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Growing up on the land: Urban Roots executive stays busy, whatever the season

Joshunda Sanders

Update: This story was originally published on August 3, 2011.

Self-professed farm nerd Max Elliott loves picking okra. An amateur might not know the plant secretes an oil that will leave the untrained, bare-handed gardener scratching for hours.

But harvesting okra is a meditative experience for Elliott, reminiscent of the flow he experienced in his 20s, when he first fell in love with farming and the food movement.

Elliott is the chief executive officer of Urban Roots, the youth development program he started with Mike Evans in 2008 that teaches teens a combination of entrepreneurial and leadership skills along with respect for working the land. The summer program wrapped up July 16, though the work on the farm will continue through community volunteers and Urban Roots staff.

The work will continue, most of all, for Elliott, who is almost always tapping away on his laptop or cellphone. If he's not working on paperwork for the program, he's talking about feedback for his farm interns or working on his master's degree in social work at the University of Texas.

He makes multitasking, on the farm or off, look easy. While gardeners all over Central Texas complained about their plants wilting under unrelenting heat and drought, Elliott sent out a celebratory newsletter to friends and volunteers boasting about Urban Roots' most productive season, thanks to 30 farm interns, a dedicated staff and 3,500 volunteer hours.

With a deceptively laid-back demeanor, Elliott has shared the same entrepreneurial and leadership skills he learned growing up in Shreveport, La., with hundreds of youths in Austin and around the country as his knowledge of the food movement expanded.

His parents owned a print shop, which is where he first learned the value of meaningful hard work. He aimed for a life in politics as an American Studies major at Tulane University in the 1990s and worked on the mayoral campaign for Mitch Landrieu, who lost to Marc Morial. Then he changed his mind. A Buddhism class led him down a different path.

Living in Louisiana "made me feel really disconnected from the land, and I thought working on a farm would really connect me to the earth," he said. He wanted to be a part of something real and true, like the lives he read about in the work of the Beats. The food movement, an overlapping network of interests in organic farming, food security and food justice, was that for him.

In 1998, he worked on the first of many farms in Colorado, moving irrigation pipes as the sun rose and surrounded by herds of cattle and sheep. Seeing his first season from beginning to end presented a clear path as well as tangible challenges. "It was snowing the first day of the season on April 1, and I planted snow peas," he said. "My fingers were so cold I thought I was going to cry." But he had the bug. He signed up for a six-month apprenticeship program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

He lived in San Francisco and got a job as a food stacker. He volunteered with some middle school gardening projects. He started calling up farms in the area and kept photos and information about the farms in his computer: How were they fertilizing their soil? How were they learning about pest control? How many employees did they have? Some of the farm trips were scheduled as part of the Santa Cruz program, but others of the estimated 40 he visited were those he just went to on his own.

His organizing philosophy on the West Coast was influenced by reading the work of poet and farmer Wendell Berry, who wrote about celebrating the responsibility and tradition inherent in farming. In 2000, he moved to Austin for a while, worked on a few farms, then returned to Louisiana after about a year and a half. Working at a community gardening organization got him thinking more broadly about food justice. "People in New Orleans were growing for their sustenance," he said. "Growing food just to grow food wasn't enough for me. I wanted to know how this movement could be more inclusive so that more people would have access to it."

He went on to attend a one-year master's program in Environmental Studies from the University of Essex in Colchester, England, after working with a few more community gardening programs. He learned that it was important to teach people not just to grow food, but also how to cook. When the program was over, he returned to Austin to work at Tecolote and Oasis Gardens farms. Restlessness struck again and he started exploring smaller farming communities in North Carolina, Chicago, Virginia, Ohio, New York and Vermont. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina lured him home to help his family and to start a nonprofit called the New Orleans Food and Farm Network, to raise awareness about local sources of organic food and gardening after the storm.

Elliott moved back to Austin in 2006. He started SEEDS after he was hired at Austin nonprofit organization YouthLaunch to start an afterschool gardening program at Webb Middle School.

"School gardens are great, but it's still a school. We didn't have control over the landscape, or people would come by and harvest tomatoes, or the landscaping crew would accidentally weed the plants," Elliott said. "I approached YouthLaunch about starting a farm."

The first season Elliott worked with the group, three years ago, they worked just one acre and 15 youths. Now the program, which is under the YouthLaunch umbrella, employs 30 youths and a few full-time staffers and, with the help of community volunteers, also farms about 3.5 acres.

Anthony Gilbert, 18, has worked with Elliott as a farm intern and a team leader. "You really have to love something to teach it over and over again with that same enthusiasm," Gilbert said. "I don't see another nonprofit in Austin that engages youth this much. You leave here a totally different person."

Diane Papillion, an Austin dietician and former Urban Roots volunteer, said that the students look up to Elliot because he makes horticulture and agriculture cool. "He has sort of natural skills with the kids. He knows the words that they use, and he's just awesome to watch," she said. "He's really created this program exposing them to the concepts and creating these food justice advocates."

With kids putting down irrigation and tending to the farm on a recent morning, Elliott left his laptop for long enough to chat with a few of the interns. He clapped once, slowly, then a group of five teenagers followed him clapping faster.

"Working on a farm can be hard work, but I like to find small ways to celebrate, and this is one," he said, smiling shyly. They walked to the okra, clapping, before they stood in a row behind the tall plants, ready for harvest.

jsanders@statesman.com; 445-3630