John and Wendy Rohan are busy as bees operating Blissful Folly Farm, home to their honey-based winery Rohan Meadery—and their family.
“We both have full-time jobs that we enjoy, but Blissful Folly Farm is our full-time passion,” said Wendy, who teaches middle school science in La Grange. John is a chemical engineer turned I.T. consultant.
The 30-acre property near La Grange is also the site of Blissful Folly Hard Cider, and Blue Mule Wines, which is operated in conjunction with the Gamble family who farm near Fayetteville. In fact, Ashley Gamble Gaas, who left her high-pressure career as a sommelier and wine buyer in Austin, is the on-site vintner and tasting room manager at Blissful Folly Farm.
“Every day is a chance to learn something new, live the life we want and meet a lot of good people along the way,” John said.
In 2008, the Rohans, who first met on a blind date that involved laser tag, left suburban Houston to stake a claim on rural life. After looking here, there and yon, the couple settled on Fayette County. It was only after they bought the property that John discovered his great-grandfather had emigrated from the Czech Republic and initially settled in High Hill near Schulenburg.
“Discovering I had roots in Fayette County just confirmed it was the right place for us,” John said.
John had been reared on a cotton and sorghum farm near Richmond, Texas, where his family also owned and ran a commercial nursery. Wendy, whose favorite childhood memories include days spent outdoors exploring the nearby woods from sun up to sundown, grew up in Conroe when it was a small town.
“My grandmother founded the library,” Wendy said. “I was with her the first time she went into the bank, and they asked her for an i.d. She wasn’t the least bit happy about that.”
The Rohans wanted to raise their three children, Malik, who is now a 20-year-old University of Texas student, Amelia, now 14, and Eleanor, now 11 in a place where they could experience elbow room, fresh air, and nature while developing significant relationships with other community members.
“In the city, kids are like hummingbirds flitting from place to place, activity to activity,” Wendy said. “In the country, kids just naturally slow down; they breathe life in and learn to appreciate the world around them. I think the more deliberate pace allows them to form deeper, stronger relationships with people.”
Plus, the cycle of life plays out in their backyard every day.
“A farm, even a small one, provides a big picture of life,” John said.
Case in point, there is no doubt in the children’s minds what it takes for food to get to their plates. The family got chickens soon after they moved to the farm because “what is a farm without chickens?” They were laying hens, not fryers, but their mere presence prompted Amelia to start asking questions about the fate of hens once they quit laying eggs. The knowledge that chickens died to put meat in soup bowls and on plates motivated Amelia to become a vegetarian.
Later, when Eleanor was old enough to review the same set of facts, she reached a different conclusion and expressed her preference for meat in the middle of a supermarket using her best impression of Dracula complete with a maniacal laugh. The story has become part of family lore.
“Every family has one—Eleanor is ours,” Wendy said with a laugh, noting the youngster is also responsible for the tadpoles in the bathroom.
For the record, the family supports both sets of food practices. Amelia and Wendy are vegetarians, while John and Eleanor are meat eaters.
The farm’s role as a classroom of life extends to instilling a work ethic. The children work alongside their parents to ensure the farm chores get done.
“It takes teamwork to make the dream work,” John said.
Wendy added, “The kids hate to hear that.”
John said, “Because I say it a lot.”
And he means it.
On the Sunday afternoon I visited, Amelia was running the pizza wagon. She was preparing fresh pizzas, including her favorite, the Vida, a combination of pesto, olives, spinach, mushrooms, onions and cheese, for tasting room guests. John and Eleanor were planting grapes. He was using posthole diggers, and she was clearing the excess dirt out of his way. Collectively, the family’s least favorite job is policing the outdoor pavilion after the free-ranging Southdown mini-sheep have stopped by and littered the pea gravel “floor” with their pellets.
“We pass out rubber gloves,” Wendy said. “Suffice it to say that cleaning up after the sheep is a hands-on process.”
The Rohans also include the children in discussions about the business.
“If John and I were to die tomorrow, I really think the girls could step in and run the meadery,” Wendy said. “In fact, Eleanor is convinced that lemon mead would be a best-seller.”
Although the farm requires family members to sacrifice their free time, they share a long-term goal of having an integrated, sustainable farm—a place where cross-fencing allows the sheep to control the weeds in the vineyard and crop the sucker stems from the vines while fertilizing the ground; a place where the guineas, ducks and chickens control the insects and snails; a place where the grapes, fruit and honey necessary to make their beverages are grown completely on site. It’s a work in progress.
“It has taken us longer to become sustainable—both from an agricultural and a financial perspective—than we anticipated,” Wendy said. “Our timeline in our business plan didn’t quite match up with the reality that comes with doing all of the work ourselves.”
John added, “With that said, we want to be out here building a farm-based business and life together with the work of our hands. The sacrifice of time—and sweat—is worth it.”
“Although mead has been around for thousands of years, it is new to many people. Try it—and then try it again. Mead is as varied as wine—and, yes, it can be dry. If the first one you try isn’t to your taste, the second or third one just may be. Be open to the experience.” – Wendy Rohan
Blissful Folly Farm Home of Rohan Meadery, Blue Mule Wine, and Blissful Folly Ciders 6002 FM 2981 La Grange, Texas www.rohanmeadery.com Tasting Room Hours: Thursdays – Sundays (12 p.m. – 6 p.m.) *Other times by appointment.
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography