by Claire Bontempo
The Johnsons of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, or JBG, can’t seem to grow vegetables fast enough, but they’ve managed to keep up with the demand and remain a successful local organic farm located just outside of Austin, Texas. From the very beginning it has been all about organic. “I never even considered farming a different way. I didn’t have a history of farming so I’ve never farmed anything but organically,” said Brenton Johnson.
In 2008 JBG became certified organic by the Texas Department of Agriculture. Now encompassing more than 200 acres, the farm began in Brenton’s backyard on a cozy 30 x 50-foot plot in 2004. That spring he ventured to the local farmers’ market for the first time with his yield of vegetables.
“We piled all the vegetables up on the table and the only problem was I didn’t know how much to charge.” Although he had never sold vegetables before, by the end of the trip to the market, they had sold nearly everything they brought. “After doing that, it made me want to go back every week,” said Johnson.
After a year of selling to farmers’ market patrons JBG started a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The farm started their CSA in 2006 with just 10 members, and by the end of the summer it had grown to more than 25. The CSA now serves more than 1,000 members. He soon realized his backyard, side yard and front yard were not big enough for the amount of produce he wanted to grow. “I’ve always been one to take things to the extreme, so I ended up taking over the whole yard with vegetables,” Johnson said. With vegetables growing everywhere, his children had no room to play, and finding a new location was imperative.
During his search, Johnson stumbled across 20 acres just east of downtown. On his way back from taking a look at some land for sale, he bumped into the landowner of the neighboring plot who offered him a tour. By the end of the conversation a deal was struck and Johnson ended up buying property next door to the land that he originally went to prospect. The next step was figuring out a way to finance such a large purchase. Brenton’s father and grandfather had careers with the Farm Service Agency, formerly known as the Farmer Home Administration. This government-run agency helps beginning and struggling farmers who lack access to the resources commercial farms have. Johnson’s family experience with this agency helped him to navigate the documents and proof needed to present to the department. A significant amount of time was spent reevaluating paperwork and amending tax documents in order to prove they had at least three years of farm history. After submitting the loan application, their farm had to go through an inspection. Finally, they were approved and given an adequate amount of money to finance the land and equipment.
In 2007 Johnson’s Backyard Garden expanded to the 20 acres 5 miles outside of town. On Saturday afternoons volunteers were invited out to help with the harvest. Brenton would pile everyone onto a truck and till the 300-foot rows by hand. He quickly realized that his backyard farming practices weren’t fit for large-scale farming — it was a completely different dynamic, the farm had grown from 30-foot rows to 300-foot rows. For his backyard garden, Brenton would drive around gathering leaves and scout out horse farms for manure. It became apparent that it wasn’t economically viable to bring in large amounts of off-farm inputs. Johnson also hoped to have enough land to adequately rotate crops, but the 15 acres in production filled up fast and once again the Johnsons ran out of space. With the help of a sympathetic CSA member, JBG was able to expand to a 200-acre dairy farm down the road. Currently they are still working to prepare, irrigate and plant all of the new land.
Organization & Irrigation
Brenton Johnson’s background provides a solid farming foundation even though he doesn’t come from generations of farmers. He has a degree in agricultural engineering that he switched to halfway through pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering. Both his father and grandfather are excellent business consultants since they both worked for the Farm Service Agency. Brenton himself has 10 years experience in water conservation. Before becoming a full-time farmer in 2008, Brenton was the water conversation manager for the Bureau of Reclamation. This was ideal when it came to designing the irrigation and water system for his farm. Designing an efficient, water-conscious irrigation system is no simple feat (especially in Texas) and required a lot of time to figure out how to best lay it out. According to Brenton, “Once the fields are cleaned up and the water supply is there, growing the vegetables is the easy part.” JBG worked on this ambitious irrigation system for over a year and a half, and finally completed it in December of 2013. The Central Texas region is used to functioning during times of drought, and having a successful harvest during dry times all comes down to being efficient. This requires looking at all aspects of irrigation. While it’s important to be conscious of water use, it is also good to be mindful of energy and other resources used in the process. Older irrigation systems Brenton witnessed as a water resource manager often relied on flood irrigation techniques. This way of furrow flood irrigation is very wasteful, but Brenton pointed out that this technique excels in other aspects of efficiency.
From a natural resource perspective, gravity-flow irrigation requires minimum outside resources and uses very little energy. However, JBG doesn’t use furrow flood irrigation although this method does have additional benefits such as flushing away salt accumulation in the soil. Instead, Johnson uses a combination of drip and sprinkler irrigation and analyzes irrigation efficiency from more than just a water use perspective.
“I would rather have a sprinkler irrigation pipe that I can re-use for 30 years and be a little less efficient with my water than fill up the landfill with more plastic drip irrigation than I have to,” said Johnson. Materials used to transport the water are just as important to consider as the water itself. Most of their direct-seed crops start with a sprinkler, then depending on the crop, will either continue on it or have a drip irrigation system set up.
When farming near urban areas like Austin, Texas, where land costs often exceed $10,000 per acre, space conscientiousness is almost as important as a reliable water source. With a limited land supply, it’s crucial to get the most out of every inch. Johnson’s Backyard Garden is set up on a block system to maximize land use and manage effective crop rotation. To do this, the farm is divided into 54 rotational units or “blocks,” which makes it easier to keep records to ensure each unit is being planted based on nutritional requirements, planting and harvesting techniques and time to maturity.
The farm consists of 54 standardized blocks that are each 300 x 420 feet. This allows for easier management of the irrigation system and crops along with minimal material waste. For example, normally the header line on a drip system comes as a 300-foot roll. These can be cut in two 150-foot sections that can be attached to the central riser, leaving none of the roll to waste. Every block has a 4-inch irrigation riser that serves that rotational unit and is extremely flexible to allow a variety of irrigation techniques. On top is a valve opener with a handle to manually open the valve and release water. This can be attached to a lay-flat header line for plastic drip irrigation or links of aluminum irrigation pipe with rain bird sprinklers on top. All of the wells are connected to an underground pipeline system and can be turned on or off depending on how much water is needed.
For his backyard garden, Brenton relied on outside inputs to maintain soil fertility, but he quickly discovered he couldn’t apply his previous methods to the much larger farm. This meant he had to learn how to grow his own fertility. Since the land was previously a dairy, the fields were used to grow Johnsongrass for hay. Johnsongrass is a vigorous grower and hard to kill, which means it requires an equally vigorous cover crop. This past summer they used a sorghum- Sudangrass and sunn hemp legume combination. The sorghum-Sudangrass provides high biomass and grows tall which helps to shade out the Johnsongrass. The sunn hemp is also tall-growing and helps to diversify the cover crop. As a farm in central Texas, JBG also needs to take into account the extensive limestone beneath the soil. Steve Diver has been JBG’s fertility consultant going on three years and explained that the soils that have formed from this geology are calcareous soils with alkaline pH. Multiple labs are used for soil analysis because they offer different types of testing protocols. A blend of minerals and trace elements is then created for mineral balancing all based on the Albrecht approach.
JBG grows about 300 different varieties of vegetables and more than 60 different kinds of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Every week there is much to be harvested and planted which means much to be managed. Having each bed labeled and the same length keeps things organized and makes communication between departments less complicated. The farm work is divided into three departments, each headed up by one manager: the field crew, irrigation/cultivation crew and the harvest crew. The field crew is responsible for bed preparation, fertilization, transplanting and direct seeding. The irrigation/cultivation crew grows the plants. They check that the plants are watered, administer any needed fertilizer injections through the drip system and perform the necessary measures for disease or insect control. The harvest crew ensures crops are harvested at their peak time, that none of the field is wasted and that the highest crop quality is maintained.
Aside from the 75 employees at Johnson’s Backyard, community members are invited to volunteer at the farm. Over 50 volunteers are scheduled every week by a staff member to help in a variety of tasks from working in the packing shed to preparing produce for market to transplanting or weeding out in the field. Volunteers don’t typically harvest unless it’s a bulk crop. Incorporating volunteer work on the farm helps build a relationship between the consumer and producer.
CSA is here to stay
A huge driving force behind Johnson’s Backyard Garden is the CSA program, now serving more than 1,000 members. A CSA consists of a network of people who have a direct relationship with the farm. Consumers have a steady source of local, organic produce and in return the farm is guaranteed a consistent market. Although JBG vends to restaurants and farmers’ markets in the Austin area, the CSA takes precedent. “The CSA is how we started our farm … through a direct relationship with our customers. Our CSA customers get our first class treatment,” said Brenton. JBG has continued to utilize customer feedback to improve its CSA program and now offers customizable shares in various sizes and flexible delivery options, tailored to meet customer needs.
Starting a CSA is very different from going to market. It requires that a farm be reliable and well executed. Brenton explains that if you have a crop failure and go to market, it’s not a big deal — no one gets angry, you just don’t take as much to market. With a CSA there is a lot more to coordinate because people are relying on a consistent, quality crop. Brenton stresses starting small and selling at farmers’ markets for at least three years to build a positive reputation and gain farming experience.
“The worst thing you can do is give a sour taste to consumers by them having a bad experience with a CSA,” he said. During that time it’s also essential to evaluate the community itself. As a city, Austin is very receptive to the Slow Food movement and is a huge reason for the quick success of JBG’s CSA. A farm share program relies significantly on the health and environmental consciousness of the community. There is also the customer management side to a CSA. Originally, JBG had to build the computer system to manage customers but now there are tools available to help farmers. Just like out in the field, organization is imperative to running a CSA smoothly.
Go Organic or Go Home
In 2008 JBG became organically certified through the Texas Department of Agriculture. Now several staff members as well as a soil fertility consultant are dedicated to maintaining all of the required records. Soil tests are taken annually and sent to a soil lab in order to maintain crop quality and organic standing. JBG is also certified to be an organic produce distributor. This entails more food safety and certifications to ensure that the organic integrity of any product they sell is maintained. Every vegetable and herb that JBG delivers is organic, and everything is grown by them except the citrus, coffee and eggs, which are purchased, but are certified organic.
The nonprofit Farmshare Austin is Johnson’s newest endeavor. There are four specific areas of focus for Farmshare Austin: food access, education, research and farmland preservation.
Johnson compares Austin to a pie. “Our farm has been feeding half of the pie. We’ve been feeding the half that has the resources available to buy it: restaurants, grocery stores, farmers’ markets, CSA. There is another half of the pie that can’t afford the luxury of locally produced food,” he says. This is where Farmshare Austin comes in. It is intended to be a research and training center that will create a pathway for farmers to learn about sustainable agriculture. Along with educating people about organic agriculture, Farmshare Austin will help to feed those who can’t afford the higher prices of organic food by donating farm fresh produce. And lastly, the nonprofit will be part of the effort to save farmland. Already, JBG is surrounded by gravel pits that have gutted the land and made it permanently unsuitable for farming. With this budding nonprofit, Johnson hopes to raise awareness and get more of the community involved in farming.
For more information on Johnson’s Backyard Garden call 512-386-5273 or visit www.jbgorganic.com
This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.