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At this big backyard, boxes of produce feed subscribers

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Originally published on December 3, 2008

As he walks along a long row of bulky yet intricate farming equipment, Brenton Johnson excitedly explains how each piece helps him plow, plant and weed the acres he farms just north of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

It's hard to believe that the chattering Johnson, who is usually a soft-spoken man of few words, didn't know much about farm machinery three years ago when he and his wife, Beth, turned their family backyard garden at their house on Holly Street in East Austin into the source for produce they sold at the downtown farmers' market.

Government loans helped the couple purchase the equipment after they bought a 20-acre tract in 2006, but long days of work in the fields and hours of research have taught him how to use it.

Brenton, a former Deadhead and self-described radical environmentalist who even with a few days' worth of facial hair still looks younger than his 36 years, had always tended small gardens for himself. So when he and Beth, his high school sweetheart with whom he reunited 12 years after graduation, started a family, he knew he wanted to grow enough food to feed them, too.

Soon, the couple's backyard garden spilled into the front and side yards of the double lot. In addition to selling the extra produce at the downtown farmers' market, he decided to sell through a community-supported agriculture program, in which subscribers pay for boxes of produce delivered each week to a pickup location in the city.

By January 2007, with the acreage by the airport cultivated and just in time for the birth of their son Jim, they were sending out CSA boxes to hundreds of subscribers from the new farm.

The Johnsons started with 10 subscribers at the Holly Street garden and now have about 450, with almost as many on a waiting list. Long waiting lists are common for CSAs, and the Johnsons are hoping that by increasing their production acres next year, they will be able to quickly add subscribers.

One of the first things Brenton Johnson did was set up a newsletter that is e-mailed to subscribers. Many farms offer a newsletter as a way to stay in touch with subscribers, to offer tips like how to store your basil or tomatoes and, best of all, recipes for what to do with all those eggplants or peppers or the out-of-the-ordinary vegetables such as kohlrabi or rainbow chard.

Johnson's Backyard Garden, which is the only year-round CSA in Central Texas, is quickly becoming one of the most serious community-supported agriculture programs in the state, if not the country. Brenton aims to have 1,000 subscribers and starting next year, he'll have 45 additional acres and three greenhouses to help him do just that. "A thousand sounds like a lot, but when you think about all the people in Austin, it's not that much," he says.

Brenton isn't shy about getting advice from the handful of programs that already have more than 1,000 subscribers, including Angelic Organics near Chicago, Roxbury Farm in New York's Hudson Valley and Harmony Valley outside Madison, Wis.

Community-supported agriculture programs came about in the mid-1960s in Japan and Europe. They first appeared in the U.S. in the mid-'80s at two farms in the Northeast, and now there are more than 1,200 farms with a CSA-like structure.

As with most CSA farms, Johnson's Backyard Garden lets subscribers work in exchange for boxes of produce. Dozens of people show up on Wednesdays and Saturdays to help harvest the fields and put together boxes. Six full-time workers help oversee a handful of farm interns.

Fulfilling wanderlust and a need for change, most interns work for several months at a time in exchange for housing and food, sometimes money, but mainly experience. Teaching round after round of new interns takes a lot of Brenton's time and energy, but he knows its value and, as a businessman, knows the farm needs eager hands.

"Ideally, I'd love to have a paid harvest crew," he says, "because the skill (to farm) has to grow."

Bess Steiner, a former landscape architect who recently moved to Austin from Seattle to intern on the farm, says she is working there to learn enough to one day start her own CSA. With a CSA, you have more security about food, where it's raised, what's in it, how it's grown and who is growing it, she says. Back in Seattle, Steiner says she was able to live off her CSA box; she only had to buy milk, eggs and cheese. (For this reason, many CSA farms are starting to provide options for add-ons such as eggs, milk and coffee from outside sources.)

From a business perspective, Steiner says it boils down to different audiences. "Farmers' market customers want to get out and buy a variety of produce from different farmers," she says. "Through CSAs, people want to support a specific farmer." Plus it's convenient, she says. You pick up your veggies and in 10 minutes you're done grocery shopping.

"People have also said they like being surprised (by what's in the box) because it forces them to use things they haven't used before," Steiner says.

Lisa Goodgame, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, subscribed to the Johnsons' CSA about a year ago because she wanted access to local food as she did while living in California.

She says that although she's never quite sure what to do with all the eggplant and greens, she loves the variety of peppers and squash and looks forward to the new varieties the Johnsons will produce when they expand their production next year. "I feel like even if I don't use everything that comes in my box, that I'd rather get locally produced vegetables for as much of what I make as I can," she says. "It's a wonderful complement to the things that we can't get locally like beans and rice."

But it's more than the food. Goodgame says she thinks of it as investing in something that's contributing to the well-being of our community. "It's an aspect that hits the social justice action side of me," she says. "The feeling that I can contribute to something that is growing in my community and is meant to make us all healthier and happier."

Most farms with large CSAs aren't growing as many crops as Brenton Johnson's. He grows 300 varieties of 50 different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. "Since I started, I knew I wanted to grow a lot of kinds of vegetables," he says. "I didn't have dreams of being a strawberry farmer."

The startup costs and complexity of building a subscriber system and delivery network make it difficult to turn a farmstand into a CSA, but Brenton sees it as the only way he could make a living as a farmer with a family of six.

"You can only have so many customers at the farmers' market," he says. "We can reach a lot more people" through the CSA. He says he still sells at the markets but only during peak harvest times when there is a surplus of produce.

Feeding so many people is not easy. Brenton works six days a week, and he says that even though he's still making about the same as he did working with water conservation for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, most of it goes back to growing the operation. "I'm still living in a mobile home and driving a beat-up truck."

Beth keeps her eye on the home life and family, making sure the kids get to school (the youngest is still at home).

In the first years of the CSA, Brenton, who got a degree in agricultural engineering, continued working full time for the government, in a job that provided insurance, job security and regular days off, perks Beth sometimes teases him about losing when he decided to quit to become a full-time farmer.

"It's a really hard job," he says. "I didn't know what to expect. It's not even comparable to backyard gardening."

Last week, as planes flew closely overhead, Brenton and Will Rhodes, the recently hired field manager, decided where to spread the organic fertilizer and which parts of the field are too wet to drive on. Irrigation systems allow most farms, those with CSA programs or not, to deal with Texas' unpredictable weather.

With CSA farms, subscribers bear some of this risk, too. If a drought results in a depressed harvest, the boxes are lighter, but that's part of the deal. In good years, subscribers share in the bounty of produce.

At Johnson's Backyard Garden, it wasn't weather but a completed summer harvest that inspired an open house potluck in October. Dozens of families, many of whom only knew each other through the program, dined on picnic blankets and fold-out lawn chairs in the acres that separate the Johnsons' humble double-wide and their sprawling fields.

Out of nowhere, the quiet farmer appeared from the house, transformed into a costumed "El Granjero," who sprinted off into the field, a Pied Piper trailed by a cluster of children running by the dozens of rows of plants whose produce graces their dinner plates every night.

"My main goal is to feed as many people as I can," he says later. He wants to make enough money to send his kids to college and eventually pass on the long days to someone else. But in the meantime, there are winter crops to be planted and a spring planting to be planned. "I'm working for the future," Brenton says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

What is a CSA?

CSA stands for community-supported agriculture, programs that let people pay a weekly fee to get a box of vegetables and herbs from a local farmer. You don't pay for a certain quantity of vegetables, but rather whatever the farm is harvesting. For about $30 a week, subscribers get vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers grown at the farm and sometimes additional goodies. In the coldest and hottest months of the year, most CSAs supplement their boxes with fruit or other goods from other farms. Because each box holds about 10 pounds of produce, which is enough to feed a family of four rabbit-like eaters for a week, many farms allow you to sign up for a half share, with pickups two weeks apart. With some CSAs, subscribers pay for four to 10 weeks at a time, while others require payment for an entire season up front. Pickup areas can be at churches, community facilities or private homes. It's an honor system. At each location, a stack of boxes awaits pickup and subscribers initial by their names. Farms often ask you to use your own bag or sack rather than take one of the provided boxes that cost the farmers money. Another feature of pickup spots: a surplus box where subscribers can leave what they don't need (or like) or swap with what has been left behind by others.

CSAs in Central Texas

Finca Pura Vida, www.fincapuravida.com

Green Gate Farms, greengatefarms.net , 949-9830

Hairston Creek Farm, www.hairstoncreekfarm.com , 512-756-8380

Hands of the Earth, 512-389-3835

Johnson's Backyard Garden, www.johnsonsbackyardgarden.com , 386-5273

Millberg Farm (serving Kyle and north San Marcos), 512-268-1433

Tecolote Farm, www.localharvest.org/farms/M406 , tecolotefarm@juno.com

Walnut Creek Organic Farms, www.wcorganic.com, 512-303-3400

Many of the CSAs in the area have waiting lists and are taking a break for the winter season. Don't let a waiting list discourage you, though.