What I learned at Urban Farm Camp this summer is that snack time is sacred. When my group of campers needed a little inspiration to finish harvesting the amaranth, spreading the marigold seed, or watering the ancestral garden bed, the promise of chilled fresh melons, raspas, paletas, and fresh-pressed juice shone like a beacon that rivaled the Texas sun.
Located on the near-Southside, in a neighborhood that is undoubtedly changing as developers turn their attention to the urban core, Urban Farm Camp at the Renewable Republic is making the kind of change San Antonio needs.
To understand the camp, one must first understand the backdrop. The Renewable Republic sits on the grounds of an old mattress factory. Backed against train tracks on a dead end street, the site of a now thriving permaculture garden was only years ago a desolate lot complete with unsavory souvenirs such as needles.
Simply put, the Renewable Republic is a solar panel installation company.
When Renewable Republic owner Skeets Rapier met his wife, Lorie Solis, in 2012, Solis brought the homesteading and holistic expertise that Rapier had always wanted to incorporate into his solar business.
“I can build a solar-powered stage, but only (Lorie) can make it a thriving learning kitchen,” Rapier said.
More accurately, the Renewable Republic is not only an urban farm and artists’ village that practices solar energy, permaculture, rainwater reuse, and edible design, but it’s also a company that installs and teaches these services. Several young professionals live on site and contribute directly by photographing events, aiding in construction, and doing logo design, and contribute indirectly with their financial contribution for rent. In exchange, they live in a collaborative artist community set within a natural sanctuary in the heart of the city.
Notable local artists such as photographer Jorge Villarreal and furniture maker Leo Barrios currently reside at the Renewable Republic.
With the recent addition of Nigerian dwarf goats, butchering classes will soon be added to the list of services. Urban Farm Camp is currently in session for kids ages 5-12. In the fall, Urban Farm Camp will offer sessions for adults.
Food is the heart and soul of Urban Farm Camp. Captured in more obvious activities like pickling cucumbers and preparing lunch, the theme and the cycle of food also can be found in activities like changing the goats’ hay, starting seedlings, using an Eloo (dehydrating toilet), and feeding food scraps to the soldier flies in the compost bin.
Awareness, a big emphasis of Urban Farm Camp, complements the food theme. Each morning at last week’s camp session, both counselors and campers found places in the garden to do “sit-spots.” Campers received journals to capture the experiences that came with honing their senses to the surroundings. Plenty of farm camp sounds like birds and wind in the trees, and smells like tomato vines and a fish pond, were present, as were the noises of the urban world we sat in the middle of – trains, sirens, cars passing by. We noted the contrast of life inside and outside the perimeter fence.
I was fascinated by how quickly things changed in a few short days – the budding, opening, and closing of blooms on the lotus plant, for example. I noticed attitudes changing, too.
It wouldn’t be truthful to say there wasn’t any resistance to the smell of old cheese and meat products in the bin where the soldier flies live, and there was plenty of discussion over the unfamiliar experience of sharing bathroom quarters with a few grandaddy-longlegs. But for many of the campers, even the “gross” stuff started to feel normal and fun as they grew more comfortable with “roughing it” throughout the week.
One of the larger issues we explored with some early resistance was the responsibility associated with meat – death to allow life.
Chef and owner of Restaurant Gwendolyn Michael Sohocki joined us for Thursday’s “fish kill” day. Along with instructing our fish cleaning, Sohocki led the instruction on making corn tortillas from scratch and a garden-fresh cucumber onion slaw.
Most campers thought it was exciting to catch the tilapia out of the aquaponics pond. There was some squirming during the initial knife to the fish’s brain, but Sohocki’s calm demeanor as he explained his process made the activity far less dramatic than might be expected of that age group. Sohocki answered questions as he went and even humored the request from the crowd to see the fish’s heart.
In the end the fish got mostly rave reviews, though most of the diners were unaware that the meal they had helped prepare had been instructed by one of San Antonio’s most acclaimed chefs.
Urban Farm Campers, who were ages 5-10, faced both life and death head on and pushed themselves to more this week than many adults ever have.
While Solis, Renewable Republic’s “boss lady and Urban Farm Camp director,” was able to sow the seeds for the summer camp, the endeavor was made possible by time, food, and supply contributions from farm manager Stephanie Pattillo, Sylvain Clavieres, and Sarah Nordman at Talking Tree Farm, Torin Metz at Mission San Juan Farm, Nadia Gaona of San Antonio Edible Landscapes, Stephen Lucke of Gardopia, Brian Gordon of Roots of Change, Sohocki, the volunteer counselors, and others who gave what they could to see that Urban Farm Camp could become a reality.
For more information on workshops, classes, events and camps at the Renewable Republic, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit its Facebook page here. To subscribe to the mailing list, visit its website here.
Top image: Session two campers and Lorie Solis show the produce they harvested on Tuesday July, 26. Photo courtesy of Urban Farm Camp.