband’s home state with no plans to actually work the land. Carole and Robert simply wanted to teach their children the self-reliant country skills they cherished from their own childhoods.

Robert, a Navy veteran now in the aviation industry, and Carole, a former florist and now a homeschooling mom, lived in a broad range of environments across America as adults. Living off the land wasn’t alien to either of them. Carole, a native of a Washington state island, said she learned much from her Italian grandmother and mother about gardening. Robert, too, was a country boy.

But, their children, Felecia, then 14, and Blake, then 12, knew only city life.

“We’ve had every kind of lifestyle,” Carole told me when I called to ask about the family’s home-based luffa-sponge farm. “Our kids never had a country life. But, they dove right in and embraced it.”

The 4 acres the Wests purchased would also allow Felecia to fulfill a decade-old wish for a horse. Shortly after the family moved from Denver to tiny Greenville, Texas, however, Felecia decided owning a horse probably wasn’t such a good idea after all, even though she’d saved enough money to buy one.

“Felecia knew that one day she would be moving on,” Carole said. “We were very proud of her for making such an adult decision at 14.”

While the goal to give Felecia room for a horse didn’t pan out, other dreams came to fruition on the new homestead. Felecia pursued riding lessons, graduated early from home-high school and is now a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) certified therapeutic riding instructor.

Back in 2009, Robert, with an endless store of ideas, suggested they work the land since it was no longer needed for a horse. Perhaps, eventually, the small acreage could support them, he said.

“So many people told us it was impossible to earn a living on only 4 acres,” Carole said. “We didn’t mean to disagree, but we don’t think anything is impossible. This is just who we are.”

With a tablet and calculator and Robert’s extensive research, the Wests considered options and projected costs before settling on a plan to grow watermelons. In 2010, days away from harvesting their first crop, a hail storm punched holes in every melon.

“We had a fantastic crop,” Carole said. “And then our whole crop was wiped out in front of our eyes – in front of our kids’ eyes.”

The Wests posted an online notice for free watermelon since they could no longer sell the damaged fruit. In four days, all the melons were rotted or gone, along with any plans for supplemental income that year.

Next, the Wests decided to tap Carole’s background as a florist and farmers-market seller to plant and sell flowers. In 2011, they broke ground with high hopes for a bountiful crop. Instead, severe drought baked the soil and parched their beautiful plants.

“We had to make a decision,” Carole said. “We let the flowers die and put our focus on caring for the animals.”

SheepBy then, the family was raising chickens, sheep and Dexter cattle. Watering livestock and growing food was certainly more important than flowers, Carole said.

Robert is never discouraged, she said. He remains positive and views every setback as a learning opportunity. So, Robert hit the books again, studying all he could about crops, weather, drought and storms in northeast Texas.

In 2012, Robert read an article in a farm magazine about luffa, a type of gourd that when split open and dried yields a natural sponge. When he suggested luffa as their next test crop, Carole said, “Sure. What’s a luffa?”

It didn’t take Carole long to realize growing luffa would demand a lot of attention – from seedling to finished product – but one she’s grown to love and now calls the “circle-of-life” sponge.Luffa blossoms

Besides using it most traditionally as a bath sponge, Carole scrubs the dishes, cleans the kitchen and bathrooms and animal watering trays with it.  After about 6 months of use the sponge softens and works great on countertops. Eventually, the worn-out sponge is placed in the bottom of potted plants to conserve water. Finally, it becomes compost.

The first year, for a test field, Robert and Blake set 100 poles for luffa vines. Robert was working a lot of overtime so Carole stepped in and helped Blake finish the project.  The crop performed well enough that Robert began plans for the next planting season, an acre field of 500 poles, enough for thousands of plants that would be individually tied to netting.

Robert Every day, weather permitting, Carole is in the field from early morning until noon tying vines. The Wests do not believe in farming on credit and do as much for themselves, by hand, as possible. They don’t even have a tractor.  When the vines reach a certain size, the sheep graze the grass between the rows.

The family uses no chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. Their livestock provides manure and weed- and bug-control. Carole explained how the chickens are given free range during the day, eating bugs, and then return to their portable roost, or homemade chicken tractor, at night. Carole moves the roost every morning so the birds turn up and fertilize new ground daily.Luffa rows

With a 200-day growing season and fussiness about temperature, luffa is a difficult plant to grow and requires a lot of patience through each step, Carole said. Luffa is picked one at a time, seeds removed, shells peeled and sponges washed in cool water. Then they dry in the warm Texas sun. The Wests plan to market their crop to dermatologists.

Despite the time-consuming nature of luffa, Carole said it is a perfect fit for them, especially since she enjoys the outdoors. Being among the blossoms is heavenly. Contending with fire ants and every bee in Texas is one of the greater challenges of the job, though, as Carole works her way up each of the 200-foot rows to tie vines.

“I don’t know many or, really, any folks who would work like this,” Carole said, “but I have to say I can’t imagine doing anything else. I feel blessed to have this opportunity.”

Luffa, too, has numerous benefits: The sponges have no negative effect on oceans. They cost less and last longer than synthetic sponges. They’re better for the environment because they can be recycled into the soil as a natural fertilizer.

Luffa wreathAt the end of the 2012 season, Carole even found a fun use for the miles of luffa vines left after picking the crop – decorative wreaths.

“The best reason of all to use Luffa sponges?  They feel great!” Carole said.

To follow the Wests’ adventure, visit the West Family Farm blog where Carole relates the challenges and joys of working toward self-sufficiency on 4 acres. By the way, West Family Farm generously donated a pack of luffa sponges (which are still growing) to our “Can You Beat Grandma” video contest. Be sure to enter for your chance to win.

Photos provided by Carole West