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Farming with a mission

Texas’ ‘oldest grocery store’ on the South Side

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Darron Gaus, farm manager for the San Antonio Food Bank, stands by a demonstration field at Mission San Juan Capistrano where only traditional methods are used for growing crops. In the background is a peach orchard. Photo by RB Ornelas

Deep on the South Side, near the banks of the San Antonio River, the fertile fields of Mission San Juan Capistrano have returned to life.

Thanks to a unique partnership with the National Park Service, the San Antonio Food Bank now operates a thriving farm, once dormant for decades. Today, plowed, tilled and irrigated again, the land’s new mission echoes the original one – feeding the hungry.

When Spanish colonists arrived, they built their missions as self-sustaining communities, including growing crops and raising animals. In the late 1700s, a lottery divided long rectangular plots called suertes, after the word for luck, to individual families to farm.

After the National Park Service was created, it assumed operation for the missions. The agency began to purchase some of the original farmland – including 64 acres around Mission San Juan, where brilliantly engineered Spanish acequias had watered fields for centuries. Over time, the acreage became dry and overgrown with brush, and the canals fell into disrepair.

“The National Park Service’s long-term plan for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park called for a demonstration farm at Mission San Juan, so we had to get water flowing again,” said Park Ranger James Oliver. “I’ve been here since 1991, and my first order was to get the ditch flowing. We worked with the Conservation Society (of San Antonio), the San Antonio River Authority, Los Compadres and a lot more, and we were able to turn on the tap in 2012.”

Preserving the original irrigation system was vital in the recent UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of the missions, he added.   

A 5-acre demonstration farm, developed to help revitalize history, was larger than the rangers could cultivate. When now-retired Park Superintendent Mardi Arce toured the smaller “urban farm” the food bank established adjacent to their headquarters on Enrique M. Barrera Parkway, she saw an opportunity to revive part of the mission’s original purpose — supplying sustenance to neighbors.

In May 2016, Arce and food bank President and CEO Eric Cooper signed an agreement to let the community pantry maintain San Juan’s historic demonstration farm, and work the additional 60-plus acres of mission fields to raise fresh produce for distribution.

Cooper called the agricultural tract “Texas’ oldest grocery store.” As it did in the days of the Spanish empire, the farm serves several purposes; bringing history to life in the demonstration plots, showcasing sustainable growing, educating visitors about nutrition and bringing a new supply of fresh, local fruits and vegetables to those in need – especially on the South Side, he noted.

Just as important, the farm depends almost entirely on volunteers.

Community is key for Darron Gaus, farm manager for the food bank.

“We normally have about 300 people a month volunteer at the San Juan farm alone. That’s about 600 man-hours of work,” he said.

Patrick Wahrer is among those lending a helping hand.

“I just moved to San Antonio a year and a half ago, and I’m semiretired,” Wahrer said. “With the military (Air Force), I’ve always had that tradition of giving back. I volunteered for some of the food drives and delivering boxes to seniors, and (this) got my attention, and I thought, ‘Hey, this is a pretty good idea.’”

He added, “I just do whatever they need, a couple of hours here or there, from pulling weeds to picking things. It’s great.”

Leading a visitor through the fields, Gaus pointed out the 5 acres of demonstration plots, where the mission’s original crops such as corn, beans and squash are grown. Here, heaps of stones help direct acequia water through hand-dug channels, and wooden gates regulate the flow.

The food bank’s 40 producing acres use more modern methods. A pump, 2 miles of underground pipe, and drip tape irrigate those fields. Onions, carrots, broccoli, cabbage and peppers are among the crops rotated in 18-month cycles. In fallow time, cover crops of wheat protect the soil.

There’s a 6-acre orchard, too. This spring, the young peach trees bore their first fruit. Satsuma orange trees fared worse, so they’ll be replaced by other stone fruit – nectarines, plums and apricots. In a few years, Gaus hopes to harvest 40,000 pounds of fruit a year.

That will not include watermelons – this spring, raccoons gorged themselves on nearly an entire plot.

In a recently harvested field, Mike Persyn, one of several food bank farm employees, was taking up drip lines after an onion harvest. Persyn has deep family roots on the South Side, too.

His mother’s family, the Van de Walles, have long worked thousands of acres here, including 25 acres now part of the food bank’s “urban farm.”

“We have always said farmers don’t really own the land, we are stewards of the land. We return that stewardship here,” Persyn said.

Using sustainable means, the food bank’s stewards are making a real impact.

“We try to contribute 300,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables a year,” Gaus said. “Overall, the food bank distributes 57 (million) to 60 million pounds a year, so it may seem like a drop in the bucket, but fresh, local produce is a really important part of nutrition.”

In the future, Cooper believes 500,000 pounds annually can be grown.

The farm’s biggest single-day harvest came in 2018. Helpers totaling 440, including about 90 kids with a group from El Paso, cleared a 5-acre cabbage plot one Saturday.

“The adults cut the cabbage and passed it down a line of children to 18-wheelers waiting to take it straight out for distribution that day,” Gaus said. “By that night, we had put 82,000 pounds of fresh cabbage on supper tables.“   

COVID-19, changing the way big groups gather, has temporarily halted most of the farm’s hands-on educational sessions, where youngsters learn about nutritional food origins.

Gaus and his colleagues are focused on developing distance learning, which could reach many more folks going forward, and are working on plans to irrigate the 24 acres of mission land not yet farmable. He’s continually inspired by helpers’ stories, such as one young man who volunteered with his mother and, upon tasting fresh hydroponic tomatoes for the first time, found them “sweet as candy.”   

Volunteers are even finding creative ways to cope with COVID-19 at the San Juan farm. In early June, with school sports on indefinite hold, one high school athletic director brought his team out to help harvest corn as a service project, Gaus said.

“The entire football team was here, picking corn as fast as they could, passing it to each other, running between the corn rows, having so much fun. It was wonderful,” he said. “I love the land, and I love to share that.”    

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