Spring 2017

A Mission to Grow

By Sarah C.P. Williams
Photograph by © BOB HOWEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Reviving ancient farming practices — and feeding the hungry — at San Antonio Missions.

I’m well within the city limits of San Antonio, a few minutes’ drive from the throngs of tourists at the iconic Alamo and Riverwalk. But in every direction, fields — dry and brown as they hunker down for the mild Texas winter — stretch until they hit neat, stately rows of trees. Just a few feet from the gravel path I’m walking on, a great blue heron suddenly takes off, rustling the brush it was hiding in before it soars overhead. Next to me, water bubbles down an acequia — a small man-made canal. 

“There are few places in the world today that look just like they did in the 18th century, and this is one of them,” Susan Snow, archaeologist for the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, said about the site. 

Beyond one tree line is Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of four missions along a 5-mile stretch of the San Antonio River that, collectively, make up the park. In the mid- to late 18th century, each mission was the center of its own bustling, vibrant and self-sustaining community, surrounded by farmland to grow crops and keep animals. In the years since, the city of San Antonio has been built up around the northern missions, but the land adjacent to San Juan and Espada — the missions that are farthest from the city center — has remained relatively free of development. For decades, the long rectangular fields, called suertes after the lottery system used to dole them out when San Juan was secularized in 1794, have been fallow. But today, the ancient water conduit and the empty farmland are being revived to grow crops once again — this time, to teach history and feed the hungry. 

In May 2016, park staff announced a unique collaboration with the local food bank to restore the long-abandoned farmland. In exchange for free access to 45 acres to grow its own crops, the food bank will maintain a 5-acre, historically accurate demonstration farm to educate visitors about the acequia style of farming.  

“To be able to use this historic property in a way that can more deeply serve our community is incredibly exciting,” said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. “It sounds cheesy, but the missions themselves were making a statement about the importance of community and service, so in a way, we’re bringing back that component of the missions.”

More than a million visitors tour the park every year, drawn to the Spanish colonial-style churches and outbuildings associated with the four missions — Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada — where padres from Spain recruited natives into Christianity. The architecturally grandiose buildings are fascinating, but part of the narrative has been missing until now, said Mardi Arce, the superintendent of San Antonio Missions.

“It’s a common misconception that the mission was just a church,” she said. “But there was also this cultural landscape; the community, the farming and education were huge parts of that.” 

Much of the land previously connected to Mission San Juan had fallen into the hands of private landowners since the decline of the missions in the early 19th century, but over the last two decades, the National Park Service has gradually been accumulating that land to restore farming. In 2015, once the land acquisitions and some accompanying infrastructure improvements were complete, the park partnered with the Texas Conservation Corps to hire a full-time farmer and make a long-term plan for the suertes. 

That farm coordinator, Torin Metz, has now spent nearly two years working to clear the property and begin planting on a small section of the demonstration farm. “A big challenge has just been figuring out how to make this thing work, which is not that simple,” Metz said, as he showed me the few garden rows where he’s rotated corn, peas and lettuce. There’s a constant tension, he explained, between staying historically accurate and producing any significant quantity of crops.

Just getting water to the demonstration field takes patience. The San Juan acequia that runs through the property branches off the San Antonio River 3 miles north of Mission San Juan. A mere 2 feet wide in most places, it is little more than an earthen ditch. In the 18th century, farmers would have redirected the water from this main acequia madre into the fields by piling dirt into the main canal to block it off and then digging out the side channel, said Metz, but an easier sluice-gate system — with concrete edges and wooden barriers at each juncture — is in place today. 

Directing the water out of the acequia madre is only half the challenge. Once the water hits a field, the crops need to be arranged just right — with downward sloping furrows between each row of plants — so that the water can flood the whole area. Though Metz has relied on a tractor to dig the initial furrows, constant upkeep of the garden is done by hand. 

“This method of flood irrigation is really labor intensive,” said Metz. “I can get everything set up perfectly, and then it rains and the furrows all get washed away.”

Today, the demonstration farm is well under an acre, and the food bank hasn’t yet started growing on the rest of the sprawling acreage, which will be farmed using a more modern setup. The food bank took over operations from Metz in early 2017, and Cooper said his organization expects to be able to grow half a million pounds of produce a year on the property eventually. Fruit and vegetables from the farm will make up only a fraction of the 62 million pounds of food that the food bank donates to food distribution programs across southwest Texas each year, but Cooper said there’s more to the farm than just the yield.  

“Part of our strategy is engaging recipients of food in the process of helping us grow and produce food,” he said. “Getting families out here to learn about where food comes from is a piece of teaching them how to be healthy and self-reliant.”

Many people I talked to about the new collaboration between the park and the food bank and the restoration of the farmland around San Juan said it feels as if things are coming full circle. 

“When the mission was established, these fields were here to feed the people who lived there,” said Arce. “To have them back in production is just a wonderful story in that, yes, it will educate visitors, but it’s also now a resource for local people again.”

About the author

  • Sarah C.P. Williams

    Sarah C.P. Williams is a Texas-based freelance writer who covers science, medicine, natural history and anything else that strikes her interest. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post and Science News, among other publications.