Larry Butler, co-founder of Boggy Creek Farm, the oldest operating urban farm in Austin, died Thursday at age 70.
Butler and his wife, Carol Ann Sayle, played a key role in the growth of organic and urban farming in South Central Texas over the last three decades. Their crops were some of the first sold at many of Austin’s largest farmers markets, and they trained countless other farmers throughout the region.
The couple taught themselves how to farm as they commuted 80 miles daily to Medina County while they both worked day jobs, including during Butler’s stint as a TV repairman.
After a decade, the couple bought a large lot three miles from the state capital, next to Boggy Creek. There were no farmers markets then, so they sold their crops on a card table outside of a liquor store.
The crops grown using traditional organic methods were a vital part of Austin’s farmers markets in the early 1990s. When Whole Foods Market sought out local produce in its first store, Boggy Creek supplied the grocer from 1993 until the drought of 2011.
A constant educator, Butler was a featured speaker for decades at conferences with the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association on every part of farming. Over the years, he taught thousands of producers how to cultivate organic crops. Many of those farmers sell at San Antonio’s markets today.
Growers from every nearly urban farm in Austin began as volunteers at Boggy Creek Farm. Springdale, Hausbar, Rain Lily, and Middle Ground farms all trace their roots back to the mentorship of Butler and Sayle.
“Twenty-five years ago, our long talks were the beginning of me growing food,” Stephanie Sherzer said of Butler. She started Rain Lily Farm with wife Kim Beal, and the couple later started Farmhouse Delivery, which has become San Antonio’s primary locally grown produce delivery service.
“He was an open book, and they had seen so many seasons,” said Melody McClary, one of Butler’s students. “You could call Larry anytime and he always answered. When you were lost and confused, they’d experienced it before, and would help calm you, and direct you towards a better way to do things.”
Urban farms have become more commonplace, but in 2013, Austin experienced serious tension between people wanting to grow food in the city and their neighbors. The commotion over smells and zoning eventually shut down Hausbar Farm. In response, Butler and Boggy Creek Farm helped to organize the East Austin Urban Farm Tour, which helped ease strained relations and eventually led to an urban agriculture ordinance that clearly established the right to farm in the city.
“Smaller farms were growing up in the city and were facing a lot of challenges from the community that was apprehensive with such neighbors,” McClary said. “The Eastside farm tour brought everyone in and showed them all the good that farms build up in a community.” Hausbar reopened, and Austin’s example played an important role in San Antonio’s eventual zoning shift that opened the door for urban farms to start throughout the city.
Despite Butler’s death from liver cancer, the Boggy Creek farmstand was open on Saturday. “The farm is a beast of its own and has to be fed,” Sayle said. “The farm goes on.”