Zooey Deschanel is empowering Austinites to take sustainable agriculture into their own hands—in their own backyards.
Story and photos by Brianna Caleri
When Zooey Deschanel and her husband, Jacob Pechenik, were expecting their first child, they realized they didn’t know enough about where their food came from.
“There was very little transparency in the food business,” Deschanel says. “We wanted to be responsible consumers, and it was excessively difficult.”
That question led Pechenik to take over a hydroponics farm in Austin called Agua Dulce, where he realized the real barrier was not growing the food, but getting it to people’s homes throughout the country.
Using Pechenik’s entrepreneurial experience and Deschanel’s talent for addressing the public, the two created The Farm Project to “reconnect people with food” and start the company Lettuce Grow, which delivers backyard-ready hydroponics systems with monthly starter plants and access to a helpful app for foolproof growing.
The Farmstand, a stackable tower with 24 to 36 ports, allows home gardeners to make the most of a 3-foot-by-3-foot space. Water cascades down the inside of the tower, over the soil-free hanging roots of the plants and is sent back up again by an electric pump. Made of recycled plastic collected in coastal communities without waste-processing facilities, The Farmstand runs on a tiny amount of electricity and uses only 5 percent of the water a plant would need were it in the ground.
At harvest time, mature plants spill out lushly, yielding everything from herbs like basil and leafy greens like kale to heavy ground plants like eggplant and edible flowers like nasturtium. (The peppery buds of the bright-red nasturtium flowers elevate The Farmstand from a practical home grow space to a luxurious excursion into flavors rarely found on restaurant menus.)
“There’s a magic to it,” Pechenik says. “You start to see the wonders of nature.”
Lettuce Grow is meant to encourage people, especially families, to overcome the fear of failure implicit in traditional gardening and learn to approach growing food through a supportive community. And Farmstand growers may graduate to other types of food curiosity as they learn.
Agua Dulce, just 7 miles from Austin’s city center, is the main seedling supplier for the company in the Austin area and home to its R&D efforts. There, Stephanie Scherzer is overseeing customer experience by developing a recycled packing system, as well as curating recipes for subscribers and undertaking other odd jobs that get food from the farm to The Farmstand. Scherzer often sends her 7-year-old daughter outside to collect an entire “tower salad” for dinner.
“I’ve been growing food for 20 years,” Scherzer says, “but this seems to be the easiest, most successful [way].”
One of the most common hazards for people trying to make a difference is a feeling of isolation, helplessness in the face of billions of other people living differently. The Farm Project and Lettuce Grow address that weakness with a sense of community, which includes donating one Lettuce Grow membership to a local school or community-based organization for every 10 purchased memberships, as well as creating a docuseries starring Deschanel called Your Food’s Roots. The goal in schools is to use gardening and nutrition curricula alongside tasting the harvested plants or selling them to parents as a fundraiser for more school supplies. Similarly, the docuseries is best viewed as an offering of “positive choice[s],” Pechenik says, rather than yet another monolithic food system.
“You might only grow 10 or 20 percent of your food at home,” he says, “but you’re going to have those things in your mind…and you start living and making purchase decisions according to those values.”
That’s when learning to grow becomes so much more than a garden-variety activity.
Zooey Deschanel’s Tips for Environmentally Responsible Living
Shun single-use plastic. “Any time you can reuse something, that is a positive. Get a reusable water bottle and refill it. … Get reusable snack baggies for lunches.”
Use natural fibers. “Wash synthetic fabrics less and try to invest in more natural fabrics. The microplastics from our synthetic fabrics are washing into our lakes and oceans via our washing machines and it’s wreaking untold havoc on wildlife and ultimately ourselves.”
Go plant-based. “Eat less meat and dairy. If everyone cut down meat and dairy consumption by one-half, it would save a ton of resources.”