From concrete jungle to bountiful urban garden, the 12-acre Urban County Farm in Garland teaches Texans about the farm-to-plate journey in an urban environment. Teaming up with Dallas County officials, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service mobilized the strong, local Texas Master Gardener volunteer network to combat local food insecurity by teaching residents about vegetable farming on a small scale.
Ultimately, the partnership has inspired urban agriculture across the county and fed several Dallas-area homeless shelters in the process. Fruit and vegetables planted at the location, including tomatoes, peppers, okra and onions, have provided 2.5 tons of fresh, farm-to-plate produce to six shelters so far this growing season.
“Our fruit and vegetable harvests go to a central distribution hub, then it is distributed to shelters and community centers with food kitchens,” Jeffrey Raska, AgriLife Extension horticulture coordinator, Dallas County, said. “From our garden to the shelters, it is a perfect example of farm-to-plate for an urban county.”
Cooperative effort to feed area homeless
Without the support of Master Gardener volunteers or of local businesses like Restorative Farms and Big Tex Urban Farms, the production, harvest and distribution of the Urban County Farm would not be nearly as successful. More than a dozen Master Gardener volunteers in the area provide labor to maintain and harvest the produce at the facility, while Restorative Farms has donated numerous gardening supplies, including more than 500 foldable pallets, which are perfect for container beds, Raska said.
Big Tex Urban Farms, based in Fair Park, plays an active role in the program by growing fresh vegetables, including greens, and by picking up and delivering harvested produce to the shelters. Big Tex has been involved since 2018 and has been a big part of the cooperative effort that will likely hit a milestone this season – 1 million servings provided to the shelters.
Raska said the demonstration gardens play a small part in the partnership, and the volunteers and their desire to make a difference in the community keep it going.
“We’re not gladiators or knights in shining armor; we’re just human beings,” he said. “We’re just people doing what we should be doing. All these people. I couldn’t do it without them.”
Creative use of metropolitan space
The location was provided and renovated for AgriLife Extension by the Dallas County Commissioners Court. Dallas County District 1 Commissioner Theresa Daniel spearheaded the project to transform the 12-acre former Road and Bridge barn facility on Rowlett Road into an education center for an under-served area, focusing on urban farming and public health initiatives.
“Dr. Daniel is always out there,” he said. “She’s very involved in this urban farm.”
There are seven demonstration gardens, an orchard and a vineyard at the location. A large, paved area holds dozens of raised-bed planters made from donated foldable shipping containers.
The overall footprint of the container garden is just over 2,000 square feet, which is proof gardeners can grow immense amounts of food in small spaces. In all, Raska said the small-scale, high-concentration method includes 400 tomato and 200 pepper plants and a bevy of okra and onion plants for vegetable production.
The orchard produces fruit from apples to berries, and the vineyard produces grapes that will be sold to area winemakers or used to make fresh jams to be sold, Raska said.
The method is ideal for urban gardeners.
Raska said the facility can produce up to 8,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables annually. The container beds provide a solution for space and soil issues and make growing easier.
“We collect data on everything. We measure the amount and weight of every tomato or grape that comes off the vine,” he said. “We collect the data so we know exactly each plant’s potential under these conditions and pass that knowledge on because as growers, we should always be striving for better results, especially when space is limited.”
Urban garden goals, challenges
This growing season was a challenge, Raska said.
Winter Storm Uri set back the growing season this year by wiping out the first round of plants, Raska said. COVID-19 has reduced volunteer availability, which impedes production and harvest, but the location has produced well under the circumstances.
The long-term challenge at the Urban County Farm, he said, is to improve output from each plant from season to season. This is the challenge for all urban farmers committed to learning and growing as growers, whether they are supplementing the food on their tables or their income.
The next growing season will begin with planting in low tunnels in January to allow early harvests by April, Raska said. The goal is to yield more produce for the shelters and showcase the results urban farmers can achieve.
Raska, the county and volunteers are committed to educating the public about how-to-grow, but also the benefits urban gardening can have for individuals, neighborhoods and communities. Gardening can reduce grocery bills, and fresh vegetables are an essential part of healthy diets. Studies also show gardening is good for mental health and physical activity.
“We are here to help urban dwellers realize their goals, whether that person is trying to reconnect with their past when they used to help their grandmother in the garden, cut costs and eat healthier, or, maybe they see an entrepreneurial opportunity,” he said. “That is what we are here for, but being able to provide shelters the harvests from our urban farming demonstration gardens is a win-win for everyone involved.”