Photograph by Education Images, UIG via Getty Images
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At the Mission San Juan Capistrano, part of San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, 45-acres of open land will be farmed in partnership with the San Antonio Food Bank.

Photograph by Education Images, UIG via Getty Images
The Plate

Reviving a Centuries-Old Farm to Feed the Hungry

With help from a food bank and an ancient irrigation system, an 18th-century Spanish mission is set to farm its land again.

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, a new sort of mission is taking root at one of its West Texas parks, where four early 18th-century Spanish missions still dot the landscape along the San Antonio River.

More than churches, the missions once included housing, granaries, and farm and livestock fields that sustained small communities. Now, the surprisingly green acreage surrounding the Mission San Juan Capistrano—which underwent a period of cultivation lasting nearly 250 years—will soon grow food again thanks to a unique partnership and an ancient irrigation system.

This is a goal the park service has been working toward for more than 30 years, says Mardi Arce, superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. But she didn’t imagine they’d find a partner as fitting as the San Antonio Food Bank, which feeds some of the neediest members of its community by, in part, growing nutrient-dense produce on its own 23 acres.

The partnership represents the food bank's largest expansion yet—growing produce on 50 acres surrounding San Juan, chosen for the joint project due its rural location and large landholdings relative to nearby Missions San José, Concepción, and Espada.

“The more exposure we can give people to seeing where food comes from, the more conscious they are about what they’re eating and the impact of it,” says Patrick Brennan, the food bank’s agriculture initiatives and facilities manager, who's overseeing the project.

Parks as Working Farms

Though growing food has long been part of the park's plan, the team didn't have a clue how to start even a small garden on its own.

“We’re park rangers,” Arce says. “We have a lot of career fields in our park, but [farming] was not one of them.”

A landscape architect on staff had tried to grow a few things, but the team needed a dedicated farmer to cultivate a small portion of the land as a demonstration of what could be done.

As part of a two-year project that ends this year, the park was able to hire a farm coordinator through the Texas Conservation Corps and began growing historical crops on a few acres near the mission. Blue flour corn, squash, and even huitlacoche, an edible fungus considered a delicacy in Mexico, began to sprout on the historic lands, according to a blog maintained by Torin Metz, the interim farmer from the corps.

But Arce was still stymied on a long-term solution—until she read about the food bank in a local newspaper. Would they be interested in tripling the amount of land they farm for the hungry?

“I asked and thought I might very nicely be told they were busy enough,” Arce recalls. “But they were very interested.”

Rather than lease the land to the food bank, the park service struck a deal that allows the nonprofit to grow and harvest food from the mission's 45-acre open lands in exchange for maintaining a 5-acre demonstration farm rooted in historical farming methods.

Though the deal is unique, it’s not the first time national park lands have grown more than stunning landscapes. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio has awarded about a dozen 60-year leases to grow food in swaths of the park, complete with single-family homes located on-site. Point Reyes National Seashore in California leases land to ranchers who maintain the region’s cattle-dotted hillsides.

An Ancient Method Revived

At Mission San Juan, creating a farmed landscape to surround its stone walls was baked into the park’s charter and constitutes a return to its historical character. That look might not have included John Deere tractors like the one the food bank owns and intends to use, but, Arce says, “we don’t have the labor pool they had during the mission period” to grow food by hand.

The park spent several years restoring San Juan's Spanish system of hand-dug channels, called acequias, which divert water from the river to the fields for irrigation and back, following the contours of the landscape. The seven miles of acequias that snake to and from San Juan comprise the oldest water right in Texas.

And though all the farmed lands at the mission will be irrigated using the acequias, only the demonstration farm will use the traditional method of flooding the areas around planted mounds of dirt to moisten the earth. The rest of the land will tap into the channels using modern irrigation methods such as pumps and drip tape for vegetable beds.

Brennan says he can’t think of a better place to grow more food for the community. “It’s a beautiful place to have that impact on the environment and peoples’ health, to connect the past with the present and future of food production,” he says.

Though the food bank plans to avoid pesticides, other modern farming techniques will help the organization add about 500,000 pounds of produce to the pile of donated goods they distribute throughout southwest Texas each year.

But the uptick won't happen right away. Since much of the mission lands haven’t been farmed in 60 years, the farmers are working through the end of the year to prepare the soil, with plans to plant in early 2017. Along with the demonstration farm, where heirloom varieties will give visitors a glimpse of what was grown on the land 250 years ago, the mission farm will include an orchard with about 500 peach, pear, and citrus trees.

The larger spaces will be planted with “heavy hitter” crops that are nutritious but store well, such as onions, sweet potatoes, and watermelon. The farmers might grow a hard-kernel heirloom variety of corn and offer it to food bank clients to be popped on the cob, which avoids additional processing. Wheat is also on the long-term planting list, though another partner might have to be added for harvesting and processing. Brennan, who started farming in California, admits that the Texas weather can be a challenge, “but you can still feed people here.”

Though the food bank will add a couple of farmers to its staff to accommodate the new endeavor, the nonprofit will also look to volunteers to help on both farms. There will be harvest days in the demonstration garden and orchard, as well as opportunities to see the historic acequias at work.

And, just as it was 200 years ago, food growing will once again be a community thing.

Follow food and farm journalist Whitney Pipkin on Twitter.