Nestled amidst the picturesque prairies of Aurora, Texas, lies a hidden gem of agricultural innovation and environmental stewardship – Nature’s Circle Farm, where farmer Deborah Terrell tends to a cornucopia of nature’s bounty. Here, Deborah has woven a tapestry of sustainable agriculture that celebrates the Earth’s gifts and honors its fragile balance.
Deborah’s journey into farming began with a deep-rooted love for the Earth and a profound commitment to the well-being of her community. At Nature’s Circle, she cultivates not only a wide array of crops but also a sense of purpose – one that revolves around nurturing both the land and its pollinators.
Among the verdant rows of her Texas oasis, three remarkable plants stand out: the butterfly pea, luffa, and moringa. Each possesses unique qualities and benefits that have enriched Deborah’s farm and the lives of those fortunate enough to encounter them.
Butterfly pea, with its striking blue blossoms, is a visual delight and a treasure trove of health benefits. Revered in traditional medicine for centuries, this climbing vine boasts antioxidant-rich properties and the potential to support cognitive function. Its vivid petals have also found their way into the realm of culinary arts, lending vibrant colors to teas and dishes.
Luffa is another gem at Nature’s Circle, often recognized as a natural exfoliant. Beyond its skincare applications, luffa is a sustainable alternative to synthetic sponges and a symbol of ecological sensibility. Deborah uses this versatile plant for cat toys, to produce soil, and for a horticultural practice she calls “ChiDamaLuffa.”
Moringa, the “tree of life,” thrives at Nature’s Circle, symbolizing vitality and sustenance. Its nutrient-rich leaves are a storehouse of essential vitamins and minerals, embodying the farm’s commitment to nurturing both body and soul.
But Deborah’s vision extends beyond her bountiful crops. At the heart of her work lies a dedication to conserving bees and pollinators. In an era where the fate of these essential creatures hangs in the balance, she has transformed her farm into a sanctuary for these vital insects. The pollinator plants that grace Nature’s Circle sustain the farm’s flourishing ecosystem and serve as a vital link in the intricate web of life that stretches far beyond her fields.
Even as a young girl, Deborah was fond of the great outdoors. Growing up in New Jersey, she appreciated and loved the “Garden State’s” natural beauty.
“I grew up in Ocean County, New Jersey, so I was really close to the ocean, constantly going there. When you live there, you’re constantly going to the beach. I also got a great education. I read ‘Little House on the Prairie,’ and I also read ‘The Good Earth,’ which got me really interested in agriculture.”
Deborah says that reading these stories filled her with wonder for a different way of living. “I envisioned myself traveling across the US, being a pioneer woman,” she says. At the tender age of ten, she started cultivating her green thumb.
“I was always involved in houseplants. So, ever since I’ve been ten years old, I’ve been growing them. I had my little garden when we moved to a different town, and then I had a bigger garden. I was surrounded by senior citizens at the time, and they would tell me I had great tomatoes and irises.”
Her success in gardening piqued her interest in agriculture-related careers, but she was discouraged by some of her educators.
“In high school, my guidance counselor wanted me to become a nurse. She called my mother in, and there was this meeting. She told me what I was going to do with my life. I said, ‘No, that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m going to school for agricultural business, and I’m getting into food because I will always have a job.’”
Deborah stayed focused and decided to pursue what she loved. That was the beginning of her journey, and she eventually enrolled at West Virginia University to study agricultural business.
“I learned about cows, horticulture, agronomy and business—it was a liberal arts education,” she says. Grateful for her schooling and eager to learn, she still faced unique roadblocks as a woman.
“I got asked, ‘Why did you ever come to school? Because all you’re going to do is get married, and you’re not going to use this degree.’ I think it made me more determined when everyone told me ‘You can’t do this or you can’t do that.’”
She followed her dreams and began working as a commodity grader for the United States Department of Agriculture. After that, she went into the private sector, which required a lot of relocation but allowed her to gain as much farming knowledge as possible.
“I lived on a farm in Pennsylvania, so I had farm experience, but I also now had government and corporate experience.”
Even when she worked in the corporate world, she was always drawn to the parts of her job that allowed her to connect with the people around her.
“For me, it’s always about mentoring people and moving people up. I would give them opportunities, whether it was showing them how to drive a forklift because this way, they could make more money or working with group leads so they could become supervisors.”
She took a chance and moved to Aurora, Texas, knowing little about the area. Soon after, she was able to purchase 14 acres of land and turn it into a farm. She says that, in the end, it was not a daunting decision.
“I lived everywhere. I had lived on other farms and had visited so many others. When you buy a piece of land, you don’t rush into things. You have to breathe with the land, and you have to look at it, and you have to watch the seasons. You have to think about rain, water, and how everything flows. I did the research for what crops work and what crops don’t work.”
She cycled through possible crops she could grow before settling on a select few, including the luffa, moringa, and butterfly pea flower plants.
“I love alpaca wool. So, I thought I’ll raise alpacas, but it’s too hot here for alpacas. Then I was going to grow Christmas trees. If you grow them here, you end up having to dye them green because it’s too hot. Then I was going to grow wine grapes, but I didn’t want to grow wine grapes because I was against spraying the grapes with fungicide. Eventually, I started growing luffa, and I was like, wow, this is an amazing plant no one knows about.”
One day, she brought some luffa she had grown into her house. Her cat, RB, started playing with it and batting it around. “So that’s how the business in pet toys started,” she says. “I have grown luffa for 20 years, moringa, the superfood, for six years, and now I’m growing the butterfly pea, which makes the blue tea.”
Tea made by infusing butterfly pea flowers has recently taken the internet by storm due to its unusual coloring. The blue hue comes from flavonoids called anthocyanins, which give the flowers its antioxidant and medicinal properties.
“It comes from Southeast Asia, and yes, it makes the blue tea, but it can do so much more. Australia is doing a lot of research on it. Number one, it can handle the 100-degree heat. It’s drought tolerant, a nitrogen fixer, and has a natural insecticide in its leaves so grasshoppers will not touch it. And you can substitute the butterfly pea leaf for alfalfa, which you can feed to your goats.”
The flowers can also be used to make blue flour, which can be used to make different pastries or to make blue noodles. The plant has many of the same antioxidants as blueberries, so it has the same benefits. Due to demand, Deborah frequently runs out of stock when she sells them at her local farmers market. “It’s just one of those plants that you want to have in your life.”
“My farm focuses on wellness for people, pets, and ‘petstock.’ I say ‘petstock’ because I have dairy goats and cattle. I do so much education on my farm because many people are so far removed from cows, dairy goats and plants.”
She hoped that by educating her community, she could inspire people to engage with nature. Deborah, likewise, began thinking about ways to aid in bee and butterfly conservation.
“I had a beekeeper come to my farm and asked if he could put hives on my farm. Then, he abandoned the hives. That’s how my bee journey started. The thing about Texas is that it is very difficult to be a beekeeper because we don’t have enough flowers for the bees.”
She researched which heat-resistant plants she could grow to attract bees. She also joined Pollinator Partnership, for which she has to be recertified annually.
“They’re a pretty large organization, and they use Google Earth for logistics. I have to let them know exactly what I’m doing and which plants I’m growing. So, the partnership is who I work with on the pollinator side of things. My plants are not only for honeybees but also native bees. The moringa and butterfly peas are for native bees—basically, the bumble bee, which is becoming extinct.”
Deborah notes that luffa is an excellent pollen source for bees, working as protein for baby bees. “You need that pollen to keep your hives strong,” she says.
“My cat, RB, I found her under a rosebush. RB just started playing with the luffa, and I watched her. Luffa is green, heavy and enriched with vitamins and minerals. All those minerals get deposited on the luffa as it dries, so it has a unique scent. RB would rub against it, scenting herself. Cats are attracted to it because of that luffa scent.”
Deborah fashions the luffa cat toys she sells to resemble mice, catfish, and caterpillars. She is releasing a new toy called the “Roly Poly.” The Roly Poly cat toy is stuffed with guineafowl feathers on each of its ends and was inspired by her new cat Meow Head (affectionately called MH). “He is my CEO Cat Executive Officer of Luv A Luffa,” she laughs.
“I also offer handmade soaps, and that’s how I got into dairy goats. Then I invented a luffa diffuser instead of a reed diffuser—that’s an original invention. With the goat milk I make goat cheese dog treats. Dogs are also boarded at the farm. That operation is called Farm Camp 4 Dogs.”
Deborah also learned Kokedama—a form of bonsai originating in Japan. With Kokedama, the plants are maintained in special soils put in sphagnum moss and wrapped.
“The moss used for that does not grow in Texas, but luffa does. So, I started wrapping plants in luffa with string. I call it ChiDamaLuffa. I received an environmental innovation award for this because you can use luffa to make soil. Luffa is a vine hay, so my cows and dairy goats annihilate it. Moringa is a tree hay, so once again, my dairy goats will annihilate it.”
She states that there are numerous ways in which this ingenious and sustainable application of luffa can save you money.
“I’ve developed alternative feedstuffs for people to feed their animals. A round bale of hay around here eight years ago used to be $30 to $80. Now, it has jumped up to $100 to $160. So that’s what I do. I go around educating everyone on what they should grow for their gardens and farms.”
Additionally, she sells moringa oil. Moringa’s antioxidant properties make it useful for warding off cell damage and reducing inflammation. The oil has multiple applications, including skincare, hair care, and cooking.
“I go to the market every Sunday in Frisco, and the reason I go to Frisco is because it’s international. I have clients from India, Africa, Mexico, and South America—from all over the world. I call them clients because I learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from me. They’ll tell me how they use these plants and are amazed I’m growing them here. And if I can do it, you can too.”
She recommends reading, researching and touring farms to new farmers and anyone interested in agriculture.
“Everybody now focuses on social media, but I think it’s best to go to a farm and see what’s going on. With social media, influencers may not be steering you in the right direction because their direction is to get as many followers as possible.”
Grants, she says, are another commitment that new farmers may take on without understanding its implications.
“When farmers go through grants, they have to farm the way the grant says they have to, and it’s not necessarily a good thing. You’re getting influenced by big money, and it might not be a good solution for your farm because then you start tailoring your technique towards what the grant may say or somebody who is not really involved in your area or what you are doing locally.”
Some time ago, she ran into an unexpected obstacle while working steadily to expand her farm. There was a sand pit being dug illegally directly behind her farm. As a result, Deborah became a city council member.
“So, I went to the city council, before becoming a member, and asked, ‘Well, what are we going to do about this?’ They said, ‘Well, we don’t have money to fight it,’ and I was like, ‘Okay, where did the money go?’”
She promptly set out on a quest to discover the fate of the missing funds but soon realized that the search would be more complicated than she had anticipated.
“And the former city administrator knew that I would start looking for the money. We did not have a city council meeting for basically two years. In looking for the money, I tried to have two other city council members with me call a meeting.”
Eventually, she rounded up a crew of locals to assist in her search for answers. Deborah went to the Texas Rangers after discovering that the former city administrator had been posing as the city auditor. The Texas Ranger, to her dismay, told her that her evidence was not strong enough.
Deborah returned to city hall and requested three years of itemized budgets and audits line-by-line. Curiously, the Aurora city hall caught on fire and burned down ten days later. She says there is an ongoing investigation into the incident.
Deborah argues that citizens should take a more active role in local politics and is now the mayor pro tem for Aurora, Texas.
“Everybody talks about national politics, but I ask them, when was the last time you went to a city council meeting? How much does your city administrator make? Do you know? Everybody should know that. Everybody should be interested in local government.”
While her farm is thriving, Deborah says that she must keep learning and adapting to fit the local weather patterns, which are capricious due to climate change. “Things have changed, and the climate has gotten warmer, but also the sun rays are more intense,” she notes. “You have to change what you are growing and how you grow it.”
“Here in Texas, the dry line has moved east. So, in other words, we’re not getting our 50 inches of rain a year. It’s becoming a lot less. The winters are lasting longer. When I first moved here, our last frost was in the middle of March. Now it’s going into April, sometimes into May. So, what does that mean when you’re trying to get your summer crops in like the moringa or the butterfly pea? You have to do it quicker. You have to balance the last frost and when the soil will warm up. All these crops require heat.”
Once the soil does warm up, temperature spikes happen even sooner than they used to.
“When they used to happen in the middle of July, now they’re happening in June. Last year was the first year that I saw luffa leaves get burned, which has never happened before because luffa is excellent at handling heat.”
Since she must grow in different light conditions with the high temperatures in drought, Deborah grows in pots to conserve water and also uses keyholes. A keyhole garden is a circular raised bed that is six to eight feet in diameter and has an indentation in the shape of a keyhole. A compost basket is located at the end of that keyhole.
“Keyholes originate from Africa. You fill the compost basket with kitchen scraps, and that supplies your roots with nutrients. You’re also conserving water because you’re growing on compost. Keyholes started in South Africa in Lesotho because they were lacking in water, and they had to figure out how to continue to grow. My ideas come from other countries where they have already experienced drought and heat.”
Deborah says the current state of devastating floods, soaring temperatures, blistering sunshine, and the proliferation of invasive bugs due to climate change are worrying. However, the next generation gives her hope.
“When I’m at the farmers market, many of my clients are in their 20s and 30s, and they understand what I’m doing. I grew up in New Jersey with Earth Day, and I’ve staged many Earth Day events when I was in the corporate world. I’d have my associates eating bugs because the rest of the world eats bugs. I’d give them recipes, show them how to grow, and do plant swaps. I’d have people come in and talk about what they were doing to help the environment.”
Nature’s Circle also offers farm tours.
“I do small groups. I have seniors come. I do programs with Girl Scouts. Anybody who approaches me and wants to come and learn about bees or farms is welcome. I do a lot of education at the farmers market, and I’m at farmers markets on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. That’s one of the reasons why I attend farmers markets. You’re involved in community.”
Another resource for people who want to be more involved with their community and the planet is organizations around the country called bee clubs.
“There are a lot of bee clubs all over the US. Beekeepers and people who want to get into bees attend bee meetings like once a month. So, you can go there and learn about bees. Beekeepers give presentations, but you don’t have to have bees to join. And these clubs offer scholarships to kids. The kids get a bee suit, they get bees, they get beehives, and bee education. They get mentored. You’ll get to learn so much about bees and meet your local beekeepers.”
Honeybees pollinate 80% of flowering plants on Earth. “Bees are important. No bees, no food,” she emphasizes. At this time of the year, by August, most beekeepers have already harvested their honey, so many bee clubs will offer tastings of their different flowered honeys. “People do not realize different flowers make different honeys, and bee clubs have a contest for who has the best honey. I love bee clubs and what they do for the community.”
Educating and practicing sustainable farming is also vital to Deborah. She states that most potting soil ingredients come from overseas. The distance requires shipping from all over the world, using gas and also raising their cost.
“Where does your potting soil come from? Most of the ingredients come from overseas. It’s just like Kokedama. People use sphagnum moss to wrap their plants in. Here, most of it comes from Canada, where bogs are ripped up and destroyed. But in the southern hemisphere, you can grow your luffa and make soil with your luffa. That’s why ChiDamaLuffa is so important. I’m showing people how to wrap their plants. You’re growing your own materials and doing it locally.”
Wrapping your plants can be a relaxing and calming practice.
“And when you wrap them, it’s a form of meditation because you’re using both of your hands. It’s an artistic way to display your plants, but it’s also very healthy for them. I wrap Christmas trees, so you can have hanging Christmas trees with lights on them.”
Deborah is now working with The Luffa Factory in Nigeria to start the Luffa Farmers and Processors Association.
“I’m working with Ora Ataguba, and we are starting the Luffa Farmers and Processors Association. Most people don’t know the benefits of luffa. In parts of Nigeria, luffa is taboo because when somebody dies, they use luffa to wash the body. And so, Ora is working on the fact that there shouldn’t be a taboo to use luffa. We want to make luffa a household name.”
She is also writing two books—one about the many uses of luffa and another about her wrapping technique. “There’s a lot of misinformation about luffa.”
For her environmental innovation and contributions, she was honored by Marquis Who’s Who as a Distinguished Leader in 2023.
As February unfolds, Deborah’s creativity at Nature’s Circle continues to delight. For Valentine’s Day, she’s crafting unique luffa hearts, a sustainable and heartfelt nod to the season of love. Her offerings transform throughout the year, from whimsical luffa pumpkins and bats for Halloween to festive trees and gnomes for Christmas. Her creations are a testament to her artistry and commitment to sustainability.
She continues to educate and sell her farm products at local farmers markets. You can find her at Robson Ranch Farmers Market in Denton, TX, on Fridays; Denton Community Market in Denton, TX, on Saturdays, and Frisco Fresh Market in Frisco, TX, on Sundays.
Moumita Basuroychowdhury is a Contributing Reporter at The National Digest. After earning an economics degree at Cornell University, she moved to NYC to pursue her MFA in creative writing. She enjoys reporting on science, business and culture news. You can reach her at email@example.com.