Culinaria, local wine and culinary arts nonprofit, expects to officially open The Farm this fall. It will be a unique learning lab facility with a focus on "technology to table" initiatives and sustainable indoor and outdoor growing practices.
The $6.5 million project will be located next to Magnolia Pancake Haus’ main property near IH-10 and Huebner Road, and will bring awareness to the state of our food production systems. It's geared to become a hub of culinary education through the use of innovative and emerging technology. The Rivard Report visited the grounds Thursday.
Some have wrongly called the project an "urban farm," said Suzanne Taranto-Etheredge, Culinaria president and CEO.
“An urban farm is really not what it is, we are a cultivation of a lot of different things, so we are just calling it 'The Farm,'" she said.
The building itself, which makes up $1.5 million of the total project cost, should be done by August and open to the public by Sept. 1, while its surroundings won't be fully completed until a later date. Over the next couple of years the enclosing acreage will be transformed into an area for several outdoor growing practices such as vertical farming.
The Farm will educate people from many different walks of life. The project, the first of its kind, is a team effort between local chefs, farmers, food professionals, and volunteers who want the San Antonio community to learn how to create the best flavors from home-grown produce.
The Farm will be located on a plot of land owned by Robert Fleming, a founding partner of the project and owner of Magnolia Pancake Haus.
“Rob has always been heavily involved with Culinaria, and one of the biggest challenges was finding a location for this idea," Taranto-Etheredge said.
Taranto-Etheredge talked with Fleming about chef education, the importance of where food comes from, and the growing farm-to-table movement. “Rob came on board and he told me, ‘I have this land and I want you to do it here,’” she said.
The property’s three-acre indoor facility, aptly named Magnolia Halle, will also serve as an event venue. The urban barn’s location on the farm paired with its proximity to a popular restaurant with catering services provides an ideal setup for parties, corporate events, weddings, and special occasions.
Although the urban barn will take center stage, the outdoor growing facilities will tie the whole project together. The property will be enclosed by a double vertical wall that allows for upside down farming and plentiful crops. The trees surrounding the urban barn will employ the same vertical farming technique to grow melons. All in all, the Farm and Fleming’s adjoining restaurant make up 6.6 acres.
Fleming's daughter Tricia, the site's project manager, emphasized the project's use of local supplies and companies and its focus on sustainable architecture.
"We have recycled and reused materials like reclaimed or corrugated metal from barns in Texas and we'll be building some of the barn doors with reused products," she said.
Education with a Purpose
An educational endeavor at its core, The Farm’s goal is not only to promote healthy nutrition and sustainable planting, but to shed light on the issue of food insecurity as well. One in seven Americans experience food insecurity, meaning the source of their next meal is unknown. In San Antonio alone, more than 325,000 people go hungry each day. According to research, all Americans will face some form of food insecurity by 2050.
“Two percent of the earth’s population is (made up of) farmers and that’s not enough to feed the world’s population,” Taranto-Etheredge said. “We wanted a place where people could go to find out where their food comes from and dive into a learning lab of different growing practices. Traditional meets modern meets tech.”
State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123), who has made public education one of his priorities during his legislature, is an avid supporter of the project. Touring more than 50 public schools inside the Texas House District has opened his eyes to the reality of food insecurity among children.
(Read more: Diego Bernal Goes Back to School)
“I knew that there were hungry kids in town, and we’ve combatted that through things like the food bank, but (visiting the schools) has really pulled the curtains back on how widespread and how dire this issue is,” Bernal told the Rivard Report Wednesday.
When he heard about The Farm, Bernal immediately agreed to support the endeavor. Its educational component alongside its emphasis on growing food in urban environments through technology made him think about nutrition, he said.
“Secondary to feeding and hunger is nutrition and we want to give kids nutritious food,” Bernal said. “It’s not just that kids are hungry, but there are a lot of school programs that give food to kids on Friday to last until Monday, but the quality of the food (isn’t up to par).”
Bernal has identified disproportionate economic challenges that plague different areas in the city and aims to come up with sustainable solutions and an institutional way to balance them, because “we’re not getting to all the kids we need to get to.”
Existing programs provide kids with non-perishable foods such as apple juice, pop tarts, and orange crackers with peanut butter, but in the long run that isn’t helping the kids, Bernal said. “Nutrition matters both in the short term and long term.”
The Farm will provide an educational foundation for children as they participate in school tours and summer camps, They will experience various farming technologies first-hand and learn practices that focus on sustainable planting, harvesting, repurposing, and preserving – all with the goal of enforcing healthy eating habits. Adults will be able to participate in chef-led cooking classes using the produce grown on site.
Chef Jason Dady has been helping with fundraising for the project and is excited for his own kids to participate once The Farm launches. Dady firmly believes that children need to witness the whole process of food growth in order to adopt healthier eating habits. Teaching them how to garden is a valuable tool not only to get them excited, but also to inspire them to try new foods.
"You’ll get to meet your class out there once or twice a month and maybe chefs will provide a lunch where you see something on a vine one second and you are eating it the next,” Dady said.
The Farm will also include a compost collection initiative, a butterfly sanctuary, fitness classes, therapeutic gardening, and even a Farmers Market, which will feature local growers and vendors.
Technology to Table
The Farm's focus is a “marriage of farming technology and all kinds of things associated with farming practice,” Taranto-Etheredge said. “We reached out to the smartest people in the world who are leading the most innovative programs."
Two of the partners behind the project are the MIT CityFARM and the University of Houston’s Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. Culinaria has an endowment fund with the University of Houston’s hospitality school and will be implementing a cutting-edge aquaponics system, said Taranto-Etheredge. Aquaponics are soil-free systems that reuse their own waste, therefore, only using one-tenth of the water used for soil-based gardening.
“We wanted to focus on the different ‘ponics:’ hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, and so on, and make them an integral part of the farm,” Taranto-Etheredge added. “Some people don’t understand and think that hydroponics make fake or genetically modified food, but in reality it's all organic, and there is no one way to grow this food."
The MIT CityFARM is an on-site laboratory, with a one-of-a-kind controlled environment agriculture system. Its computer uses variables to monitor nutrients, temperature, and water levels in order to duplicate climate conditions from around the world and grow a variety of foods on site. The produce is grown hydroponically, thus minimizing water, energy, and space usage and maximizing nutrition and flavor.
The Farm will also produce a smaller MIT CityFARM unit that can be transported to schools so children can learn how to grow food themselves, Taranto-Etheredge added.
Bernal hopes that The Farm will cultivate mindful ways of growing food, allowing their techniques to become more accessible and democratized.
“I believe that there is a pioneering aspect to technology. ... It might be unattainable to the masses early on, but once it starts working, the cost of that technology drops and it becomes extremely accessible,” Bernal said. “That’s the pattern of innovation. People are always surprised that we get such incredible innovation in town and I keep telling them, 'Have you realized how often you are surprised? This is who we are.'
"San Antonio is a very innovative, forward-thinking city.”
*Top image: A front view of The Farm. Rendering courtesy of Culinaria.