Larry Butler, one of the pioneering farmers behind Boggy Creek Farm and a well-known figure in the local food community, died Thursday of liver cancer. He was 70.
In the early 1990s, the former TV repairman and his wife, Carol Ann Sayle, started one of the country’s first urban farms, located on a historic East Austin property along Boggy Creek, and for more than two decades, they ran a farmstand that continues to have a dedicated customer base of families, neighborhood residents and the city’s top chefs.
Sayle and Butler met on a sidewalk in Oak Hill in 1973. She was moving her art studio into a row of businesses where he had a TV repair shop. With three children from previous marriages, they married in 1976 and blended their families easily with the former spouses, Sayle says. “Larry would go hunting with Wayne,” her ex-husband, who died last year, she says. “They coached Little League together.”
In the 1980s, they wanted to embark on a new career of growing food. Butler had grown up in Gause, where Sayle says he rode a horse named Palm to and from elementary school, so that’s where they looked for land to get started. They found 45 acres to start an organic farm, and a few years later, the couple bought the East Austin property and continued to farm at both locations.
They first started selling their produce in 1991, from a card table set up in front of Wiggy’s on West Sixth Street. Later that year, they had a bumper crop of tomatoes, which they sold to Whole Foods, a relationship that lasted until the drought of 2011. After two years of selling produce in front of the liquor store, the Boggy Creek farmers started selling at the Sustainable Food Center’s first farmers market at the corner of East Seventh and Robert Martinez Jr. streets. By the late 1990s, Butler was a fixture at the Westlake Farmers Market on Westbank Drive across from the high school, Sayle says. He moved with the market when it went to Sunset Valley, but then they decided to focus all their sales efforts on the East Austin farmstand.
More time at the farm meant that Butler could pursue another passion: food preservation. Butler loved to can, smoke, jar and otherwise preserve the food they grew, and he was known in particular for his smoke-dried tomatoes. He sometimes taught classes in the farmhouse kitchen, and in 2002, he appeared on a Food Network show that featured his jams and sauces.
Butler’s aging father lived on the property for a number of years, and to make him more comfortable before he died, Butler built a dogtrot-style house behind the farmhouse. A tireless extrovert, Butler loved to give tours, explaining the historical architecture of both the new and old homes, why the soil needed the kind of compost they used and what the government should or shouldn’t be doing about subsidies.
The couple meticulously researched the history of the farmhouse, which was built in 1841 and is as old as the French Legation. Butler loved to tell customers about the letter from Sam Houston that indicates he ate dinner in the house they lived in, located right next to the farmstand.
After the drought in 2011, customers’ habits started to change, Sayle says, especially as food delivery options increased. “He was worried about the future of the farm,” Sayle says. “We spent our last week reassuring him that everything was under control and that we loved him and that everybody’s OK.”
Butler’s son, Tom Butler, is now overseeing the Gause farm, and Sayle’s daughter, Tracy Geyer, is helping with operations at the urban farm.
Butler died Thursday at home. Sayle says they are planning a wake from 4 to 7 p.m. on July 15 at the farm, but until then, the farmstand will have regular hours, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. “The farm is a beast of its own and has to be fed. The farm goes on,” Sayle says. “It’s open right now.”
Paula Foore, co-owner of the nearby Springdale Farm, called Larry a “wonderful mentor.” “He was always so generous with his farming information and tips. A true legend. He will be sorely missed by our entire community.”
Eden East chef Sonya Cote, who has cooked frequently at Boggy Creek, said that the week before he died, Butler was giving tours at a fundraiser to replace the farmhouse’s windows. “We lost our patriarch,” she said. “Just last weekend, he got to tell us about everything he built. I was humbled by the experience.”
“(Carol Ann and Larry) have been the center of the plate, the heartbeat of the local food scene,” former Statesman food writer Kitty Crider said on Friday, just a few days after stopping by the farmstand to buy tomatoes. “Quiet celebrities, they opened their farm to tours, to fundraisers, to national chefs. On my kitchen counter sit four varieties of their tomatoes. I think I will go eat one — standing over the sink — in memory of Larry.”