The community garden at the Sutton Oaks Apartment Community. Photo by Scott Ball.
The community garden at the Sutton Oaks Apartment Community. Photo by Scott Ball.

A large urban farm is coming to San Antonio’s Eastside. The San Antonio Housing Authority received approval yesterday from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to use funds from the Choice Neighborhoods program to create a large commercial urban farm as part of the Eastpoint Promise Zone initiative.

HUD funded a $30 million Choice Neighborhood grant in 2011 to the Eastside. The grant took a broad approach, including neighborhood development programs that go far beyond housing itself. The funds have been allocated for bold initiatives, including purchasing vacant lots, giving low-value homes a facelift, business façade restoration programs, a community safety center, fixing up the old Good Samaritan Hospital, neighborhood beautification programs, and now an urban farm.

Julián Castro, HUD’s Secretary and San Antonio’s former mayor, called HUD the “Department of Opportunity” during an interview last week. “Housing is just a platform for us to create greater opportunity in people’s lives.”

“The Urban Farm was one of the proposals SAHA sent HUD in the Choice grant that they seemed to like the most. It really seemed to get at their neighborhood development program,” said Arrie Porter, senior manager of neighborhood revitalization at SAHA.

The project will be one of the first Housing Authority urban farms in the country, along with Chicago and New York City. No other housing authority in Texas has made the jump to food production.

Beth Keel, the sustainability liaison at SAHA who proposed the program, said SAHA is looking at the bigger picture.

Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.
Volunteers help build the large community garden at Sutton Oaks on May 3. Photo by Mitch Hagney.

“Housing isn’t just about buildings, it’s about the environment that residents live in,” she said. “The safer the environment is, including the food that the environment around them provides, the better the housing is.”

The urban farm’s funding amounts to $250,000, and that will be used for the initial build-out process. The location is still being finalized, but SAHA already owns the properties under consideration and the footprint for the space will be several acres. Funding will be used to build structures, ready the soil, clear area, and other initial procedures for readying farmland.

Since running a farm also requires financing for labor, programming, tools, and other ongoing costs, SAHA is still putting together the funding details and may encourage some other funding from other organizations and the City to get the initiative moving. The City’s Sustainability Plan is likely to include priorities for increasing food production, so contributing to SAHA’s urban farm would be a good fit.

Outside of funding, Keel said SAHA is looking for partner organizations to help plan and organize the farm.

“We’re not planning on working alone,” she said. “We’ll have an initial planning session for those groups to join us in late September, and interested organizations should contact me.”

The urban farm is intended to be a commercially viable operation, with about three full-time employees. While the business structure is still in development, the farm is likely to use a community supported agriculture model. Most CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) have customers pay early in the season for a share of everything that is produced, giving them a better rate for each crop because they bought in bulk for the season.

Some of the produce will also go to restaurants and corner stores. It’s easy to imagine the relationship between the new farm and local organic-focused southern comfort restaurant Sweet Yams just down the street. The Eastside’s farmers market at Dignowity Hill will be an easy retail outlet for the farm as well.

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.

SAHA plans to involve local schools and universities in agricultural education programming and internships. St. Phillip’s College, the University of the Incarnate Word, Palo Alto College, and Wheatley Middle School are already in talks with SAHA about incorporating the urban farm into part of the curriculum.

For urban agriculture in San Antonio, having federal and city investment in a commercially viable farm is a major development. Compared to many potential urban investments, farming has a high upfront cost and a slow return. Large nonprofits like SAHA and the San Antonio Food Bank – which has its own 25-acre farm – have the capacity to pay the initial funding to ensure the surrounding community benefits from enhanced food security, more natural spaces, and healthier diets.

For the Eastside, with only one grocery store and poor public transportation, the new farm will be an oasis in the food desert. Victor Zuniga, director of Activities at SAHA’s Sutton Oaks property, said a bus trip to the closest supermarket takes 45 minutes each way.

“We need good food here. There’s no question,” he said.

Keel said San Antonio used to be one of the largest producers of fruits and vegetables in Texas.

“Now the farmland is taken up by buildings and streets, she said. “Lots of people here have no idea what it takes to produce that one apple or one squash. If we can reinvigorate a little bit of farming in the city, then we can teach people, especially kids, to get back to their roots.”

Once the initial planning session is completed with SAHA and its partners in late September, there will be a planning session for members of the community, volunteers, and hungry residents to voice their opinions and contribute to the building process. The date for that meeting has not been announced yet.

“We’ve been working on this program quietly for four years, and now we’ve got the go ahead,” Keel said. “I’m excited. We’re going to change a lot about the Eastside with this farm.”

*Featured/top image: The community garden at the Sutton Oaks Apartment Community in San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.