Garcia Street Urban Farm grows with new partnerships
August 1, 2023
Everything has a season at the Garcia Street Urban Farm.
Located in the heart of San Antonio's East Side, the farm is part of William R. Sinkin Eco Centro, a sustainability center run by San Antonio College.
The extreme summer heat has fried the farm's vegetable and flower crops, but its managers have stayed busy cultivating other ways to help the farm grow and prosper.
One of the fruits of their labor is a $35,000 grant from technology giant Microsoft that will fund a special project showcasing urban agriculture. Another initiative with Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas -- in partnership with Tito's Handmade Vodka -- will grow Eco Centro's education programs and its cultivation of community gardens.
"We're super excited about these new partnerships," said Rose Flores, Eco Centro's academic program director.
The Garcia Street Urban Farm sits on 4.1 acres of land owned by Opportunity Home San Antonio, formerly known as the San Antonio Housing Authority. A housing project on the property was demolished in the 1990s.
During the growing season, the farm is a bountiful oasis in a food desert for many area residents. Flores said "San Antonio has a big food disparity issue," particularly in the area around the farm.
"Our farm team has grabbed bags of food and gone out and walked into that community and just handed it out door to door to make sure that everybody has access to that food," Flores said.
In addition to its expansive beds of vegetables and flowers, the farm has several greenhouses. A small, corrugated metal barn houses rakes, shovels, a Rototiller and other gardening and farming implements. Rainwater from the roof gets filtered and delivered into a 1,000-gal. catchment tank. An adjacent, covered patio is used for workshops and other educational programs, which are offered free or at nominal cost to the general public.
The classes include instruction on gardening, water conservation and cooking demonstrations. The farm welcomes volunteers during the week as well as special workdays. Torin Metz, an Eco Centro service learning coordinator, said a volunteer event sponsored by Tito's last spring attracted 50 participants.
"There was no vodka," Metz recalled with a grin. "But, they brought tacos and they did give us lunch."
Austin-based Tito's works closely with Green Space Alliance, an urban land trust founded in 1998, to promote community gardening and environmental education. This year, the alliance has officially recognized the Garcia Street Urban Farm as one of the first of a group of "hub gardens" in its new Urban Land & Water Program.
In a news release announcing its partnership with the farm, the Green Space Alliance spelled out its vision for the project. By helping each hub garden become a center for local gardeners to learn, share ideas and get resources, the organization hopes to transform its network of community gardens by boosting collaboration and partnership in pursuit of conservation.
"Garcia Street stands out among its peers as a group that is uniquely mission-driven," the alliance stated in the release. "The farm's value to the San Antonio community is clear and your passion for food justice and environmental education is an example that many gardeners could benefit from emulating."
The $35,000 grant from Microsoft will help fund Eco Centro's educational programming and install 50 fruit and pecan trees at Garcia Street. Some of the trees will replace an orchard on the farm that was destroyed during Texas' "Snowmaggedon" deep freeze in Feb. 2021. Microsoft has paired its Eco Centro grant with another one for $25,000 to American Forest Foundation, a national conservation organization that will lend its expertise and oversight to the Garcia Street project.
Metz said the forestry program will be used as an educational opportunity for the public to learn how to properly plant their own trees, including the ones frequently given away for free at community arborist events.
"They say, 'Here's your tree' and they hand it you with a postcard with some planting information on it," Metz said. "We want to actually do some workshops about tree care and planting to ensure that there's longevity to a lot of these trees."
During much of the year, most of the land under cultivation at Garcia Street is devoted to flowers and vegetables, including tomatoes, onions, beets, Swiss chard and collard greens, all grown without pesticides or herbicides. Drip lines keep the plants irrigated. Eventually, as the South Texas heat intensifies and the growing season ends, the farm team swaps out the dead plants for cover crops that will be used to help rejuvenate the soil.
"Cover crops are just different grains and legumes that aren't for eating," said Jovanna Lopez, who also works as an Eco Centro service learning coordinator. "This time of year we take our crops out, we put in cover crops and we get ready to plant for the fall season, which will start in the next couple of weeks."
In addition to drought and harsh growing conditions, urban farming can present some unique challenges. For instance, only about a quarter of an acre of the 4.1-acre farm currently is under cultivation. On the surface, it looks like there is lots of space available for additional planting beds. But, most of the land contains buried reminders about the property's past life as a housing project.
"There's tons of asphalt, concrete and pieces of foundation," Metz said. "They're equipment killers. You hit that with a piece of equipment and it's going to buck like a bronco."
Most of the debris must be painstakingly removed by hand. Long lengths of fabric, called silage tarps, are spread over the reclaimed land to prevent weeds. Later, the farmers blend in natural nutrients and mulch.
It can take a year or more to prepare new beds for planting.
"You can't just rush out here and starting planting things everywhere," Metz said. "We have a take things slow. You have to learn from nature that you just can't force things. The best way to proceed is thoughtfully and slowly in some simple ways."