Very few things in life are assured. As humans, our memories visit us when some cue triggers a past occurrence: a lyric, a scent, a turn of phrase from another time. And our minds longingly wish for simplicity and stability. We take pleasure in returning to the places that nurtured and formed us, even if the people from our past are no longer. Therefore, it is only natural that we are comforted knowing that some things will be here forever, protected and preserved in perpetuity.
So it is with Herff Farm in Boerne, Texas. This classic Texas Hill Country landscape comprises 60 acres bordering Cibolo Creek with a restored cut limestone farmhouse, charming outbuildings, fields of wildflowers, and gathering places for people of all ages to connect with the past while planning for the future.
The Herff Farm is owned and operated by the nonprofit Friends of Cibolo Wilderness, also the parent organization of the adjacent 100-acre, regionally treasured Cibolo Nature Center, founded in 1988. Acquired in 2007, the original cut limestone home was carefully restored over the next seven years to the exacting standards of the National Registry of Historic Places. This past spring, the property was paid off in full. As an added layer of protection, the Cibolo Nature Center & Farm (CNC&F) board of directors elected to place the homestead and grounds under a voluntary permanent conservation easement, held by the Texas Agricultural Land Trust. A conservation easement is the legal glue that binds a property owner’s stewardship goals to the land. Donors of conservation easements relinquish their development rights but retain title and some other rights to their property. A conservation easement “runs with the land” forever, regardless of changes in ownership. Though some mission-centered improvements will be allowed under the terms of the agreement, essentially Herff Farm will remain as it looks and functions today: a beautiful and bucolic reminder of our heritage and a demonstration center for sustainable living in today’s world.
CNC&F expands its reach in line with Boerne’s population boom
With a mission of conservation of natural resources through education and stewardship, the CNC&F hosts over 30,000 visitors each year who come to learn about and experience the natural world firsthand. The nature center’s initiatives are impactful and relevant to today’s issues, as precious green space for personal replenishment and passive recreation, working lands that generate local agricultural products, and habitat for threatened plant and animal species is increasingly under siege for competing uses. As the board was working to acquire Herff Farm, a project that began in 1999, the population of Boerne exploded, increasing by 87% between 1997 and 2014. This in turn increased demand on local water supplies and led to more land fragmentation.
According to Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, between 1997 and 2012, Kendall County experienced a 105% increase in the number of parcels at less than 100 acres and a 15% decrease in acreage of crop and grazing land. Indeed, the entire Texas Hill Country is threatened by land fragmentation and more intense development, leading to increased storm water runoff, diminished recharge to our drinking water sources, and a myriad of other issues related to sprawl.
Carolyn Chipman Evans, CNC&F’s executive director and a descendant of Dr. Ferdinand Herff who settled the farm in 1854, said, “Herff Farm was the site of one of the first agriculture operations in Kendall County. Today, as an education center, it offers an opportunity to help modern Texans reconnect to the land and understand the complex, vital relationship between natural resources and our lives.” And that purpose couldn’t be more relevant, as growth in the Hill Country shows no signs of slowing down.
The protection of Herff Farm also impacts water quantity and quality for the region. Cibolo Creek, which runs along the northeastern side of the property, provides critical recharge to the Edwards and Trinity aquifers, the primary source of drinking water for the Greater San Antonio area. Visible signs of how we have collected and stored water for household and agricultural use stand on the property, including the original hand-dug well and restored windmill and cypress tank. Further, visitors can observe how our forebears collected water from the metal roof of the homestead and stored it in a 1,200 gallon underground cistern.
Now, modern rainwater catchment systems and tanks have been installed and assist CNC&F’s teachings about drought tolerance in South-Central Texas while nurturing landscaping, backyard gardening, and successful agricultural production. The land will also feature low-impact development tools, such as rain gardens, that slow and cleanse polluted storm water before it rejoins the streams and creeks that feed into our aquifers.
Making an impact through research and education
Twenty acres of prairie are being restored with native grasses and wildflowers that provide critical food sources for migrating pollinators, such as the Monarch butterfly, and their larvae. As the state insect of Texas, the Monarch and has become a symbolic threatened species, negatively impacted by loss of habitat along their North American flyway, from Mexico to Canada. Their twice-annual migrations take them through the Texas Hill Country, and since 2002, the CNC&F has collected Monarch activity data that it shares with the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project at the University of Minnesota. In addition to eradicating invasive species and returning sustainable native plant life to the prairie, the project will be used to teach others best practices on their own land in support of biodiversity with regional importance.
CNC&F’s primary mission is developing programs and opportunities for people of all ages to engage in lifelong learning and a sense of ownership in our future environmental health. Each school year, thousands of kids participate in CNC&F’s award-winning “Outdoor Classroom,” where they get their “hands in the dirt,” while at the same time acquiring Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) in science and social studies. Now “Farm Classroom” has extended this learning to Herff Farm where programming addresses organic fruit and vegetable production, backyard chickens, beekeeping, and other permaculture and homesteading techniques. The garden barn and one-acre teaching garden provide a subject-appropriate venue for teaching how we affect the land and how it affects us, sustainable living techniques, and management of natural resources.
Launched in 2016, Nature School provides an early introduction to these concepts to the preschool set, and plans are in place to construct an enhanced campus with state-of-the-art facilities that promote experiential learning. Acknowledging that education is a life-long pursuit, CNC&F offers adults a rich selection of opportunities to become citizen scientists, attend workshops, and participate in the care and stewardship of our natural assets.
“There is nothing quite like playing in the dirt and sharing space with wild things to help kids and their families make that connection,” Evans said.
A celebration of restoration and protection
As a witness to the settlement of the area around Boerne, the farm has stood through battles, droughts, and decline. The farm’s namesake, Dr. Ferdinand Herff, was a prominent physician who built the homestead for a country retreat in the 1850s. After performing cataract surgery that restored the failing eyesight of a Lipan Apache chief, Dr. Herff and his family were spared the attacks by Native Americans that others endured. Over time, he amassed thousands of acres, then partitioned and passed along much of the land to his heirs. In the 1930s, the farm and homestead were acquired by the Rozelle family who ran a successful apple and fruit orchard. The historic drought of 1957 eventually led to its demise. The farm land is an authentic representative of history, its stories reflecting experiences familiar to many, while the Cibolo Creek has provided life and sustenance throughout the generations.
Now, in celebration of the rehabilitation and permanent protection of Herff Farm, the nature center will hold its annual fall fundraiser on Friday, Oct. 21. At the “Protect & Preserve Gala Luncheon,” folks will gather to celebrate the successful culmination of years of conservation efforts in our rapidly urbanized and increasingly populated region and hear motivating stories while dining on fresh and local fare on the grounds of Herff Farm.
Chet Garner, host of PBS’s acclaimed Texas travel show “The Daytripper” is the master of ceremonies, and Catalina Trail headlines the event as a special presenter with her incredible story of adventure and persistence discovering the Mexican wintering site of the Monarch butterfly in the 1970s. While there, guests can view the dramatic original oil painting The Healer, which depicts Dr. Ferdinand Herff performing surgery on the Lipan Apache chief, and take a tour of historic homestead. The CNC&F is also raising funds through an online auction with appealing items for the adventurer and eco-enthusiast.
The Herff Farm is a remarkable reminder of time gone by with a colorful and unique history. The fact that it offers us a link to the past is not only comforting but it also provides us knowledge about our heritage and how those who came before us connected with and utilized the treasured land and water. That it has been re-purposed for the future provides us hope that, working together, we can take care of the things that are important to us individually and collectively, protecting and preserving, forever.