By Sherida Mock
Mama Nell begged him to get a “real job,” but farming was irresistible. In 1997, Brenton Johnson graduated from Auburn University with a degree in agricultural engineering. He tried to follow his grandmother’s wishes, and for a time he did, working for the Bureau of Reclamation in Oregon and Wyoming.
But a 2001 transfer to Austin proved pivotal. Here, Johnson bought a house with his wife, Beth, and started a backyard garden in 2004. The harvest was so abundant, he sold the excess at a farmer’s market. He made $100 in one day and was hooked.
Now, this one-time hobbyist heads up Johnson’s Backyard Garden, one of the largest organic farms in Texas. His produce supplies Whole Foods Markets, Austin ISD school salad bars, local restaurants, and individuals throughout the year.
Johnson met with us recently to talk about his roots and his blooming business.
AF: How did Johnson’s Backyard Garden start?
Johnson: I married my high school sweetheart from Alabama in 2002, and we found a house at 1305 Holly Street. Beth started a little garden in the backyard. She says that I took it over [laughs]. It was just a hobby that I really, really loved. I’d read some books by Eliot Coleman and John Jeavons—he has a really neat book: How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine. It’s low tech, but you can do it any place in the world. It’s inspiring.
I built a chicken coop. We built a nice fence all around. We had fruit trees. I had 17 different varieties of muscadine grapes on a trellis system. The garden produced way too much for us. So, I got a little table at the Sustainable Food Center, just one block away. People were like, “You got all this from your backyard garden?”
AF: Did you have plans for expansion?
Johnson: We just kind of made it up as we went along. I think I’ve always been a born entrepreneur. From the farmer’s markets, I started to look for other niches. In 2006, I started a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] program with 10 members. I got the idea to send out a weekly availability email to restaurants. Now we deliver six days a week to restaurants all over Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas and Waco. Then we learned how to wholesale, and we started a relationship with Whole Foods, Central Market and Wheatsville Co-op. And now we have four segments: about 15 farmer’s markets, about 300 restaurants, our wholesale accounts and about 2,000 CSA members.
AF: How did your garden keep up with demand?
Johnson: The garden got bigger, and bigger, and it went to the side yard and the front yard. I was swinging the kids on the tire swing out over the garden. Beth said, “Brent, this has gotten out of control.” So, I started looking for more space close to town. I found a place. It had huge pecan trees. It was 20 acres, with a house and a barn. We started farming the 20 acres in 2007. I would work at my day job, then on the farm in the afternoons.
Mama Nell was saying, “You’re never going to be as profitable as you were in that backyard garden. Don’t you quit your job!” I didn’t listen to her. I ended up quitting to farm full time in 2008. It was a huge leap, but everyone was so supportive. Just like in the backyard, we ran out of space.
Then the guy that is host to our Hyde Park CSA pickup location found a place that was 50 acres. He sold me 40 acres, and he kept 10. By the end of 2010, we ran out of space. This current farm [200 acres] used to be a historic dairy.
AF: Is it hard to farm in Central Texas?
Johnson: Farming is such a risky business that having the support of the community is essential. Austin’s not the best place for farming, because our weather here is terrible. It can be a flash flood, a drought, an ice storm. Tornados, hurricanes. Last year, we had 15 inches of rain in one day. There was a huge gully, 20 feet deep, where it had washed all our crops away. About six months later, straight-line winds came through and ripped out trees, and the greenhouses were completely smashed down. It blew out all the doors on our barn. It was terrible.
But I couldn’t do this in Alabama, because there’s not a market for it. Austin is the best place in the whole country to do this. It’s got a food culture that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
AF: What’s your most popular crop?
Johnson: I can never grow enough carrots. They’re so fresh and sweet. I don’t know what we do, but they’re awesome.
AF: What will you harvest in March?
Johnson: Fennel, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, onions and brussels sprouts. We’ll have lots of carrots. All kinds of lettuces: baby arugula, spinach, braising mix, mustard greens. Also, we’ll have our annual transplant sale. This year we’re growing 20 different kinds of culinary herbs. We’ll be selling propagated grape cuttings. We’ll have fig trees, pomegranates, lemongrass. And lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, soil mix, organic fertilizer.
AF: What would Mama Nell say?
Johnson: Mama Nell is still alive today; she’s 90 years old. She said, “Your grandfather would be so proud.” af
Events at Johnson’s Backyard Garden
March 4, 11 and 18: Transplant Sale
April 1: Spring Picnic and 5K
4008 River Rd.
Cedar Creek, TX