By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

When the Food is Free Project launched its front yard garden in central Austin in 2012, it really struck a chord with the neighbors.

Make that gourd. It struck a gourd, because within weeks the neighbors had begun to host their own front yard community gardens. Today, 19 of 30 houses on the block boast front yard gardens.

FIF-AustinIt was a beautiful thing, this street of gardens greening up Joe Sayers Avenue, just north of the University of Texas campus. And the idea of using urban front yards for edible, sharable food was so intrinsically just right for the times that it quickly mushroomed. Food is Free emboldened thousands of people yearning to turn yards into gardens and the concept spread around the globe spontaneously, fed by social media. It jumped as far as Tasmania, the first location to replicate FiF, and within Texas; the third site that popped up was just down the road from Austin in San Marcos.

Food is Free Project founder John V. Edwards now counts an incredible 190 cities as having reached out to start their own FiF projects.

But back in Austin, food wasn’t the only thing growing in the ‘hood —  buildings were too. The urban, blue-leaning and some say “weird” heart of Texas was exploding with downtown renovations and gentrifying neighborhoods. Cozy WWII-era clapboards were being replaced by three-level condos and luxury Hill Country-style duplexes. The storied land of the slackers that had been captured to perfection by director Richard Linklater was becoming an empire for hackers, or at least software engineers.

By 2014, someone was eyeing the lot with the old blue house enrobed by a profusion of fruits and vegetables, and they weren’t looking for a free apple. They wanted to re-develop the land, and they offered $450,000 cash to the owner of house, the landlord of the Food is Free Project.

The landlord gave Edwards and his non-profit project the first option on the property. Edwards, a former UT-Austin film student who had briefly sold cancer insurance (“it opened up my mind to the food and chemicals in our lifestyles”) before turning to gardening, was torn. He and his compatriots gnawed on the idea, inclined initially to try to buy the property. They’d built the Joe Sayers Avenue headquarters into a bustling center of horticulture. It now had an outdoor kitchen used in classes on how to grow and cook food; a hugelkultur spiral garden (fed by logs buried below); a tool sharing program, a fish pond, a rooster, two mini pet pigs, 12 chickens and a partridge in a pear tree. OK I made up the partridge. But you can hear doves cooing across the settled neighborhood.

“We’ve put years of work into developing this farm, planting fruit trees, and it was hard to imagine all that work being paved over by condos,” Edwards said, in an interview with Green Right Now. The group also rued the potential loss of the “meaningful relationships” that had blossomed when the neighbors had moved their gardening enterprises out from behind backyard fences to their front yards.

But it was also hard to imagine coming up with $450 K overnight. So they threw the question out to their many followers on Facebook, and got a surprising response.

“When we shared our situation with our online community we were overwhelmed with support to crowdfund for our next farm,” Edwards said. “Our fans reminded us that The Food is Free Project has already become a worldwide movement to grow food and share it with the community, and that its headquarters can exist anywhere.”

It made sense. FiF could use a little more space, and its money could go further if the managers found a peaceful spot farther from the cranes and bulldozers. The group wanted to grow the enterprise anyway and a new headquarters could make room for visitors on education missions.

“I strangely wonder how things might now evolve in a way we could have never imagined. Now we have the opportunity to create a space that can host leaders from around the world to come together, share ideas and they can go back and take action in their piece of the world. We see our new farm as a chance to create open source plans and document every step of our endeavors,” Edwards said.

Or as he put it in a news release, announcing the project’s next step, a crowd-funding campaign on IndieGoGo:

“We’re creating a network of food growers, sharers, and change-makers. We’ve realized the power of inspiration and action is strong and our efforts affect others far beyond our own horizon.”

Their goal is to raise $250,000 to buy and build a new “Open Source Farm.” Contributors will get various perks, ranging from recognition, a FiF T-shirt or a fruit tree named after you, ranging up to the privilege of naming a chicken (for a $1,000 donation) or even the greenhouse (that’ll set up back $20K).

And as always, you can join the project by creating your own front yard garden. Because, Food is Free. (Real estate, not so much.)