The man: Randy Jewart, founder of Austin Green Art and its latest offshoot (pun intended), 5 Mile Farms, which installs farms in the yards of Austin homeowners.
The mission: Grow an old-fashioned sense of community, from the dirt up.
The commitment: “I’ve worked hard to create public art projects that build a sense of community. With gardening, all you have to do is dig a hole.”
Top 3 ways he’ll change your life:
- Charm your neighbors with a steady delivery of homegrown produce.
- Score points with Mother Nature and become a leader in Austin’s slow food movement, all without leaving your backyard.
- Purple carrots: They’re real. And they’re delicious.
In sum: Nothing makes you forget a tough week at the office like the sun on your back, soil on your hands, and the simple satisfaction of growing something. So go dig a hole.
Behind the scenes
It is 6:30 p.m. and I am biting into my first-ever purple carrot, just plucked from the ground. Randy Jewart, who did the plucking, is watching intently. I brace myself; I still maintain a toddler’s suspicion towards fruits and vegetables. If it doesn’t have teriyaki sauce on it, I usually pass.
But this carrot is different. It has such an intense flavor – what is that taste? I finally place it: It’s so carroty.
For Jewart, this is about much more than reminding people how real vegetables taste. It’s about regaining a sense of community through the humble act of farming.
Reap what you sow
“It all goes back to the feeling I had as a kid of being part of a neighborhood, growing up on a dead-end street in the 70s,” Jewart says. “I want to get back to that feeling of being connected to your neighbors.”
I met with Jewart in his backyard, aka Resolution Gardens, one of 12 large “yard farms” (and counting) that make up 5 Mile Farms. More than 300 smaller gardens have been installed throughout Austin. Altogether, they grow hyper-local produce that not only goes to farmers markets, but also to Daily Juice, Casa de Luz, Greenling, Wheatsville Food Co-op, Tacodeli, and Rio’s Brazilian Cafe.
Here’s the twist: These farms are located in the backyards of normal, unsuspecting Austinites like you and me.
All you need is a scrap of land (say, a 4-by-8-foot spot for a raised bed), and a willingness to turn it over to Jewart and his team. If you want to wave at the friendly 5 Mile farmers through your kitchen window and leave it at that, no problem. You can still walk into Daily Juice and order a smoothie made with produce from your land. But if you want to get your hands dirty, even better. Join in the farming, and chances are, you’ll get in touch with more than Mother Earth – you’ll feel connected to your community in an intimate, honest, rewarding way.
Magic beans: Not just in fairy tales
I’ll admit, I was nervous to meet Jewart. Not long ago I lived in San Francisco, where the slow food movement began. Foodies there can be just a hop, skip, and a chard away from icily judgmental. Imagine my relief when Jewart shrugged and admitted, “I didn’t know what kale was before this.”
And while he deeply values the environmental benefits of homegrown produce, that’s not all 5 Mile Farms is about.
“I’ve seen what building one of these community gardens can do,” Jewart says. “It changes social dynamics. It connects you to your city.”
“When you’re this older lady that’s never grown anything in her life,” he adds, “and your produce is now being sold in Wheatsville – that’s magical.”
Jewart, tattooed and pierced, is first and foremost an artist. He started his career in D.C., then moved to Austin and started Austin Green Art in 2004. Austin Green Art uses public art projects (often, temporary and outdoors) to build community.
“Unfortunately, most art and cultural activities have become this consumption-based thing where an expert does the entertaining and you do the sitting,” Jewart says. “Austin Green Art is about there being something for you to do. It breaks down barriers and builds community. Think of it like a barn-raising. ”
One day, Jewart and his team stumbled on something powerful. The project was to install a raised bed garden in a subsidized apartment complex.
“Something amazing happened. All the kids in the neighborhood came over. Then their parents came over,” Jewart said. “Everybody was so open, saying things like, ‘I remember my grandmother’s garden.’ Gardening is this really humble thing. You’re in the dirt, there’s this plant or seed that is vulnerable and needs you. People feel like they’re in a safe space.”
5 Mile Farms was born.
Back to your roots
The goal is to pepper Austin with thousands of homeowner farms that each supply organic, hyper-local produce to their own five-mile radius. Every few weeks, Jewart organizes a community class at his backyard farm, Resolution Gardens. The team of volunteers is growing.
He and I pause on our walking tour in front of the compost heap.
“This is a big piece of how civilization works,” Jewart observes. “People make the food and eat the food. When you do the work, it puts you in a certain relationship with the people around you, with nature, with the weather. All these things start to flow.”
“I’ve worked hard to create these amazing public art projects that build a sense of community,” he adds. “But with gardening, all you have to do is dig a hole.”
Visit resolutiongardens.org to volunteer, have a garden installed, sign up for the newsletter, or join the Community-Supported Agriculture program (i.e. a steady supply of hyper-local produce for $20 a week).