Kempner: Twin DeKalb brothers pay (in fresh veggies) to use home lawns


Ah, front lawns. Symbol of home and nesting. Also, sweat-inducing, time-sucking money pits that make us look bad in front of the neighbors.

Which is why you might want to know about Georgia Tech-trained engineers and twin brothers Roger and Reggie Ramos of DeKalb County. They “pay” to use some of homeowners’ front lawns. The soft-spoken 34-year-old brothers kill the grass and convert the yards into money-making vegetable mini farms.

They handle the growing and harvesting, paying homeowners in $25 weekly allotments of vegetables and selling the bulk of what’s harvested to a local restaurant and at farmers markets.

Their business, Grow With The Flow LLC, works only in the Tucker area, but they say they want the idea to spread to become part of a cooperative with other would-be lawn/farm entrepreneurs. Lawnpreneurs?

The enterprise is akin to how vacation rental giant AirBnB allows homeowners to squeeze more life out of their spare bedrooms and unused basements. Which is really just part of a bigger hunger to find more uses for our non-productive assets. (I just wanted to sound all business-like.)

LEARN MORE: COMMUNITY GARDENING

Got unused clothes? Consignment stores might give you cash/pennies for them. Going somewhere and have room to deliver something on the way? Atlanta-born Roadie has a system that helps you get paid for offering up space in your vehicle. Have a fire pit and extra land going unused out back? Online site Hipcamp helps you rent it out as a campsite.

Lawns offer a potentially big addition to the mix. There are 1.25 million acres of home lawns in Georgia alone, according to Clint Waltz, a University of Georgia extension specialist in turfgrass. Georgians spent $2.77 billion on their lawns just in 2006. Waltz said the total now is sure to be higher.

I told him about what the Ramos brothers are doing on just six yards in the Tucker area. (Homeowners have signed up to add seven more yards soon.)

“The turfy in me isn’t real wild about it,” Waltz said, “because it is taking grass out of the landscape.”

But he said he supports people doing what they want with their yards. Which, he told me, makes him not so much a fan of homeowners associations getting particular in dictating grass rules.

Yes, what the Ramos brothers are doing would freak out some HOA folks. Add lawns to the list of polarizing issues facing society.

I like a good lawn. In the past I pushed for a house with enough yard for me to play pick-up football games with the kids. But I can’t bring myself to pamper grass. If it’s vaguely green and not too far above the ankles, it looks fine to me, no matter how many horticultural varieties are in there.

But some of my best friends are yard manicurists. For them, mowing is meditation. Order is accomplishment.

Waltz told me he sees them all, from people with the fancy reel mowers to homeowners who “want to do the absolute minimum on a lawn they hate.”

A few years ago he and a UGA researcher studied planting winter-growing vegetables on top of lawns with grasses that are dormant in cold weather. They called it the Edible Lawn.

But Waltz said he doesn’t think the idea of outright removing lawns and replacing them with vegetable gardens is going to catch on in a giant way. Lawns have sunk their roots too deep into single-family-home society, I guess.

None of this seems to dissuade the Ramos brothers.

They have other trends to give them confidence: the push for locally-grown and organic foods and the interest in micro farms.

They have only a quarter of an acre under cultivation so far. Yet they say their operation is almost break even and should be profitable enough to provide living wages to them and two planned hires once they hone their processes and start working the seven yards on the waiting list.

Surprising, right? Can they really make that much off of so little land?

The brothers got the idea for rented suburban yard gardens from a guy out of Canada who has operated a similar venture, Green City Acres, for years.

Roger walked me through some of the numbers, stressing that they expect to do at least four plantings a year on each plot. He said they carefully analyze everything from how long it takes them to harvest a crop on a given day to how much yield they have per row. I saw one garden where in a few rows they had planted arugula, mustard greens, bush beans, radishes, sweet peppers and beets. That still left plenty of lawn for the homeowner to mow.

Two neighbors walking by had only nice things to say about the operation.

“It’s wonderful,” said Mutsuko Johnson, who has purchased some of the Ramos’ products at a Tucker farmer’s market.

Still, her husband balked at the idea of tearing out their own struggling lawn and replacing it with a front-yard vegetable garden. They replaced the grass with planted flowers, instead.

Homeowners like Amy Parsons and her husband initially signed up for a two-year stint in the program. They agreed to provide use of a portion of their lawn as well as some water. The brothers agreed not to grow anything illegal.

“I was a little bit nervous about offending any neighbors or freaking them out with this new garden experiment,” Parsons told me.

For six weeks, the brothers left “a big ugly tarp” on part of the yard to kill the grass below. That’s just the kind of thing that would attract an HOA. But there isn’t one for the neighborhood.

Still, Parsons told me she hasn’t heard any complaints. She shares fresh vegetables with neighbors. Walkers check on how things are growing. And her children like seeing the garden.

“Providing nourishment to people in our community is just so much more meaningful to us than the grass that we had to mow and spend fuel on and time on,” she said.

Sometimes, it’s not the grass that’s greener on the other side of the fence.

MYAJC.COM: REAL JOURNALISM. REAL LOCAL IMPACT.

AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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