Pandemic inspires new front yard farm in North Austin
If you find yourself walking or driving through the North Austin neighborhood of Quail Creek, keep your eyes peeled for a front yard farm that popped up this fall.
Jonathan Park’s gardening efforts on Mearns Meadows Boulevard, north of Rundberg Lane and west of North Lamar Boulevard, started reasonably enough. For the past few years, he’s kept a small plot of vegetables in the backyard of the house where he’s lived with his wife, Emily, for 7 years.
But when the pandemic hit in March and his conference logistics company screeched to a halt, he needed something else to do with his time.
He expanded the small garden in the backyard and built a shed that looks like a small red barn, and then slowly started tilling up more and more of the yard. By August, he was swimming in watermelons and 15 varieties of tomatoes, and even though pests ruined his cucumbers, he knew he wanted to grow even more food.
That’s when he turned his eyes to the small front yard, which had a few box hedges near the house and a dying fruitless mulberry tree, as well as a sidewalk and a two-car driveway.
“I very much resisted the planting in the front yard,” says Emily, who now works at home as a lawyer. “But one of the defining characteristics of Jonathan’s personality is to go big or go home.”
So, for weeks, during the hottest months of the year, Emily watched through the window of her home office as Jonathan toiled away, pulling out the hedges and the tree and tilling up every inch of grass using an old-school tool called a broadfork. He added compost and then started to plant both seeds and transplants, which he grew himself in a grow station he set up inside their house.
He started going to farmers markets to see what it would take to start selling there. He got a permit to sell cut flowers, built some boxes on which to display the produce and decided on a name: Bird Dog Farm, named after their dog, Ladybird.
By October, he was growing enough food to start selling it at the Sustainable Food Center’s Farmers Market in Republic Square Park. He’s been selling each Saturday since, and those market days have provided an unexpected benefit: socialization.
“We didn’t expect that, but it’s one of the best things about this is getting to interact with other people,” he says.
Jonathan Park now figures he’s growing food on 6,000 square feet in the front and back of his house, and a few weeks ago, he signed a lease with a neighbor to grow food on an additional 1/2 acre in the neighbor’s large backyard.
Although he grew up on four acres east of Beaumont, where his family sometimes grew a small garden, he couldn’t have imagined farming as a full-time endeavor, but the small yard farm has given him a taste of what it takes, both in terms of working the soil and crunching the numbers to find a way to make it profitable. “I feel better at the end of the day not sitting at a desk,” he says.
He and Emily are also canning jam and other cottage foods to sell alongside the produce and flowers. “I’m a number guys. I knew I needed to have a variety of produce at the market to attract customers,” he says.
Park says he won’t be able to start planting the second yard until January, which will increase his operation by another 20,000 square feet. “That’s about as much as I can farm by myself,” he says. “The goal now is to grow it to a place where I’m not the only one working the fields.”
His business has several contracts through 2025, but no one is sure what the future holds for the convention industry after the pandemic is over.
In the meantime, you’ll find him most days in the yard, planting, harvesting or otherwise tending his new business or chatting with passersby who want to ask about what he’s doing with that yard full of food.
“I sit at my desk and see cars slow down all the time,” Emily Park says.
“We’ve met so many neighbors,” Jonathan Park says. “By about 3 o’clock, I can’t really get much work done” because there are so many people stopping by.
“When this is all over, we want to host a block party.”