People are surprised to find that Johnson’s Backyard Garden, a community-supported organic vegetable farm, started in a 1,500 square foot backyard of an East Austin home. The first agriculture initiative of founder Brent Johnson was even smaller — it was closet-sized.
“In college I was growing in my closets a little bit. I was growing herbs. I had all my practice growing hydroponically for a long time,” Johnson said. “It’s like I’ve been on a euphoric high just ever since I’ve been farming because I love it so much. This is way better [than getting high the old-fashioned way].”
Now, Johnson’s Backyard Garden is a nearly 200-acre organic farm east of downtown Austin that produces a variety of certified produce year round. According to Johnson, the farm, which has 80 employees and nearly 2,000 community volunteers who earn vegetables in exchange for labor, supplies vegetables for 15 food markets and 200 restaurants and grocery stores in Austin.
Johnson, a Southern boy with a soft-spoken drawl and a sheepish chuckle, describes his younger self as a hippie who used to sell grilled cheese sandwiches and follow the Grateful Dead in a tie-dye Volkswagen.
While working as an engineer in Austin, Johnson began to grow vegetables in his garden. He wasn’t sure what to do with all of the vegetables he was growing, so he had the idea to sell them at the farmer’s market. The first day, he earned more than $100 from his vegetable sales.
Eventually his garden took over his yard, so Johnson expanded to 20 acres. In 2008, Johnson quit his job to farm full-time. Since then, he has acquired nearly 200 acres with the help of the community’s monetary contributions. Johnson believes that if he were in any other city, he wouldn’t have been able to do it.
“If I were doing something else, and if I were in another city, it just [would] not work,” Johnson said. “I didn’t get into organic farming to be a big farmer or get rich. I got into it because it’s something I really believe in.”
Sonya Slegers, the crop and field coordinator for Johnson’s Backyard Garden, was a waitress who regularly volunteered, and eventually, was offered a job. She said that it is rewarding to work exhaustively because at the end of the day, she feels like she’s done a good thing and can see the result of her work.
“It’s easy to forget that when you go to the grocery store and put stuff in your bag and you’re just like, ‘Tra la la,’ but it’s just crazy, especially trying to do it the right way,” Slegers said. “The business is set up to be really nice to the big companies and the chemical guys and so it’s just a hard fight. So I guess that’s what I would like you to take away from this, is a bigger appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes.”
Daniela Macgregor Sevilla, a Spanish and Portuguese graduate student, receives a weekly vegetable box and eggs from Johnson’s because she believes “happy chickens make happy eggs.”
“It’s nice to know that my products have only passed through one or two hands before getting to my own,” Sevilla said. “[Johnson’s] seems to be interested in [creating] a sense of community that draws from a sustainability mind set. Sustainability is not just about eating local. It’s about getting to know the faces of your community and working together to keep the things you love going.”
According to Johnson, his 200-acre farm only produces enough food to feed less than 1 percent of the Austin population. His goal is to eventually acquire 10,000 acres of farmland in Austin.
“I think you’d have to be a little crazy to do this,” Johnson said. “Can you believe all of this just started in a backyard?”