Whether it be a byproduct of the school or the capital city itself, Austin, TX is a liberal mecca we found ourselves in after a long, flat drive through West Texas. There is no shortage of urban agriculture in this “Portland of the south”, so, for our investigative pursuits, it became a matter of examining new approaches to feeding these city dwellers. We stumbled across the Yard-to-Market Co-Op, run by Annelies and Lesley, two back-yard Austin gardeners. Annelies, an Austin native and previous practicing lawyer in New York City, was inspired to create change in terms of food sovereignty after gaining insight by means of educating herself about the food system as a whole. “I am interested in how food is grown, how it moves, how it goes into the trash can,” she smiles, “I wanted to be a part of the movement.”
With enough space, home gardening can easily yield a bountiful harvest. Every gardener knows there comes a time of year when summer squash surplus is an understatement and the tomatoes are dripping off the vines at rates far exceeding that which you can eat them or process them. At a small home scale however, “The time and energy it takes to have a farmers market booth or any other marketing outlet isn’t worth it. Most gardeners recognize the maximum possible return is going to be the food you glean,” Annelies admits. Giving away the inevitable excess is all well and good, but wouldn’t it be nice to have an outlet for the extra produce to return a bit of capital to the gardeners? The Yard-To-Market Co-Op does the legwork to allow home gardeners to have an “outlet that’s easy to plug into” – and see a bit of cash in return.
The idea is simple – the gardener’s drop off any produce they have to the Yard-to-Market farm stand at HOPE Farmers Market in East Austin. The items are considered “on consignment,” and the Co-Op does what it can to sell it that day. As is the design of a cooperative, Co-Op “members” are both the owners and the growers; all members’ produce is equally set out and stocked throughout the market day. The HOPE Farmers Market is a non-profit market that makes the selling of goods financially viable, as vendors pay a reasonable annual donation to be apart of the market. What doesn’t sell (and is still in good shape) is brought home and advertized on the Co-Op’s online shopping cart. 25% of total sales goes to the Co-Op, and 75% returns to the grower. Although the cash flow to each gardener may not be much, it could be enough to offset the cost of compost and seeds for their garden the next year.
Given that the city of Austin requires no synthetic inputs in terms of home gardening practices, all produce is grown organically or “beyond organically.” Moreover, to ensure these practices are being upheld, new members have to agree that the board members are able to visit new member garden sites at any point to verify that their living up to the standards set by the Co-Op. Another advantage that can be accredited to Austin city laws is that there is no permit required to sell “whole foods” (being anything that has not been cut, cooked, or exposed to the potential of air born contamination) at the farmers market. However, the city of Austin does not allow gardeners growing produce on city land to sell their products for monetary gain. This has created a challenge to both gaining new members and creating community in general, as it eliminates members of city-owned community gardens to join the Co-Op.
The Co-Op doesn’t have trouble getting rid of their products; growing enough to supply the demand is the issue. Even with their produce coming from over 20 yards, Annelies estimates they have less than an acre total in production. Her personal garden space is 20×20 foot plot. Annelies knows that, fundamentally, food production at this scale will always be a hobby; “With this size plot to work with, it’s a lot like throwing darts at the wall. But at the end of the day, for me, it’s about having a reason to spend time in my garden.”
One of the most important and exciting aspects of the Yard-To-Market Co-Op is the transparency of their model. Annelies and Lesley really strove to create a repeatable model for use in urban agriculture environments, and did so largely because they’re one of the first of their kind. Working in conjunction with the Texas Rural Cooperative Center, they have established a design for creating garden Co-Ops and micro farms in the inner-city. Annelies stresses their willingness to provide any insight for someone wishing to develop a similar start-up, even going so far as to share their documents.
The Yard-to-Market Co-Op is pioneering the backyard food movement in the south. After carving out their niche and being the first of their kind, they have created a repeatable representation of what small scale and hobby gardeners can do with the excess. Thanks to this organization, there is far less produce being moved into the garbage from the gardeners in East Austin.