I’m taking a break, for a moment, from the local food series to try something a little more literary. Two weeks ago, I met Brenton Johnson, owner of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, in the hopes that I could talk to him about my senior thesis. I didn’t get what I came for – that is, a neatly recorded interview – but I left with good story. Here’s what ensued:
“I’ll be busy, but you can hop in the truck with me and we can talk,” Brenton told me over the phone last Friday when I asked if I could interview him for my senior thesis on local food. He gave me the address of his processing site and I grabbed my keys. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I said. He’d already hung up.
It was a warm day and the smell of rotting organic matter lay over the place, familiar, but unpleasant. As I walked into the barn amidst a group of volunteers cleaning onions and a handful of sweaty employees hauling boxes of vegetables, I wiped the lipstick from my lips with the back of my hand before knocking on the door of Brenton Johnson’s office. This is no place for make-up, I thought.
When I walked in to his office, Brenton told me, smiling, that he was in a online meeting with his accountant. “Ten or fifteen minutes,” he said quietly. Instead of waiting for him to finish, I walked out to the barn where the volunteers had formed an assembly line in front of a long slanted shelf carrying crates of vegetables. They were packing boxes for Johnson’s community supported agriculture customers. Sweet potatoes, baby bok choy, summer squash, mixed greens, cilantro, onions, peppers, bunches of mint. I squeezed into the line between a woman in her late-twenties who canned her own jams and a college student studying Chinese medicine at Austin Community College. We filled the boxes printed with the farm’s distinct logo for more than an hour. It was not hard work, but I could feel the back of my shirt becoming damp with sweat.
When I headed back to Brenton’s office, he was still talking numbers. “What about those two hundred acres we’re gonna buy?” he asked his accountant. I leaned in to look at the Excel spreadsheet on his screen. The figures were huge. Not tens, but hundreds of thousands. Six zeros, even. According to the five-year forecast displayed on the screen, his net income was expected to breach six million dollars. Yet Brenton just sat there, unassuming and surrounded by dirt – it covered his fax machine, his computer, his file cabinets, his worn cotton pants. He turned to me and said, smiling: “Big numbers, huh?”
After his meeting, he asked if I had time to ride around with him on his afternoon errands. I tried to tell him yes, but his phone rang and he answered it before I could reply. I nodded and he walked away, leaving me to wonder if I should hurry to follow him, or wait until he returned. I wondered when to bring up the list of interview question I had written in my notebook. What does “sustainable food” mean? How did you become the most successful local farmer in Austin?
He pointed to the truck in the driveway, and I climbed into the passenger seat. It took several turns of the key to start the truck; when the engine finally turned over, Brenton told me that in had no air conditioning. “I’m used to that,” I told him. And I was, but I don’t know if he believed me.
When we stopped at Callahan’s, the local feed store, I asked him what his ideal world would look like. He searched through rows of different sized screws and explained that he imagined it simpler, slower, and using less energy. When I tried to point out that this sort of world wouldn’t support his successful farming business, he shrugged and said that no man can ever be completely true to his philosophy. “I haven’t thought about this in a long time,” he told me, “but I like talking about it.”
When he dropped me off, he stopped for a minute, relaxing with his arm on the hood of his truck. It was the first time I’d seen him pause all day. He talked about his love for business and his desire for innovation. He told me he was constantly searching for ways to do things better, faster, cheaper.
I gave up trying to record him and just listened. Before I knew it, he had waved good-bye and was heading back up to the barn to do more of the work he loved, leaving me to watch the tiny clouds of white dust that flew up around the heels of his dirty boots.