Down Navigation Boulevard, past the popular Mexican restaurants and beyond the majority of the new townhouses, an urban farm sits a block south across from the U.S. Zinc factory. Finca Tres Robles, Spanish for “Three Oaks Farm,” is the project of brothers Thomas and Daniel Garcia-Prats, two native Houstonians who founded the farm in June 2014.
Urban farming has been on the rise in the U.S. for the past few years, and Houston has not been overlooked. Planted: Houston and Sown and Grown are for-profits in the city limits, and Last Organic Outpost is a long-time nonprofit institution. Plant It Forward is expanding their work with refugees. The idea is to make use of unused space within the city to produce food, as opposed to consuming more wild lands outside of the city.
“Older cities don’t have the luxury of vacant land that Houston does,” says Thomas Garcia-Prats. “Agriculture needs to be included in the discussion of urban planning and design, especially as the city grows.”
The access to vacant land has been an issue this past year, with Houston’s booming real estate market coming at odds with growing operations, like the community garden lost to townhouses in Midtown. The brothers Garcia-Prats have a deal with a local business that’s leasing them their odd-shaped 1.25-acre lot at an affordable rate for a minimum of 3 years.
Their methods include a variety of sustainable practices — no tilling, rain water collection, the use of plant guilds (plants that complement each other’s nutritional needs). The brothers come from divergent professional backgrounds, with Thomas having spent the last five years working at farms in the U.S. and Nicaragua, and Daniel in medical-supply production and oil and gas manufacturing. Daniel’s expertise and engineering background lend the project a focus on data and good recordkeeping.
“When you have numbers and data, it makes you more conscious and you can use the data to develop your goals,” says Daniel. The brothers speak specifically about tracking their water usage so that they can be independent from the city’s water supply, with talk of sensors being installed in the future along crop rows to monitor moisture levels. They even share data on their website, smallplaces.org.
To avoid becoming simply a farm supplying chic local restaurants, Finca Tres Robles has made it their mission to sell the majority of their fruits and vegetables to folks in the 77011 area code. They offer memberships that come with a 50 percent discount on produce to locals that complete four out of eight possible tasks, such as bringing in yard waste or attending a Super Neighborhood meeting.
To continue their commitment to being a farm for their surrounding community, the brothers take suggestions on what produce locals would like to purchase. After being told that nopales, or cactus pads, were in demand, a neighbor delivered a large batch of living cactus found growing in the area.
Their produce can be bought at their on-site farmers market every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and they intend to be present in the forthcoming Navigation Boulevard Esplanade market.
The brothers run the farm as Small Places LLC, a name inspired by an essay by farmer and environmental activist Wendell Berry called “Contempt for Small Places.” In the essay Berry describes how human actions in one part of the country can have a devastating environmental impact in another. “The health of small places is exactly the same as the health of large places.” The brothers would like to take on more land for their operation, but for now they will continue improving upon their 1.25 acres in Houston’s East End.
Meghan Hendley Lopez with Harbeer Sandhu, Sprouting Through Concrete Toward Sundlight: Cavanaugh Nweze and the Marcus Garvey Liberation Garden, Free Press Houston, December 16, 2014