This story has been updated.
Imagine a spot in San Antonio where cyclists cruising along the River Walk’s Mission Reach can stop in a shaded area where dense fruit trees are growing tall and sprouting nutty pecans or juicy figs. The trees’ harvest, open to any passersby, offers free, healthy options like peaches, plums, papaws and persimmons.
For the past few years, Mitch Hagney has been working on making that vision a reality, and on Sunday his plans will finally come to fruition — or at least to seedling.
As president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio, Hagney has been working with the city and county to secure the space and funding to plant San Antonio’s first urban “food forest,” a type of perennial garden aimed at addressing food inequity. This Sunday, after four years of planning and fundraising, Hagney, the Food Policy Council and any local volunteers interested in helping will plant 60 pecan and fruit trees in Bexar County’s Padre Park. The county park is on the South Side of San Antonio near Hot Wells Conservancy and sits within a 30-year flood plain along the San Antonio River.
While it will take five to 10 years for the trees to successfully bear edible fruit, Hagney said he’s excited to see the project finally get underway. The food forest has been a dream of his and the Food Policy Council’s for a while now, Hagney said, and the nonprofit has been working closely with the city’s Office of Innovation and the county’s Parks Division for the past year to see the project through.
“This will be the first area,” Hagney said while showing the San Antonio Report the designated 3.7 acres in the park where several thin irrigation trenches have already been dug. “On the other side there, there’s a big drainage ditch, and that’s part of the appeal for this space, because we want to be able to prove that flood plain areas can be utilized for food forests.”
Hagney and the Food Policy Council hope to see a second area planted this fall and a third area planted next year. The additional areas will include pollinator-friendly perennials, as well, he said.
After reaching out to state agriculturalists, Hagney came to the city and county with detailed plans for which trees to plant, how to irrigate them and how to organically maintain them, said the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard and Bexar County Parks Manager Ken McGlamery.
Having a lot of that legwork already done made it easy to work with the Food Policy Council to help it find the right piece of county land, McGlamery told the San Antonio Report.
“In the park world we like trees, so any chance we get to say yes to trees, we want to say, ‘Yeah let’s do it,’ and we were able to do that in this case,” McGlamery said. “It’s an unused part of the park, so I really think it will add something to that area; we’re happy to have it there.”
McGlamery said the use of the land is also a nod to San Antonio’s early agricultural history. The land along the river was used by Native Americans and Spanish colonists to grow and harvest food with the innovation of complex acequia systems for irrigation, Hagney said. The Food Policy Council has been careful to consult archaeologists and the Texas Historical Commission prior to using the land for the food forest, he said.
To launch the food forest, the Food Policy Council received $25,000 from the city’s Office of Innovation, $5,000 from the Texas Food and Wine Alliance and additional funds through private donations, Hagney said.
As it fights to attack food security inequities in San Antonio, the city looks forward to seeing this project flourish under the Food Policy Council’s maintenance, Dillard said.
“Padre Park was really the perfect spot,” Dillard said. “We’ve been talking about food deserts for a long [time] and expanding that access to healthy items within our neighborhood. We’ve been talking about ‘How do we grow those within those neighborhoods? How do we utilize spaces that are underutilized?’ So that’s really how it came to be.”
The planting event will kick off at 9 a.m. Sunday at Padre Park, 6515 Padre Drive. The event will incorporate a blessing ceremony from American Indians in Texas. Tools will be provided, but interested volunteers are encouraged to bring a shovel if they have one.