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Autumn is best enjoyed outdoors.EXPAND
Autumn is best enjoyed outdoors.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Blackwood Educational Land Institute: A Perfect Autumn Day

The fall temperatures have finally arrived in Houston and it's time to savor the brief, but wonderful autumn days while we can. Early this month, we started to see a break in the humidity and heat, even if it continuously varies from day to day. I found myself on a beautiful Saturday morning with no one willing to play with me. The spouse was away for work and my teens had no interest in accompanying me to anything remotely folksy and outdoors. I needed fresh air and a respite from doom and gloom news. When I spotted an internet posting about Blackwood Educational Land Institute's Harvest Hoedown, I knew that I needed to gas up the mini-van and head up the road a piece to Hempstead.

Blackwood is a non-profit founded in 2000 by Cath Conlon. The 33-acre teaching farm in Waller County has several ecosystems and two acres dedicated to cultivation of edible plants without using synthetic chemicals. The Institute also runs a Nature Camp for kids, designed to teach kids sustainable farming practices and the importance of environmental health. It's also geared toward helping children's mental health by getting them away from their tech devices and encouraging them to experience nature.

JD Bolich carves on an English-style shave horse.EXPAND
JD Bolich carves on an English-style shave horse.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

With that in mind, it seemed a bit depressing to leave behind my teens who would no doubt be in thrall to some sort of video game or social media. However, I was in the mood for some old-fashioned fun. And that's exactly what I got at Blackwood. Once I found the place.

I have a habit of memorizing Mapquest directions rather than using my phone. I like the challenge. Unfortunately, I find myself, more often than not, pulling over to the side of the road and having to resort to my phone's navigation. I was cruising along quite well until I hit Highway 6 North. The speed limit is 70 and if you go anywhere under 80, people are riding your tail. That does not allow for slowing down and trying to find a farm in the middle of a multitude of other farms and ranches.

I realized I had passed the place by at least ten minutes. I turned around and made a pit stop at a gas station with an ATM, since I had left my house with three dollars in my pocket. Back on the road, with my phone smugly giving directions, I finally found my way to the farm. The goats were a pretty good indication that I was in the right spot.

Ramblin' men.EXPAND
Ramblin' men.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

After parking and paying the admission, I wandered around the dozen or so vendors with items like pastured pork, carved wooden spoons,  goat milk soap and artisan flours. There was a bluegrass band playing, The Cypress Ramblers, and hay bales for seating. I half expected to see Grandpa Walton doing a jig in his overalls. And there were a couple of grandpas in overalls, but the hoedown visitors seemed to consist mostly of young, slightly hipster families, with a few middle-aged and elderly folks wandering around with adult beverages.

"Where were these adult beverages?", I wondered. I consulted my visitor's pamphlet to find that a brief walk around the corner would take me to the "Lounge". This area was set up in front of a large, rustic structure with a porch running the length of it. Folks were sitting in rocking chairs enjoying a cup of coffee from Honeysuckle Coffee Bistro or a pint from Twisted Acre Brewery. Cast Iron Winery was selling wine by the glass or bottle and Coalfox Brewery out of Chappell Hill was giving out free samples. Meanwhile, Sauney Stand Band was playing tunes on the porch, so the bonhomie was flowing as people strolled through the farm's kitchen garden or threw horseshoes.

Beer, music and rocking chairs make for a great afternoon.EXPAND
Beer, music and rocking chairs make for a great afternoon.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I sampled the coffee stout from Twisted Acre Brewery, which I discovered was right down the road from my house. The owners bemoaned the permitting issues that were delaying the opening of the tap room, but they hope to have it going before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I decided to purchase a pint of the stout and take in the view from one of the wooden lawn chairs.

I am good at being alone. I have always loved to sneak away from my life for a bit and experience things without making conversation or worrying if everyone is happy, bored or tired. Still, as I listened to people with their friends and children, I felt a wee bit lonely. So, I got my tush off the chair and decided to explore.

Wrought iron doors are seen on all the best hen houses nowadays.EXPAND
Wrought iron doors are seen on all the best hen houses nowadays.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Kids were being loaded onto a trailer pulled by a tractor as I walked around the back of the woods. After a trail suddenly ended, I backtracked to the area I had originally started, then headed for the pond. It's a lovely view, with the fountain in the middle and a few of the tree leaves starting to turn. I watched the people who had signed up for the beekeeping lesson suit up in the beekeeping suits and checked out the mobile chicken house wherein a number of hens were squawking as they squeezed out their eggs.

Feeling a bit peckish since I had flown my own coop with only a handful of pecans in my stomach, I moseyed on over to the one food truck, Food-Music-Life. The truck is based in Houston and bills itself as Mexican-Italian fusion. Admiring its funky decorations and quirky quotations, I walked up to the window and was met by a smiling girl with news that the only thing left was brisket nachos. I am sure they were delicious, but it didn't quite catch my fancy, so I bought some chocolate chip and walnut shortbread from the stall selling food items made at the farm in the catering kitchen. They were buttery and there was no skimping on the dark chocolate or the walnuts.

Bill Murray makes everything cooler.EXPAND
Bill Murray makes everything cooler.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I also bought some rendered pork lard (I wish I could render my lard) and a small bag of 'OO' flour from Barton Springs Mill. Things were winding down, so I headed back to the Lounge to grab a bottle of Cast Iron Winery's rose for later. Twenty-two dollars is about ten dollars more than I pay for my favorite Provencal rose, but when you are splurging, it's good to splurge on small businesses. Cast Iron Winery just opened in 2017 in Sealy, Texas.

The friendly fellas at Coalfox Brewery.EXPAND
The friendly fellas at Coalfox Brewery.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

I then decided to try a sample of one of Coalfox Brewery's offerings. The Endless Autumn was one of the best Oktoberfest-style beers  that I have tried this year. Its Facebook page says that the beer's APV is 9.1 percent. Good thing I just had a sample.

This was the inaugural Harvest Hoedown for Blackwood. The farm hosts other events like Morning in the Country and workshops, so check its website and Facebook page for upcoming things to do.

The next event is a Winter Farm to Table Dinner on December 8, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. It's a multi-course meal using ingredients from the farm, served with beer and wine. The cost is $125 per person, which may seem pricey, but you can indulge in the fantasy seen on television with chefs, foodies and farmers seated at a long table with a sunset in the background and everyone feeling part of something special. Plus, all proceeds go to supporting Blackwood Educational Land Institute's programs.

Support small businesses.EXPAND
Support small businesses.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Me, I am going to try my hand at making homemade tortillas with my sweet lard.

Blackwood Educational Land Institute
27144 Rock Island Road
Hempstead, Texas 77445
1-888-741-7199

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