Jeremy Batsche is an X-ray technologist at The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio and a busy dad who spends his evenings chasing his three active young sons. He spends what little free time he has growing food for his family in just about every square inch of his small backyard in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood.
His love of gardening got started in 2013, and in less than a decade Batsche has gone from experimenting with a few fruit trees to having four chickens, 14 fruit trees and three 4-by-8-foot raised garden beds that produce hundreds of pounds of fresh produce for his family’s table every year.
“We’re growing on a 5,500-square-foot lot,” Batsche said. “We’re working with such a small space we’ve got to be strategic, so a lot of the things I grow outside the vegetable garden, they’re ornamental, they’re pretty, but they also offer food.”
Last year Batsche’s gardening excellence earned him first prize in an annual gardening competition hosted by Gardopia Gardens, a community garden on the East Side. His prize was a $100 gift card to Lowe’s, a plaque and a seat at an awards gala.
This year’s competition got underway at the spring equinox, March 20, and will run through June 21, the summer equinox, said Gardopia founder Stephen Lucke, who runs the contest. Competitors have three months to grow, harvest and document their bounty, and then enter their data into an online portal.
Lucke wants to know how much food backyard gardens, community gardens and small local farms are producing right here in San Antonio, so he’s running the competition in part to harvest gardeners’ data but also to encourage more gardening.
“The cost of food is increasing,” he said. “I remember when I used to go to the store with a hundred bucks and I could have a whole cart full of food. Now it’s like five bags and I’m like what the heck? Where’d all my money go?”
Twenty participants are registered for the competition, including school gardens and community gardens, as well as individuals like Batsche. Lucke is hoping for more like 50 total participants, so even though the competition has already started gardeners can still enter.
The contest isn’t just limited to grown food, though. Eggs from backyard chickens and even compost count toward a participant’s total weight of food produced.
Compost counts in the competition, Lucke said, because it’s a way to reduce food waste.
“Approximately 40 percent of food in America is wasted,” Lucke said. “And I do it, and you do it, and our kids do it.”
Composting that waste turns it back into something useful, he said, and because compost tends to be fairly weighty it can boost a competitor’s production total.
To enter their data into the online portal, Lucke said participants need to take photos of their food, compost or eggs on a scale, showing the weight and a time stamp and then upload them.
Lucke said plenty of other big cities are way ahead of San Antonio in encouraging urban gardening and measuring such food production. Philadelphia started a program to promote urban agriculture back in 2014, Atlanta created an urban agriculture department called Aglanta, and Austin commissioned its own food report in 2018.
“Think about it this way, if I could grow 25% of my food then I can reduce my grocery bill by 25%,” Lucke said. “So instead of spending $100 I spend $75. It adds up over time.”
Saving money and feeding his kids high quality, organic produce is exactly what motivates Batsche to grow his own garden.
“It’s a priority for me to grow really nutrient-dense [food] without a lot of pesticides or herbicides to feed my kids,” Batsche said. “We’re not growing all of what we need, but we’re growing some of it, and we’re eating better because we do.”
Another benefit of growing his own food is that his children have started helping with the gardening and are more open-minded about trying vegetables.
“They’re more involved so they want to experience it,” he said. “Yeah, they’re not gonna eat everything, and they may want extra salad dressing, but for the most part they will at least try everything.”
Pragmatic about his gardening, Batsche makes a point of selecting foods that grow well in San Antonio’s climate, passing on anything too expensive or high maintenance.
“It’s nice to be able to come home and get out in the garden and de-stress,” Batsche said. “The garden is supposed to be a place of peace, in my way of thinking. I find peace in my garden.
“I see a lot of people planting a bunch of things that don’t do well here and that looks stressful.”
What helped him win the competition last year were potatoes, butternut squash, tomatoes, bell peppers and beets, which grow very fast.
For his part, Lucke is hoping to have at least five to eight years’ worth of citywide data on food cultivation by 2025, in time for Gardopia’s 10th anniversary.
Growing food should be a priority for the city, Lucke said, and his vision goes far beyond residents growing backyard gardens. He has his sights set on the thousands of unused acres in city parks, on church properties and on school land that could be put to good use if the focus was on growing food, not lawns.
“There’s an opportunity for institutions that have had long and deep roots in the community to leverage urban agriculture not only for the benefit of food, but for the benefit of creating community,” Lucke said. “And it feeds the people mentally, spiritually, emotionally, socially. There’s so many benefits beyond just the nutrition.”