“Organizations aim to pepper Austin with urban farms.”

Organizations aim to pepper Austin with urban farms.

By Asher Price

AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Published: 8:47 p.m. Thursday, April 15, 2010

Within the buzz of traffic from Koenig Lane and a view of a Texas Gas Service office and warehouse across the street, Dale Oliverio’s backyard isn’t obviously situated as a pastoral paradise.

Until recently, his yard was overrun with “weeds and nut grass, and very little real grass,” he said. “It was such a waste of space. I would mow it every week, just wasting gasoline.”

But about four months ago, the 38-year-old systems analyst who lives near Highland Mall turned it over to an organization called Urban Patchwork, a 10-month-old operation that offers to turn homeowners’ yards into vegetable patches.

Now neat rows of vegetables — onions, garlic, tomatoes, ancho chile and jalapeno peppers, beets, kale, green beans, potatoes and romaine lettuce — are sprouting out. In return for granting access to the land, Oliverio and other property owners who participate get all the free vegetables they can eat. The biggest pests are Stitches and Angus, Oliverio’s two pugs.

Community-supported agriculture outfits — where buyers of the produce often pay, in labor and money, to a local farm — have long been part of the Central Texas “locavore,” or local food movement, scene. But Urban Patchwork and other similar projects in town are an effort to turn Austin back into a quilt-like urban farm, where front yards and backyards are not for grass but for vegetables patches.

“We want to foster a sense of community, to encourage people to meet at the front of the house,” said Paige Hill, a 34-year-old former graphic designer and landscaper who started Urban Patchwork and is Oliverio’s girlfriend. “You’re giving something to the land and getting something back.”

Urban Patchwork currently farms four plots and has 40 subscribers, each of whom pay about $20 a week for vegetables. Hill said they hope to have another 10 plots by the end of the year. The plots range from 1,000 to 3,500 square feet; property owners donate water used to irrigate the plants and commit to providing land to the organization for at least two years.

Right now, Hill finds herself getting more offers of land than she can handle and has to turn down some yards because they don’t get enough sunlight to nourish a vegetable garden. Urban Patchwork also prefers not to farm any plot smaller than 1,000 square feet.

“I get a lot of: ‘I want you to come use my yard,'” she said, “and I have to respond, ‘I can’t do this.'”

Her business partner is Keith McDorman, 25, who is fresh off a two-year Peace Corps stint spent working with farmers in Jamaica and speaks with great purpose about rehabilitating the soil and reusing fish droppings as garden fertilizer. His gospel is books authored by the local-food, back-to-the-land demigods Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry. And, a kind of Johnny Appleseed of the squash kingdom, he enjoys “guerilla gardening,” or throwing seeds here and there, in his words, “watching nature make something out of that.”

Hill and McDorman are also setting up their plot-owners with chickens so they can add eggs to their weekly crates. And they dream of branching off into organic slaughtering operations.

Theirs is not the only urban yard share in town. In East Austin, Natalie Yoder, who signs her correspondence “Cheers and chives,” also gardens on other people’s property.

And next week, Adam Dell, a brother of Michael Dell, will officially launch Shared Earth, a social networking and gardening Web site dedicated to making land available for gardening.

Since it got off the ground three months ago, the site has about 19 million square feet of registered potential garden space, said Mahshad Vakili, a spokeswoman for Austin-based Shared Earth.

“The idea is: I want a garden, and you want to garden,” she said. “You have the time, and we end up sharing what comes out of the ground.

“It’s not a place to find people to mow your lawn or do your weeding,” she said.

“We think this is something that’s time-honored and gone on for centuries,” said Susan Leibrock, community relations director for the Sustainable Food Center, which runs three farmers’ markets in Austin as well as cooking and gardening programs.

“This is the first time we see it from the philanthropic or good-intentions perspective rather than as a profit-driven program with tenant farmers.”

At least for now, the urban plots don’t appear to be competition for the farmers markets, Leibrock said.

“This gives the potential for people to learn to grow their own food and have more access to fresh local food,” she said.

asherprice@statesman.com; 445-3643

For more photos and an video interview with the Urban Patchwork farmers:  http://galleries.statesman.com/gallery/urban-patchwork-041510/#76165

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