Urban Ag Census: Where Food is Grown in the City

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Raul Martinez pulls out weeds from a garden at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

Raul Martinez pulls out weeds from a garden at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

The map below, assembled by the Food Policy Council of San Antonio's Urban Agriculture workgroup, is the first comprehensive map of urban agriculture in the city. The workgroup's mission is to connect potential farmers with the best resources for creating a viable farm business, including business plan writing, access to micro loans, access to sales outlets, and affordable land options. In order to that, however, they need to know where food is already being grown.

Community gardens dominate the city’s agricultural landscape. This map allows residents to explore the city to find the food growing closest to them. Some universities, including Trinity and Incarnate Word, have student-organized gardens on site to supplement their environmental or nutrition departments. Other community gardens are nestled in residential communities, maintained by surrounding residents.

Community members discuss horticulture techniques at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

Community members discuss horticulture techniques at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

Many would presume that gardens are associated with the affluent, and while that may be true of residential gardens, the trend is the opposite for community gardens in San Antonio. Based on income data from the last census, more than half of the community gardens can be found in areas of the city with less than $33,000 median household income. Only eleven gardens can be found in areas with income over $50,000.

For that, the city can thank Green Spaces Alliance and the San Antonio Housing Authority. Most of the map's gardens are under the GSA banner, a testament to the work they've done facilitating gardens since their program's inception in 2007.

"All of the GSA network gardens grow something edible and combine their efforts with food for wildlife and pollinators through native plants," said GSA Assistant Program Director Michelle Gorham. "Most of the food grown at community gardens is taken home by the garden members while some is contributed to an alternate local economy through trading or donations."

Emily Morlandt (right) and Michael Green (right) work on a raised bed at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

Emily Morlandt (left) and Michael Green (right) work on a raised bed at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden. Photo by Scott Ball.

"Culturally, the gardens play a special role by allowing a venue for cross-generational and cross-cultural interactions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the three refugee gardens that have blossomed, which provide culturally appropriate food and a cultural identity for the refugee populations.”

The San Antonio Housing Authority has operational gardens on many of its properties.

"The SAHA community gardens help supplement fresh produce for the particularly vulnerable elderly and youth homes, said SAHA Sustainability Director Beth Keel. "Gardens at elder complexes provide great joy to the population as they share gardening knowledge with each other and their grandchildren when they visit. It's a sense of pride and exercise. The youth gardens inspire children to eat foods they have never tasted and sometimes have never seen before. We foresee many more community gardens."

SAHA is also working on a new urban farm concept, which should be unveiled in 2015, that insiders report will take place over multiple acres of property in the Eastside. More details are unavailable for now.

Several restaurants are also growing crops to treat their customers to garden fresh produce. Most are growing herbs to top off their dishes, but a few like The Cove produce more fundamental ingredients like salad greens to produce an impressive amount to supplement their menu.

There’s good reason to believe that more food is being grown in individual residential plots than community and restaurant gardens. A 2012 study in Chicago found that there were four times more residential gardens than community gardens in the city, and that they were generally more likely to be active. While this map doesn’t include residential gardens, it does include other home grown produce like oranges and lemons.

San Antonio Fruit Tree Project founders Mary Minor and Melissa Federspill harvest figs from a neighborhood tree. Courtesy photo.

San Antonio Fruit Tree Project founders Mary Minor and Melissa Federspill harvest figs from a neighborhood tree. Courtesy photo.

The San Antonio Fruit Tree Project has been mapping the fruit trees around the city. Along with cataloguing trees, the Fruit Tree Project marshals volunteers to harvest the fruit and donate it to the Food Bank.

“People from all different parts of our community have been willing to volunteer, share their knowledge and donate," said co-founder Melissa Federspill. "San Antonio has some great innovative minds that are working together to help increase access to fresh fruit and vegetables, and to create sustainable food networks.”

To add a fruit tree to their map, go to FallingFruit.org.

The gardens around the city are excellent at creating community, but they produce a tiny quantity of food. Urban farms, by contrast, have the capability to grow a lot. On an acre, the San Antonio Food Bank has produced five tons of onions. Most of the produce is directly donated through the organization’s mission work, but much is sold to restaurants and wholesalers. To inquire about crop availability and pricing (which will include carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, squash, watermelons, cantaloupes, and peppers), customers can contact John Velasquez by email: velasquez@safoodbank.org.

Farm Assistant Stephanie Patillo (left) harvests carrots at the San Antonio Food Bank farm with Farm Manager Mike Persyn. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

Farm Assistant Stephanie Patillo (left) harvests carrots at the San Antonio Food Bank farm with Farm Manager Mike Persyn. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

I operate LocalSprout, the first of what could become many urban indoor farms in San Antonio, that utilizes new technologies like digital sensors and LED lights to grow in indoor environments. In a small space, we can produce massive amounts of certain crops to sell to individuals and restaurants. Nationally, there are about fifteen large commercial indoor farms with a dedicated full time staff and large purchase contracts. Four years ago, there were none. As technology improves and we farmers get more experience, we’ll be able to grow more each year.

Chicago has more than twenty urban farms. Their success is related to their 2011 Urban Agriculture Ordinance which opened up most of the city's zones to legally site urban farms. In San Antonio, where the code is largely silent on food production, the Food Policy Council Code Review workgroup is pushing an explicit allowance for urban agriculture in most zones in the Unified Development Code which is under review this year. If passed, the ordinance change will clear up the uncertain legal status of existing commercial farms around the city and encourage the growth of new ones.

Sylvie Shurgot and Artudo Torres sell locally grown vegetables at the Dignowity Hill Farmer’s Market.

Sylvie Shurgot and Artudo Torres sell locally grown vegetables at the Dignowity Hill Farmer’s Market. Photo by Joan Vinson.

In Austin, production is broadening to include cricket and mushroom farming along with more than 50 community gardens. To compete, San Antonio can leverage price advantages like cheap land, labor, and electricity, which are the largest costs of growing.

As urban agriculture grows, so does the community that supports it. Gardener networks routinely bring residents together, creating a reason to meet outside of their own homes. If production can increase, San Antonio can also become resilient to global food supply problems and price spikes. Fresh fruits and vegetables may also give the community a healthy option for working on health problems.

The number of gardens and farms on the map is far larger than it was just five years ago. How full will San Antonio’s urban agriculture map be in the next five years?

 

*Featured/top image: Raul Martinez pulls out weeds from a garden at the GSA Olmos Park Terrace Garden.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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3 thoughts on “Urban Ag Census: Where Food is Grown in the City

  1. Villa Coronado Park has a fruit tree orchard with 21 trees. It was recently improved by Girl Scout Troop 506 in conjunction with SA Parks & Rec. Fruit can be harvested by the community. #gsswt #gssilversward #girlscouts

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