Ryan Crocker & Christina Treviño
Ryan Crocker and Christina Treviño with sons Evan and Ruben
Story by Byron Thompson • Photography by James Coreas
The morning air hovering over Ryan Crocker’s 11- acre field is cool and damp. The freshly tilled soil has yet to be warmed by the sun’s early rays. Volunteers waiting for Crocker’s instructions gather on the far side of the lettuce beds, near rolls of drip tape and stacks of transplants. It takes a lot to get a college student out of bed at seven in the morning. Yet nearly a dozen are here on the eastern edge of Denton, waiting to get their hands dirty.
Crocker is the farm manager for the Denton outpost of Johnson’s Backyard Garden, an Austin-based operation that provides community-supported, certified organic produce to locations around Texas. Besides his role with JBG, Crocker also operates the Denton farm store Earthwise Produce with his wife and business partner Christina Treviño. Crucial to the success of both operations is the loyal group of volunteers and interns, many of whom are students at the University of North Texas.
Students themselves a mere decade ago, Crocker and Treviño met during the summer of 2005, while participating in a UNT social development program in the Mexican state of Jalisco. They had been warned that the conditions in the Mazamitla mountains would be primitive—no running water, plumbing or electricity. Neither saw it as an inconvenience. The simple lifestyle resonated with them in ways they hadn’t anticipated.
Volunteer coordinator, Christopher Klabunde
“Not to overly romanticize it, because I know the locals’ lives were difficult, but it was gorgeous,” said Crocker. “The food was really fresh because they didn’t have a fridge. If they were going to eat a chicken that night, they processed it that day and made homemade corn tortillas daily. It was just a totally different way of eating, living close to the land.”
It was wealth that could not be measured in terms of money. It was homesteading at its essence. “At the time I had no way of understanding it,” he said. “I just thought ‘This is cool.’”
From that formative experience, they returned home armed with the knowledge of the life they hoped to cultivate. After graduating in December 2006, the couple moved with their first-born son, Evan, to England so that Treviño could accept a job in social work. With his wife working full-time, Crocker began to pursue his interest in growing food. Taking cues from an older neighbor, he raked up manure at the nearby horse paddocks to fertilize the backyard garden of their Victorian semi.
That’s when Crocker started seriously researching the skills necessary to farm. He was soon to find out that reading about farming and practicing it were miles apart.
It takes a lot to get a college student out
of bed at seven in the morning. Yet nearly a
dozen are here on the eastern edge of
Denton, waiting to get their hands dirty.
Their original plan was to move back to the Dallas area so Treviño could continue doing social work, and Crocker could teach. But as the agriculture itch began to grow, they started looking into farming opportunities. By this time their youngest son Ruben was born, and it was difficult finding an internship that would support a family of four.
They ended up on a garlic farm near Ojo Caliente, New Mexico, living in a one-room adobe zoned for chicken cooping. They cooked over a wood burning stove in a canvas-walled tent and pulled water from a nearby well. In this rustic setting, Crocker learned how to produce on a larger scale from farmers who still used flood irrigation. He worked the land with a team of Mammoth Jack donkeys.
“It was a rude awakening. But at the same time, there were moments that were just beautiful and amazing,” he said. “When you use draft animals instead of a tractor, the pace is slower and quieter. The only sounds you hear are the popping of the roots and the birds singing.”
The family moved back to Denton in 2011 and through a friend at the Denton Community Market found a quarter-acre lot to cultivate. They broke ground during the hottest summer in Texas’s history.
“That was the year we had the heat wave, 30 consecutive 100°F days with no rain, just about the worst time to start a garden,” he said. “It was a test.”
Ryan Crocker tending to his fields.
From this test, Earthwise Produce was born. They started selling their produce at the Denton Community Market alongside items Crocker picked from other farms around the DFW area.
Long-time customer and candidate for Denton city council Amber Briggle met Crocker when there weren’t many options for local organic produce in town. When she came across the Earthwise stall at the market, she knew they had found a niche, and she started buying from them each week.
“I wanted to support my friends and this dream they had to bring an urban garden to Denton,” Briggle said. “I delight in knowing that when I make a meal for my family, it’s healthy and safe.”
When the market closed for the winter, Earthwise Produce had garnered a small group of loyal customers. Not wanting to lose their momentum, Crocker and Treviño began a CSA pick-up from the carport of their triplex.
When demand began exceeding their resources, they sought out other organic growers. That’s when Crocker contacted the more-established JBG.
“I kept growing my own little market garden,” Crocker said. “I was putting some of my items into the CSA, and sourcing items like teas, organic citrus and Texas pecans, Texas organic shiitake mushrooms, but the bulk of the produce was coming from Johnson’s.”
The following year, Crocker and Treviño leased their current home on Elm Street, using the parking lot for the CSA pickup. After proper zoning and additional construction, they opened their Earthwise Produce farm store in the front section of their home.
Treviño ran the shop, helping day-to-day customers and walking CSA members through the market-style pick up, while Crocker continued farming. But to keep their store stocked and the CSA shares circulating, Crocker spent two days a week of driving to Austin. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he had to change gears and get back to working the land. In 2013 when JBG offered to buy his business and make him their farm manager, he accepted. At first, customers, who perceived themselves as local Earthwise supporters, were confused by the new branding of the partnership. “The CSA was a huge changeover. All of a sudden we were merging with Johnson’s so there was this whole campaign of information,” said Treviño.
As they worked out the kinks, business continued to grow. For Crocker and Treviño, JBG gave their Earthwise dream a firmer ground to stand on. Last November, Crocker connected with Singing Oaks Church of Christ and worked out an agreement to cultivate 11 church-owned acres on Mockingbird Street. JBG delivered a tractor to Crocker in February, and he began preparing the new plot immediately. With the summer harvest, Crocker hopes that at least half of their CSA boxes will be filled with produce from this North Texas plot.
Currently, Crocker and Treviño provide fresh produce to about 300 CSA members every week. They achieve this with only three employees and a burgeoning group of volunteers. Treviño has 122 people on her list who receive information about weekly opportunities— working in the garden, delivering shares, helping on pick-up days and setting up stalls at farmers markets.
Soon the first harvest of the new farm will be ready and the volunteers, some having had no previous farming experience, will begin seeing the fruits of their labors. The farm’s volunteer coordinator Christopher Klabunde believes that this kind of involvement is empowering. “A lot of people might think that they have values, all these big rhetorical trump words like sustainability or community,” Klabunde said. “But a lot of folks don’t know how to participate in the things that they value. When they are able to, the beliefs they hold to be true become authentic and a part of their lives.”
Briggle sees the community that’s developed around Crocker and Treviño as the same community that shops small and supports local friends in their business endeavors.
“We identify with what Ryan and Christina are doing. Just a few years ago, they had this market stall and now they have a shop and their own farm,” Briggle said. “We buy from them because they’re a perfect definition of what makes Denton so great.”
Look for JBG-Denton produce at Earthwise Produce, the Denton Community Market, McKinney Farmers Market, Coppell Farmers Market and Good Local Markets.