Sept. 30, 2010 - With the local food movement growing by leaps and bounds, some producers wonder how they might take the production and sale of their local meat and produce to the next level. Some have expanded their distribution network across state lines and others have simply expanded an existing operation to handle more volume.
Brenton Johnson of Johnson's Backyard Garden is among the latter. He started growing vegetables in his backyard in East Austin and then expanded it to include his front yard. He now grows organic produce on 100 acres in eastern Travis County and did about $1 million in sales last year. His farm now has dozens of employees and interns and more than 1,000 CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscribers, making it one of the largest such operations in the country. He said there is more than enough consumer demand to support more farmers producing for the local market, but there are other limiting factors.
"I find that there's a lot of interest on the part of young people in becoming farmers, but it's hard to find good land where the soil is good and water is available," he said. "It's especially hard to find affordable land."
Johnson's father worked for the Farm Service Agency (FSA) for 30 years, giving Johnson a window of funding opportunities that other beginning farmers might not know about. The FSA makes low interest loans to farmers, but a lot of people starting out in the business don't know about the programs.
"People starting out need to know what resources are available," he said. "We've worked grant programs through the TDA (Texas Department of Agriculture). The question is how to put all the pieces together to make it work. Still, it is a lot of work. It's not easy. It's a seven-day-a-week job."
Johnson also received funding through Slow Money, a local and national investment strategy that invests in local and sustainable agriculture. Johnson has received attention from Texas A&M University and the TDA, which features Johnson in its Go Texan campaign aimed at supporting local agriculture. With a wife and four children, Johnson said he is working toward making the farm more self-sufficient to allow for more family time and would eventually like to create a nonprofit center for sustainable agriculture on his property.
Another Central Texas operation, Vital Farms, has gone from a start-up flock of about 1,000 egg-laying chickens to about 40,000 birds and four farms, including the original site on Onion Creek in Travis County along with farms near Rosanky and Lockhart and another one in Northwest Arkansas.
Matt O'Hayer, a co-partner in the business with Jason Jones, said the company makes it a point to maintain its production standards even as it grows. He said the company has sought various certifications because it helps keep the farms that supply the eggs working toward the same goals.
"We're certified organic by the USDA but we're also certified humane, which includes a different set of standards. We were recently certified Kosher, which is another set of standards.
"We take care of the marketing and business side of things and let our farmers farm. Farmers do best when they get to farm without spending all their time marketing. We have standards to meet, and we personally inspect our farms to make sure they're meeting those standards."
Aside from Texas, Vital Farm eggs are sold at Whole Foods stores in Southern California, the Southwest, the Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. Vital Farms was also the recipient of a Local Producer Loan from Whole Foods, which went toward expanding production. Vital Farms eggs are also sold through some CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) groups, farmers markets and to several restaurants.
Both Johnson and O'Hayer believe the market for healthy, local produce is still growing and will continue to grow, as long as there are enough farmers to meet the demand.
"Our farm is big, but overall we really don't have enough production in the state to meet the demand," Johnson said. "There's a real shortage of farm land and not enough production. Say everybody in Austin decided to buy local food, it would take about 200 farms our size to meet that demand. It's the same story in a lot of other places around the state."