Hundreds of San Antonio Food Bank staff and volunteers will soon be working the same land that Spanish colonial settlers and Native Americans started farming more than 280 years ago at Mission San Juan Capistrano.
National Park Service and Food Bank officials signed a unique agreement on Friday morning that adds more than 40 acres of historic farmland to the Food Bank's inventory. In exchange for the land and water from the historic acequia, the Food Bank will maintain five additional acres for a functioning demonstration farm closer to the mission that will serve as a living educational tool for tourists, locals, and students.
"This is Texas' oldest grocery store," said Food Bank President and CEO Eric Cooper. "This farmland nourished the people and to be able to bring that back is pretty exciting. ... You need good soil and you need water to grow something here at Mission San Juan – they have both."
The Food Bank, which maintains the largest food assistance program in Southwest Texas and feeds more than 58,000 people every week in 16 different counties, already has 22 acres of farmland at its headquarters on the Westside.
Once the farm is ramped up to full productions, the Food Bank estimates the new farm could yield almost 500,000 pounds of produce per year to add to the total 61 million pounds the Food Bank currently distributes.
"One of our biggest needs is fruit," Cooper said, especially peaches, plums, apples and other stone fruits. "We're working with the National Parks Service on a potential orchard. We'll also be growing cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, and onions – an array of crops."
It's also an opportunity to showcase sustainable farming and gardening techniques while "harvesting great food for San Antonio's hungry," he added. The new farm will also help the Food Bank serve the low-income areas in the Southside more efficiently – with food, nutrition education, and opportunities to get their hands dirty.
"We just need lots of volunteers," he said. "Literally hundreds. It takes a lot of labor to plant, maintain and then harvest (the fields)."
On the Park Service's side, the Food Bank will take directions from Mardi Arce, superintendent for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, and her team as far as what kinds of crops will be planted where. The demonstration farm will include crops similar to those planted in the 1730s and will show hundreds of visitors every year how "ingenious" the historic irrigation system (acequias) really is.
The Food Bank's acreage, south of Mission San Juan, will be using modern pumps to efficiently spread water over the massive farm while the demonstration crops will be watered the old-fashioned way: through the opening and closing of acequia gates, fed by the San Antonio River.
"It only took us 35 years to make that happen," Arce said. The National Park Service has been trying to revive the historic farm land ever since it assumed control of the missions parkland in 1978. After securing the land and eventually the water rights, the oldest in Texas, all that was missing was a farmer.
The demonstration farm is already on its way thanks to Torin Metz, who has been working the farm for one year. He's halfway through a two-year position funded through the Texas Conservation Corps. He'll be working with the Food Bank and Park Service to transition management to the food bank and start expanding the crops.
Research is underway to find out what specific strains of fruits and vegetables were historically grown at San Juan, Arce said, and "if we can find them, we'll grow them." For now, generic seeds are used.
Visitation to the historic missions has increased since they were designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites in July 2015. Attention to detail, programming and management has also increased for the Parks Service as well as the City of San Antonio, which is currently implementing a work plan for growth and preservation in the Southside as developers eye properties close to the Mission Historic District.
"It took us nine years to achieve this World Heritage designation and it took a collaboration of many partners," said the City's World Heritage Director Colleen Swain. "This partnership (at San Juan) demonstrates the continuity of our history and culture – it's the use of the labores (fields) to feed the local residents. It's another example of the interweaving of our diverse peoples and cultures (of San Antonio)."
The work plan also includes addressing infrastructure needs, wayfinding, local business integration and retainment, and documenting the stories and history of the missions – including the Alamo and Rancho de las Cabras.
While the City's planning and implementation efforts are already underway, the citywide conversation about the future of the missions – and the implications of the World Heritage designation – continues.
A representative from the Alliance for San Antonio Missions, a group concerned about commercial and residential development near the missions, placed flyers on vehicles in the San Juan parking lot during the morning celebrations that promoted its event this weekend that will discuss "smart development."
The flyer included a letter sent to Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), whose district includes the missions, outlining the Alliance's proposal that the City dedicate money from the estimated $750 million 2017 Municipal Bond to "acquire key properties around the four San Antonio Missions on the Southside" including existing green spaces and "developed space that can be appropriately be re-purposed to preserve and enhance our communities and the experience of the Missions."
On Monday, May 23, The San Antonio Missions National Historical Park will host a panel discussion on historic preservation issues in the Buena Vista Theater at the University of Texas at San Antonio's Downtown Campus from 7-9 p.m. Panelists include William Dupont, director of the UTSA's Center for Cultural Sustainability; Naomi Kroll-Hasselbroek, senior conservator for the National Park Service; Dennis Baltuskonis of Fine Art Conservation Services; and Heather Hartshorn, a scientist that works for Highbridge Materials Consulting, Inc. The discussion kicks off the four-day San Antonio Missions Preservation Workshop that celebrates the National Park Service's centennial. Click here to find out more.
"I'm honored and privileged to be here because I'm just the crabby old man that lives in the house down there," said Reverend James Galvin, pointing just beyond the farm towards the mission. San Juan has an active parish – as does Mission Concepción, Mission Espada, and Mission San José – and Galvin has watched the partnership between the church and the Park Service produce "great fruits" both figuratively and, now, literally.
He offered a brief prayer in honor of the historic agreement:
"Pray, dear God, we are happy when we are helping one another. We are truly blessed when we are helping one another.
"Lord help us to continue to cooperate with each other for the good of all. Truly bless this task as we plant the seeds.
"And Lord, bless all those who will come here to be like the people of the past on this great mission place – this sacred place. Help them to make their mark on the ether of this beautiful, sacred place.
Top image: National Park Services educator Tom Castanos demonstrates the route of water that leads from the acequia to the farmland. Photo by Scott Ball.