Green Living Begins with a Barr Mansion Organic Wedding
As consumers opt for more earth-friendly choices at home, many are also requesting organic foods at restaurants. But to date, only one venue we know of provides brides and grooms with a fully organic wedding — and all in a setting as gorgeous as any fairytale. Located just outside Austin, Texas, the Barr Mansion is the only certified organic special events facility in the nation. We spoke with Melanie McAfee, co-owner of the Barr Mansion, along with her husband, Mark. At Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL), we were attracted to the McAfees because of the sustainable ideology on which their business is founded.
We asked Melanie about the process of going fully organic and what this means to their staff and their clients. But going organic isn’t the owners’ only consideration: They’re striving to buy locally — or at least in the US — and reduce their carbon footprint, all while offering wedding memories to last a lifetime. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
McAFEE: We started with some local produce. That led us to learn about the health of our food system. And that led me to organic foods. We just wanted to do more and more. We got to the point where we thought we’d take the plunge, and if we were going to do it, we might as well go the whole way.
BPGL: What did going “the whole way” to becoming an organic venue look like for you as far as the food service for your events?
McAFEE: It took me a little over a year to source everything out. That was real challenging. I had to drop all of my purveyors and start all over again. The typical purveyors that most restaurants and special events facilities utilize have next to nothing in organic products. Consequently, I had a lot of things come in through UPS and had to order many of them individually. There are a few Whole Foods-types of vendors, but they’re oriented to retail. For example, we can’t get 50-pound bags of powdered sugar for our wedding cakes. So we’re having to get those in retail packets, because there’s no wholesale demand for it.
I spent a year finding where to get everything. We still can’t get everything wholesale. But we can get everything certified organic. So that’s what we do.
BPGL: Besides powdered sugar, what was your greatest challenge as far as sourcing organic foods?
McAFEE: Probably the hardest was our wedding cakes. Even now, you can’t get certified organic food coloring, because there are so many nasty things used to create the colors. So we have to use just plant dyes. We’re limited in the degree of color. We let our clients know what colors we can do naturally, and they have to go with that.
BPGL: What about flowers? Do you buy most of your flowers locally or import them?
McAFEE: That’s a direction we’ve struggled with. We did find an organic rose grower, but they’re in South America. We push our clients as much as we can, but most clients do not want the Texas wildflower look. Some do, and we do it when we can.
BPGL: Do you use organic fabrics for your table linens?
McAFEE: We try to take our philosophy that we have with our foods, and more or less do the same thing with everything that we purchase. So, even though our organic certification is only for our food, we try to do organic and sustainable in everything else. That’s just something that we’re constantly evolving and learning about.
Our tablecloths, for example — there’s no linen company or service that does anything organically. So the first round of tablecloths, I sewed myself. The second round, I had sewn.
BPGL: Did you use certified organic cotton?
McAFEE: We’ve used certified organic cotton. We’ve used linen. We’ve used hemp. And there are lots of pros and cons for all of those. We’re maneuvering toward trying to make things also be American made. With our economy being in such shambles, that’s become an important element of what we think is sustainable.
In our first round of cloth — just to give an example of how we’ve transitioned — we were just going after certified organic cotton. It turns out that most of the certified organic cotton is either grown and/or milled in India. So we were getting Texas-grown organic cotton, but then they shipped it all the way to India to be milled. And then it came back. So we thought, “Oh, no. That’s not what we’re talking about.”
We’re now asking more questions. And this American-made requirement has been an interesting direction to move, because I’m finding out what they say on TV over and over — that our manufacturing is gone in the US. It’s been a real frustrating experience.
For example, in our latest project, we decided to re-wallpaper 75% of the house. I looked into wallpapers and found out that most wallpapers have volatile organic compounds [VOCs] in them, things you don’t want to breathe. Then I started looking at where paper wallpapers are made. Well, a lot of those come from England. I wanted it from America. There’s only one company in America that does sustainable papers that I could find.
What I ended up doing was decide to just design my own paper. Then we went through a period where we were getting craft paper from different companies all over America. We started experimenting with hanging it on cheesecloth, which is how our wallpaper was. Well, the 100% post-consumer paper just bubbled up. It wouldn’t work. Then, we decided to use liner paper, which is paper, but it’s virgin paper. So, what we’ve done is taken this paper and put it on the cheesecloth, then we’ve painted it with non-VOC paint that is made in the Austin area. Now, I’m negotiating with local artists to do designs on our painted paper. So, that’s what it means to try to re-wallpaper with this concept.
BPGL: Are you using organic wallpaper paste?
McAFEE: We looked into that, and we’ve got an “environmentally friendly” paste, but as far as making it from scratch out of wheat, the paperhanger convinced me not to do that, because we have such bug issues in Texas. He felt certain that, with silverfish and other bugs, it wouldn’t last. And we didn’t want to put chemicals in it so the bugs wouldn’t get it. In the end, we decided not to use a feed-grade paste. But we’re using a product that is VOC free.
BPGL: Now that you’ve got it figured out, are you planning to sell a line of wallpaper, perhaps, as a side business?
McAFEE: [Laughs.] No. It’s been a fun project, but I also see the potential challenges. This whole experience of going organic has really been interesting. I suddenly want to go into the manufacturing business, because I come across this continually with everything that we do. I see opportunities for manufacturing that are sustainable that aren’t being done.
McAFEE: With the recycling market cratering, we’re trying to ask our recyclers what they’re doing with their product and what else could be done with it. So, we started a Central Texas Zero-Waste Alliance. We’re trying to network with artists, recyclers, politicians, and concerned citizens about potential uses for products in our waste stream.
For example, we’re looking into different mulching machines to mulch some of our paper and yard debris and begin a compost operation. That’s one venture that might be a spin-off that we’re considering. And wine bottles — I’ve started looking into what temperatures, what kind of kiln you have to have to melt the bottles, what else can be done with them… I’ve talked to counter people who are utilizing glass cullet in a terrazzo type countertop. At this point, all of that stuff that happens in our area either comes from New York or very far away. Why aren’t we using our own glass to do some of this?
BPGL: Have you found someone to take your wine bottles?
McAFEE: We’re talking to Ecology Action of Texas. Come to find out, they’ve been more or less doing the same thing. They’ve found a man who has been experimenting with breaking up different glass and bottles, and discovering that they melt different, they break up different… That’s something that we’re going to continue communication and might go in on together. We’ll see where that ends up.
BPGL: Going back to food for a minute, do you use organic dairy products, such as cheese?
McAFEE: There are so few organic cheeses. The entire milk industry is just being stomped on by the government. All the small producers want to have raw cheese and raw milk. That’s what the public wants, but the government is just making a mess and making everybody pasteurize things. In big feedlot type operations, that’s needed. But on a family farm, there’s a large number of people who think otherwise. That whole industry is just in shambles. I had hired someone to help me just procure products. She is constantly looking for cheese sources. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re hoping to help support some local people who are not organic, but would like to go organic.
BPGL: In what way would you support them? By buying from them or some other way?
McAFEE: No. By helping them with their certification and potentially financing them in a dairy operation. But as we learn about that, Texas is just so hot! With a grazing system, can we pull that off in Texas? I don’t know! The more I’m learning, the more I’m starting to wonder.
BPGL: What are some other choices you’ve had to make in order to go completely organic as a venue?
McAFEE: We try to make a difference with our purchasing dollar. Everything that we purchase, we ask all these questions. Then as we learn more and more about it, it manipulates our menu, because that becomes the driving force. For example, we used to sub out our bread. Once we started thinking about going organic, we found there were no organic bakers. So we had to hire a baker, and now we bake all of our breads. That’s been a big improvement in our menus.
We’ve just purchased a wood-fired pizza oven that we’ll install into an outdoor kitchen. It’s coming over from France. It’s made from an organic clay that they fire at very high temperature. It holds the heat, so we don’t have to use a lot of wood, which was a big issue. We worry about our carbon footprint.
BPGL: Have you done a carbon calculation?
McAFEE: We have a client coming up who does that for a living. We’ve talked about it, but no, we haven’t done it yet. Since we cannot get a lot of organic locally, we do have a fair amount coming to us from outside of Texas. So those are air miles. Then if you really start digging deep, you can just make yourself crazy to try and calculate those things.
BPGL: Let’s talk about your facility. You have a beautiful barn with a thatched roof. That’s pretty unusual in Texas.
McAFEE: That’s our ballroom. Ninety-five percent of our business is weddings. Usually the weddings are outside in the garden. And the reception then happens inside the ballroom.
Our house is on the National Register, and the guidelines that they give for any additions is they don’t want you to try to copy; that usually just doesn’t work so well. They want you to respect what you’ve got, but kind of go a different direction. So that was the premise we had to deal with when we decided to construct a ballroom.
I ended up falling in love with the New York timber-frame barns. We found one that went back to the 1700s, and found a group to bring it to Texas. Then we had these ancient timbers, and we had to decide how to clad them. The siding was no longer any good. Plus, because we’re in the garden wedding business, we didn’t want to be totally shut in by solid walls. So we decided to put up a curtain wall on the gable end, instead of putting panes of windows in between all the posts. We wanted to have it more like a giant window looking through the timber frame.
And I wanted it to feel organic. We looked at a metal roof, but we didn’t want it to feel like a barn. So, I thought, “Oh, gosh. If I could just have a thatched roof!” I got on the Internet and found this little thatching company from the Cotswolds of England. They had never been to London or been outside their little town, but they had a website. So we started talking back and forth, and they liked the idea of coming to Texas. They came for a month.
BPGL: Did they bring the thatch with them, or make it in Texas?
McAFEE: I was hoping that Johnson grass would work for the thatch. I thought I’d be a wealthy woman if I could figure that out, because we have way too much Johnson grass in Texas. Unfortunately, that was not the proper reed. A lot of the thatch coming to England, they import from Turkey. We ended up having it freighted in from Turkey.
BPGL: I guess you do have a few air miles in your carbon footprint.
McAFEE: Oh, yeah. That was in 2000, when I was only thinking organic foods. I don’t know what I’d do now that I’m in this “made-in-America” routine.
BPGL: Are people responding positively to the organic part of your venue, or are they just looking for a beautiful place to get married?
McAFEE: When we started all this, there was probably resistance. I think that people were worried that the prices would go up. They were not buying organic food for themselves, and they were skeptical. People are discovering more and more about their food supply; so, as time goes by, it gets to be more and more sought out. We could say we’ve done a couple of destination weddings because of that.
BPGL: What other organic or “green” services do you offer your clients?
McAFEE: We are a full-service venue, and not only provide the food, but have a florist, who does a lot of the flowers. We have a wedding coordinator, because there’s just lots of details to weddings these days. We help find all the other things that go into wedding planning. We’re trying to find out who all the other green vendors are and knit together. For example, we work with one hotel that is primarily solar. When people start asking us about where to house out-of-town guests, Habitat Suites in Austin is our first choice of referral, and it happens to be close by. There are also biodiesel limos. For all that stuff, we’re a good source for our clients, if they want to go in a green direction. We know where to help them find things.
BPGL: Did you encounter other issues surrounding getting certified as an organic events venue?
McAFEE: It’s just the food that is certified organic. We are talking to our certification agent about getting our grounds certified, too, but that’s another situation that I don’t think anybody’s done. Because we don’t grow food, they don’t know quite what to do with us.
BPGL: Which agency do you use for your certification?
McAFEE: We chose Oregon Tilth. The first restaurant to ever be certified organic is Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC. I knew about Nora, so I called her up and asked her who she used. That’s who she went through, so she had kind of done the hurdles, as far as setting the standards for organic foods businesses. So it made it lots easier for the Texas department [for organic certification]. They had no idea what to do, and there’s one person for all of Texas. It’s backlogged, and a very slow, long process because of that.
BPGL: How would you know if someone else has a special events venue that is also certified organic?
McAFEE: That was a problem. From the USDA, you can get a list of the certifiers, so we wrote a letter to every single one, and said that we believed that we were the first organic special events venue, but wanted verification. So, if they had certified a special events venue, we asked them to please let us know. About half of them responded back, and the others, we took the fact that they did not say there was one as our okay.
BPGL: You’re a ground breaker then.
McAFEE: Sometimes I wonder what direction and why, but once I was into it, I couldn’t turn back.
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)
Green Living Begins with a Barr Mansion Organic Wedding (Top of Page)