Johnson's Backyard Garden

By Jeremy Walther
Photography by Jody Horton

For many small businesses, growth is an angel one day and a devil the next. And many owners have a conflicting attraction to, and hesitancy about, expansion. But some businesses have a different manifesto. For Johnson’s Backyard Garden (JBG), there’s only one way to do things: BIG. Run by Brenton Johnson, his wife Beth and 20 employees and interns, JBG is well on the path to BIG, but luckily that path isn’t paved with rusting metaphors of modern agribusiness—an industry which many claim is actually leading our nation into a very serious food problem.

JBG’s business model doesn’t include buying out small family operations or creating conglomerates with gravitational forces that suck the land’s ability to sustain food production. No 10,000-acre corn fields; no reliance on complex networks of shipping, trucking and aviation routes to move food across the
planet; no high-impact chemicals that create a cycle of soil sterilization, pollution and the need for even more chemicals. In fact, the path of JBG isn’t paved at all—not even with the footsteps of those who came before—because nobody has come this
way before. Not like this.

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What started as a small organic garden in a Holly Street backyard has turned into something so dynamic that it’s hard to capture in snapshot form. In 2006, Brenton and Beth bought 20 acres in East Austin, five miles from downtown. While still working as an agricultural engineer, Brenton ran the farm as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program while Beth provided Herculean support. In a blink, 10 CSA-program members became 450, and the Johnsons bought another 40 acres and rented 10 more. Now, the 70-acre certified organic farm supports 1,000 CSA program members with the capacity for hundreds more, and is one of the largest of its kind in the country.

Cynical observers, who have not met the Johnsons or their equally inspiring support crew, would be quick to raise an eyebrow or two. You don’t just walk into a Wells Fargo wearing a crooked trucker hat and a smile that could break glass and walk out with half a million dollars to buy 70 acres. Nor do the Johnsons have family money, or real estate in California or a successful tech business they just sold to Google. So what gives?

That Brenton smile probably helps, and Beth’s saintly patience can’t hurt, but more consequential are the effects of Slow Money, a local and national revolutionary investment strategy that deliberately echoes the same concepts as the Slow Food movement. The basic principle of Slow Money is that capital investment in local, sustainable agriculture will provide modest financial profit while building the community and restoring the environment. So instead of buying stock in international companies, individual investors could provide low-interest loans to local organic farmers. The farmers use the capital to raise safe, fresh, nutritious food for the local community while restoring natural resources, increasing their land’s capacity for production, creating a sense of place for farm customers and neighbors, and increasing economic and biological diversity. In other words, Slow Money proponents don’t try to make a killing on stocks, opting instead for a more thoughtful approach to their investments.

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It was hard work, passion and the Johnsons’ deep commitment that bought the first 20 acres; it was Slow Money that bought the second 40 acres—and the customized vegetable line washer and other equipment needed to supply enough organic food to meet the farm’s growing demand. Slow Money opened the floodgates.

“These guys feel like rock stars,” Brenton says of his interns and employees. “But none of us can really put our finger on why. We feel the buzz, and we know
something big is happening, but we’re just too busy to be able to define what it is.”

JBG secured a little over $550,000 in capital from Slow Money contributors for its most recent expansion earlier this year, and people started noticing. Texas A&M University and the Texas Department of Agriculture chose JBG as a poster child for the GO TEXAN campaign to promote local agriculture. Brenton was asked to speak at the 2010 Slow Money Austin Conference, and Whole Foods Market came calling to create a partnership. The flagship Whole Foods Market store in downtown Austin not only buys produce from JBG, but also serves as an official pickup site for the farm’s CSA program. A graphic designer on the Shiner beer marketing campaign was so inspired by the JBG operation, he volunteered his skills to brand the farm’s produce boxes, delivery vehicles, CSA program delivery boxes and more. And it just keeps coming.

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Meanwhile, back at the farm, Brenton and the JBG crew continue to seed, cultivate, harvest, wash, pack and deliver their 60 different kinds of vegetables, flowers and herbs (representing nearly 300 different varieties) right to their CSA program members’ neighborhoods. Though JBG’s size and shape continue to change, the farm crew’s focus has stayed with their customers. As the farm’s CSA program moves past the 1,000-member mark, Brenton and his crew are making doubly sure the boxes of fresh, organic produce they provide are convenient, colorful, plentiful and delicious. If there’s one thing the crew at JBG knows about Community Supported Agriculture, it’s that without the community there is no agriculture. That’s why the Johnsons’ goal isn’t to just perpetually blow up in size. There’s a thoughtful and noble endgame to the plan which has required compromise, sacrifice and trade-offs.

“Beth always says ‘I married an engineer, not a farmer,’” says Brenton. “We’ve only been farming full time for about a year, and annual sales are at about $1 million and climbing. We’re almost to the point where we’re actually making decent money after meeting payroll, loan obligations and other overhead. But still . . . we can’t do this forever.”

The Johnsons are in their thirties and have four kids. Brenton recognizes that passion and success aren’t replacements for a father and a husband, and knows he can’t be up at 5 a.m. packing boxes his entire life—even if they are really cool-looking boxes.

“With everything we do, we always consider ways to make the system run itself,” he explains. “We’ve got amazing people working with us who are all capable of making decisions and creating solutions to the inevitable problems that come up every day. My brother and I have developed software to help us create seeding, planting and harvesting plans, which saves a lot of work in the long run. Every component of the farm is designed to maximize productivity and efficiency. Someday, this thing will be much bigger than me.”

Like all notable entrepreneurs, Brenton’s vision reaches beyond arbitrary benchmarks and hard monetary figures. He wants the system he is building to sustain his family financially, without requiring constant input. But he also has goals that are more far-reaching.

“As the farm gets close to self-sufficiency,” he says, “I’m working on creating a nonprofit center for sustainable agriculture. If we’re able to keep just 20 acres in production under the system, we can keep the farm profitable and dedicate the remaining land for training new farmers who are interested in organic and sustainable farming, or for schools promoting the nutrition of local food to kids, or for existing farmers looking to join together to reach markets they couldn’t otherwise access.

“Nothing like that exists in this region,” he continues. “Austin is one of the best places in the country to grow food. The demand for local, organic food is not even close to being met, and the weather here allows year-round growing. The only way to supply that local demand is to move away from small production, and not just our farm. I want to build a community of local farmers who are able to secure the capital and the
capacity they need, and to work together to reach that demand and maximize our earning potential.”

For more about Johnson’s Backyard Garden, or to become a CSA-program member, visit jbgorganic.com.