Big Tex Urban Farms: Growth & Harvest in 2017

As a “plant smith,” I love the month of January. The winter crops are rolling in, it’s still a good time to plant trees, and it’s the perfect opportunity to gather leaves for your compost pile. Seed catalogs start to show up in mailboxes and as any gardener can tell you, opening up that first seed catalog is better than Christmas morning! Something I really enjoy doing at the beginning of the year is reviewing the past year and looking forward to what lies ahead. Today, I want to take a minute to recap the wonderful year we had in 2017 at the Big Tex Urban Farms and speak about some of the plans we have in store for 2018.

The 2017 Harvest

The winter season of 2016 – 17 had us off to a quick start when our first order of new grow boxes showed at the State Fair of Texas greenhouse. Our greenhouse crew worked diligently to get them assembled and filled with soil by the end of January; a total of 175 boxes in all. We planted them up with onions, potatoes, radishes, and tulips. The tulips were planted as an experiment to use as a possible cut flower fundraiser. Even though we eventually decided not to do that, the tulips bloomed beautifully! Shortly after the winter crops were sowed, more and more boxes started showing up! By the end of winter, we had grown to 529 grow boxes ready to be planted with seeds.

We started the harvest season in early spring with radishes. By the end of March, we made several nice pickings of red icicle radishes. Before we knew it, spring planting time arrived! We held our second annual company planting day in early April, where all State Fair of Texas employees had the opportunity to get their hands dirty planting seeds. Together we planted green beans, peppers, okra, black-eyed peas, squash, cucumbers, and native and adapted flowering plants. The flowers were planted to help attract bees and other pollinating insects. We also added five young table grape vines complete with mobile trellises!

Of all the spring planted crops, the green beans were the all-stars of the bunch! They took off right away and gave us many nice pickings. Some of the early plantings struggled a bit as the soil in the newest beds didn’t yet have the fertility we needed. It took several applications of compost and organic matter to get those new beds whipped into shape. By the middle of the year, all the beds showed excellent growth.

Early summer hours were spent harvesting the plentiful onions and potatoes. By the end of the season, the Big Tex Urban Farms had harvested 3,300 onions and several hundred pounds of potatoes. Soon after, we had great early pickings of cucumbers and black-eyed peas, not mention “mountains” of okra and squash! When the harsh heat of summer began setting in, we installed hoops of PVC pipe over our bell peppers and covered them with shade cloth in order to keep them producing all summer long. Inside the greenhouse, tomatoes were very productive, and we planted a second crop of bell peppers for the first time; they produced some beautiful peppers.

In early July, we added a planting of young citrus and fig trees to our farm. Before summer ended, we even added a chicken coop! Six beautiful birds live in the coop, and the eggs they lay were donated along with our veggies. As the season ended, some of our planter boxes were moved to accommodate the various set-up stages of the 2017 State Fair of Texas. Many of our boxes were donated to other local organizations in need (more on this later,) and the rest were relocated to a back-fence line on the grounds of Fair Park, where the crops continued to grow!

As you may have guessed, fall is a busy time for us at the Big Tex Urban Farms because the State Fair of Texas is in full swing. The summer crops kept rolling in, as did melons and Habanero peppers. The week before the Fair started, we completed the installation of a deep-water culture hydroponic tank and six hydroponic grow towers! The greens we planted in both hydroponic setups took off spectacularly and by the end of the Fair, we had already harvested over one hundred heads of lettuce, basil, and other specialty greens like rainbow chard. Not only were our new hydroponic setups productive, they also made for a great new exhibit inside the Errol McKoy Greenhouse on the Midway during the run of the Fair.

Late fall brought our first-ever harvest of butternut squash, and loads of greens and herbs as our hydroponic setups hit their stride. A second crop of radishes also came in. The day after the 2017 Fair ended, the Big Tex Urban Farms made a large donation to State Fair Cares and later that same week, we made a donation to the new WIC market in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas. We were very happy to be able to donate to two new beneficiaries.

As we move into winter, our harvests and donations have remained strong. Our lettuce, chard, basil, chives, and arugula have continued to be very productive in the hydroponic setups. Outdoors, we should be harvesting broccoli and bunching greens soon. 100 percent of the produce grown at The Big Tex Urban Farms is donated to different organizations in South Dallas, with most going to the Baylor Scott and White Health and Wellness Institute and Cornerstone Baptist Church. Overall, the Big Tex Urban Farms donated 2,783 lbs of produce or 21,266 USDA servings in 2017 including 2,195 heads of hydroponic lettuce and 326 eggs.

Outreach: Gardening with the Community

Our work at The Big Tex Urban Farms isn’t limited to what we do in Fair Park. A big part of the Big Tex Urban Farms mission is to initiate and participate in outreach projects all around South Dallas. A great example of this is our planter box donation initiative. Spurred on by the need to relocate our farm during Fair time, we donated boxes to several different nonprofit organizations in the area. Our biggest donation went to Cornerstone Baptist Church, where we donated 100 boxes. It was quite a sight to see as flat-bed trailers loaded with fully-planted boxes paraded down the streets of South Dallas! St. Phillips, T.R. Hoover Community Development Center, The MLK Center, Lincoln High School, the Dallas Fair Park Community & Business Development Enterprise, and SMU are also places where our grow boxes now live. Our hope is that these donated boxes, along with our growing tips, become the seed of future urban farms and gardens that grow along with us. We call this concept “farming farms.”

We continue to volunteer at the Mill City Community Garden and offer support to the Dolphin Heights and Sunny South Community Gardens as well. Along the way, we helped launch a few other garden initiatives in South Dallas. In the spring of 2017, we assisted in creating a garden at the Austin Street Center, a homeless shelter located near Fair Park. We are now helping to build a greenhouse for the center that will house an aquaponic system. Speaking of building greenhouses, we also helped build one at the MLK Center. That particular greenhouse is being used to grow seedlings to help supply local community gardens with healthy transplants. The project has been named the MLK Seedling Farm, and they had their official launch in November shortly after the Fair.

Education through farming is an important aspect of Big Tex Urban Farms as well, which is why we were excited to be a part of the State Fair’s Big Tex Summer Sampler program this past summer. Young summer camp students were given an opportunity to visit our greenhouse, pick vegetables straight off the vine, and plant a few seeds in a portable planter that they took home to care for. A slightly older group of students from Jesuit High School are also currently volunteering with us and learning about the work we do every day on the farm. I’ve personally taken to teaching free gardening and cooking classes at the Baylor Scott and White Health and Wellness Institute in Mill City. I also spoke at a number of different educational summits and community meetings aimed at finding solutions to hunger through urban farming. The rest of the Big Tex Urban Farms team and I have plans to continue all of these educational initiatives in 2018.

Growing in 2018

2017 was a huge year for the Big Tex Urban Farms. Communities both within Dallas and beyond are beginning to recognize the work we’re doing and how our gardens are having a real-world impact on South Dallas. We achieved many milestones this year, and I am proud of the huge work my crew put in helping to push all these initiatives through.

The Big Tex Urban Farms team. From left to right: (top row) Ford James; Barron Horton; Robert Blackwell. (bottom row) Drew Demler; Jason Hays; Don Fisher

I am confident that there are even bigger success stories to come in 2018. Plans are already in place to expand on our hydroponics program with different hydroponic setups, as well as experimenting with new crops inside the greenhouse and in our outdoor plantings. Our outreach will continue to expand in 2018 as we seek out new partners and new projects. In fact, our next mission is completing a new garden at City Square, a South Dallas group doing some amazing work with the homeless. Promoting urban farming through educational initiatives will continue to be a driving force this year, with the hope that we remain a crucial partner in growing the next “crop” of urban farmers.

2018 promises to be a busy year, so stay tuned. At the Big Tex Urban Farms, we’re working hard to sow the seeds of impactful change.

Until next time, happy gardening!
Drew Demeler
Manager | Big Tex Urban Farms

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