From Backyard to Big Time: How Brenton Johnson of Johnson’s Backyard Garden Became the Biggest Organic Farmer in Texas
The line between insanity and ingenuity can be thin. Just ask Mama Nell Johnson, the no-nonsense straight-shooting grandmother of Brenton Johnson — founder of Johnson’s Backyard Garden — who urged her grandson to “please, please get a real job.” She didn’t mind if he looked into “those hippie, organic farms,” but she wanted him to apply for some respectable positions too.
The family had worked too hard putting Brenton through college for him to waste it all on farming. Both Brenton’s father and his grandfather, Papa Johnson (Mama Nell’s husband), worked for the Department of Agriculture, doling out government loans to farmers. The family knew farming was a hard life.
I speak to Johnson by phone while he’s out of town visiting family, and I can only imagine the baffled look of amazement that must adorn Mama Nell’s 93-year-old face when she looks at her grandson now. By his own estimates, Johnson has gone from selling vegetables out of his backyard to being the largest organic farmer, in terms of sales, in Texas. This year, he expects Johnson’s Backyard Garden (JBG) will sell $5 million in vegetables, and he has big plans for expansion.
So how did he do it? By indulging his love for growing things and by breaking nearly every rule in the book.
Of growing up in southeast Alabama, Johnson says, “I grew up with a bunch of farm kids, but I was always into sailboats, skateboards and into the Grateful Dead — I wasn't into the farm kid stuff.”
Despite his skater-kid attitude, Johnson says he was a born entrepreneur. When he was 12, he started mowing lawns, as many kids do. But unlike most kids, he stuck with it. By the time he was in college at Auburn University, he and a friend had built up a big enough lawn business, including some commercial accounts, that they were able to sell it.
By the time he was a senior, however, Johnson was questioning his mechanical engineering major. He’d spent two years as a student engineer in Auburn’s cooperative education program, working in a commercial laundry manufacturing factory, and he just wasn’t feeling the whole factory thing. “I just was there in college and thinking, what do I want to do? What do I really want to do when I finish school? And a light bulb went on in my head, and I was like, ‘I want to produce something that is a basic human need … food! I want to be a farmer, and I want to grow vegetables.’”
Johnson has this way of catching you off guard and of putting you on the spot. My very first question to him — before I knew any of his backstory — was, “Tell me how you got started.”
He says completely deadpan, “Well, it started back when I was in college, in my closet.”
Then he pauses for a long time, and I’m running through all the things I could and should say next when he breaks the tension with a gleeful laugh, “I was growing a bunch of marijuana.”
Turns out, as he goes on to explain, that’s only half true. Johnson loves growing things, he loves the science of it, he loves the challenge of it. And back in college he was growing just about everything he could.
“I had a big huge garden on the side of my house, had all these plants inside my house … Then in my buddy's house, I was like, ‘Okay guys, I'll help you with your [marijuana] garden, but I'm not doing it at my house.’ And so I helped them in their closet garden at my buddy's house.”
He switched his major to agricultural engineering, and between what he learned in the classroom and at home — in the yard and in the closet — his growing reached a whole new level.
“I got kind of obsessed with learning the technical aspects of farming … and I took it to a whole ‘nother engineering level — like the most advanced indoor growing system that you can imagine over 20 years ago. It was optimized HID light levels, it was CO2 injection for optimizing the photosynthesis of the leaves. ... I designed a hydroponic growing system. It's called a nutrient film technique. So it's a really advanced hydroponic system where — this is before it was possible just to go out and buy a formula mix like I can now at the indoor grow shop — I had to calculate all the different macronutrients, the trace nutrients ... you know, all that stuff had to be calculated to optimize the plant growth.
“Also one other thing that I learned was maximizing space. So I learned how to be super, super efficient with utilizing every inch of space for production.”
When I ask Johnson if he’d be interested in switching over to marijuana if it were legalized, he says, “I'm more interested in growing something I can be proud of — growing healthy food for people."
After college, Johnson did get a “real” job. He worked with the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon for about 6 months, designing forest roads, and then moved to Wyoming to manage the Bureau of Reclamation’s water conservation program, encouraging efficiency among recipients of federal water — including many farmers.
But he didn’t abandon his farming nor his rebel, hippie attitude. And as much as Johnson liked Wyoming, he jumped at the chance to transfer to Austin when it arose — What 20-something wouldn’t? Then, about a year after moving, Johnson married his high-school sweetheart, Beth, and the two started a family. Eventually, they bought the house in East Austin off of Holly Street where JBG got its start.
Johnson, bored at his government job, spent his days mining farm and garden newsletters for information about growing seasons. He created growing calendars and lined the walls of his office with them. At home, he grew.
“My whole yard [was] taken over by vegetables: the front yard, the backyard, the side yard in front of the fence, front yard. And I've got 18 different varieties of Muscadine grapes that are growing around the perimeter. And I've got 18 chickens in the backyard, squeezed in with a compost pile along with satsuma oranges, pear trees, lime trees, plums, figs, loquats,” Johnson remembers.
In 2004, the Sustainable Food Center started a farmers market, and Johnson dove right in, selling his vegetables atop a single table covered with a batik cloth — the same one he’d used previously to sell “hot and sexy” grilled cheese sandwiches at Grateful Dead concerts.
“I didn't even know how much to charge for anything. … It was 100 bucks in the first week. And then the next week I came back and I was a little bit more prepared and made like $120. And then a few weeks later, you know, it was like $250. And every week I would call my grandmother and be like, ‘Mama Nell, guess what? I just made $275 this week. Mama Nell, guess what? I made $500 this week.’ She's like, ‘Brenton, am I gonna have to come out there and check on you? Are you sure you're growing vegetables?!’”
Meanwhile, Beth was increasingly frustrated at having their yard turned into a farm.
Johnson remembers her saying something along the lines of, “Brenton, this garden, I'm not even happy with it because I started the garden, and then you took it over and then like you just went totally crazy with it. And now our kids don't even have — they can't even play in the yard. Like all they have is just a concrete back porch, with a tire swing ... and the kids swinging out over the garden … you know, it's ridiculous.”
“And so she was really putting the pressure on me,” Johnson says. “And I was like, okay, I feel really bad. I want to be a good father and husband but I am having fun with the garden.”
So he started looking for land.
Johnson searched Craigslist and found a 60-acre tract of land listed for $2.2 million, just east of downtown, behind Callahan’s on Hwy 71 — that he knew he couldn’t afford.
But then he had a stroke of luck: He went out to the piece of property he was interested in, and started talking to a neighbor. After talking with her about his plans, the woman offered to sell her 20-acre property to him for $275,000 — cows included. She was older and doing fine financially, and it’s hard not to get excited about vegetables and farming when talking to Johnson.
“I went home as fast as I could, and I got my wife — we're divorced now, but I got my ex-wife and kids — and I was like, ‘Hey Beth, what do you think about this farm?’ And she looked at it, and she really liked it, and she's like, ‘I'd be happy to move there with you if you can figure out the financing.’ And I was like, ding ding. The light bulb went off. I was like, ‘Oh my dad and my grandfather made loans to farmers!’
“The whole time I was growing up, I just thought that my grandfather and my dad didn't have important jobs. … I knew what they did, but I didn't value it. And then I was thinking, ‘Holy Shit, this is an awesome job that these guys have. These guys are like heroes.’”
Things progressed quickly from there: Johnson quit his job, did a ton of research, got some free advice and paid some of the most successful organic farmers in the country — whom he admired and aspired to be — to advise him. He invested in equipment, and made $450,000 that first year. By 2009, he was making more than a million dollars on 14 crop acres selling his vegetables.
JBG’s business model is different from most commercial farms — which focus on no more than a few crops — and is based on the assumption that variety leads to success and more effectively managing risk. At his farm, Johnson grows a truly impressive array of herbs, vegetables, and fruits, and he keeps his distribution diverse as well.
The farm sells at farmers markets; it has restaurant accounts; it has wholesale contracts with institutions including AISD, Apple, and Dell; it sells to families across Texas with community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions; and sometime this year it will be opening a farmstand on Hwy 71 that will sell all sorts of local organic produce and food.
But the success hasn’t come without a hefty cost: When I ask Johnson what his biggest challenge has been, without hesitation he responds, “My divorce.”
Then for the first time in our conversation he fumbles for words.
“I just had a real passion for my farm and everything that I had went into it. And I think that — I'm not sure exactly what happened. I think maybe I started to work too much and didn't focus enough … on my ex wife, you know? Yeah. And I didn't realize our relationship had started to deteriorate until it was too late.”
Now, four years after he and his wife separated, Johnson says the fog has lifted, and he has exciting things in the works. His voice picks back up as he talks about it.
First thing is the farm stand that will provide Austinites year-round access to local, organic produce and prepared food.
Next is the construction of a truly massive 24,000 square foot cold storage and distribution facility on the farm’s Garfield property. Johnson plans to become a sort of food hub, where Central Texas farmers can bring their organic produce to be sold cooperatively. It’s a long-term goal, but Johnson is confident he can make it happen.
“We had THOUGHTBARN, it's a local architectural firm in town, design it,” Johnson says. “The metal building’s being manufactured in Houston, by this company called Whirlwind. And then, the produce coolers are being ordered now. … So it'll be, I think it'll be done within, probably in the next four months.”
The farmer is also working on a pilot program to rent plots of land to aspiring farmers at his original Hergotz farm — the one he bought from the neighbor woman as he was just starting out himself.
As Johnson details his dizzying plans, it’s clear JBG today is a far cry from the backyard eastside garden it started as, and it’s more than enough to keep the farmer founder moving — and I get the impression that the man is always on the move. We wrap up our phone call as he finishes up his hourlong car trip and with true Texan hospitality invites me out to see the farm. It’s always open, he says.
You can visit it yourself, by volunteering in exchange for veggies by signing up at jbgorganic.com.
Written by: Lynn Wise
Photography by: Scott David Gordon