Building Soil from Scratch, Two Brothers Embark on Urban Farming Odyssey
August 10, 2016 | Jocelyn Kerr
The 2008 Farm Bill opened the door for new farmers and ranchers by allocating $75 million annually to launch the USDA Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program. New farmers jumped into the program to start small, limited resource farms and ranches, and Congress increased funding to $100 million annually in the 2014 Farm Bill.
The 2014 bill also established a USDA microloan program to lend up to $50,000 to small farmers who may not qualify for traditional commercial loans.
Brothers Thomas and Daniel Garcia-Prats know a little something about starting a new farm from scratch. They founded Finca Tres Robles/Small Places, LLC, a small urban farm in east Houston, in 2014. The farm sits on an acre of land surrounded by industrial buildings and low income residential housing.
“We started with $10,000 I had saved up,” Thomas said. He graduated with a degree in international studies just as the economy tanked in 2008. Unable to find work in his field, he went to work on farms around the country, even working in Nicaragua, before moving back to Houston with the hope of bringing fresh produce to the inner city of his hometown.
“[Farming] was exactly what I was looking for: problem solving every day, beautiful places, meeting lots of interesting people with good ideas,” he said.
Upon returning home, Thomas joined up with his brother, Daniel, an engineer, and they found a plot of land they could lease. But it wasn’t an easy journey. Rather than become a nonprofit, the pair decided to incorporate and run the farm as a small business.
“I’d been visiting farmers and listening to podcasts about limited resource farming, and one farmer said, ‘don’t let money stop you from doing this.’ Yes, we’ve had to work five times as hard because we haven’t had the capital to do a lot of things. We’ve had to look on craigslist, run around, figure out how we can do things ourselves. It slowed down the process, but we put it together and made it work,” Thomas said.
With only the two of them, an apprentice, and a handful of steady volunteers over the first year, the brothers built up the soil from scratch using wood chips, coffee grounds and a secret stash of manure they received for free. The process enabled them to create an organic ecology with the bacterial, microbial and bug life they needed for rich soil.
“We’re working on trying to purchase the land we’re on, and we hope to have a full acre in production by fall. At that point, we’ll be in production on the majority of our land. There are still 50 fruit trees to kick in, and we’re still looking for ways to put more crops in, but we’d like to take the model and expand that into other areas of the city,” Daniel said.
To stay in business, the farm relies on a combination of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, produce sold at their biweekly market stand and farmer’s markets, community classes and fees from events held on the farm.
“We split [the harvest] between CSA and farmer’s markets. The goal was 40 [pounds] for spring—20 for CSA and 20 pounds for market. We did closer to 60,” Daniel said.
The duo could’ve chosen to become a nonprofit and apply for grant funding, but they spoke about the many guidelines and restrictions that come along with grant funding.
“If we were a nonprofit, we would’ve tried to get grants to purchase soil and things like that, but I like that we had to be creative. It forced us to ask for help. Our network has grown and more people are interested in what we’re doing,” Daniel said.
As native Houstonians, it was important for them to bring something back to their community.
“There’s a big reason we’re in an urban setting—this is where everything is happening. Economics, arts, sports. It’s really fascinating to me that we somehow don’t think growing food belongs here. I want to make the argument that food should be where people are,” Thomas said.
The farm is still in its formative years, but the brothers hope to use small business resources, like those offered through the USDA, to continue to grow the company. Thomas just celebrated his 30th birthday and Daniel is 28, and both say they’re committed to the long-haul of making urban farming as successful as any other small business.
“Business has not come natural to me, and that’s why I want to do it. The business world is how our society functions and runs, it was very uncomfortable in a lot of ways, but I think [farming’s] something that deserves investment and it deserves to be part of our communities—I believe that 100 percent. [Farming] makes communities better. And it needs capital and investment just like any other business,” Thomas said.