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A Harvest of H.O.P.E.

By Melissa Blair

Diana and Saul Padilla are instilling H.O.P.E. in their south Texas community of Harlingen. The Padillas are purchasing property for H.O.P.E. for Small Farming Sustainability, which stands for holistic practices, outreach, practical training, and education, for a community garden.

For the Padillas, H.O.P.E. is more than a four-letter acronym. Hope is what they want to instill in others by sharing their land, their fresh produce, and their knowledge. Hope for those who tour their sustainable farm to learn how to grow their own fruits and vegetables. Hope for healthier meals for Valley residents purchasing fresh produce from the Padillas at the farmers market and through their weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) program.

"We are not only helping families eat better, but we are showing them how to grow and even prepare a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables for meals," said Diana Padilla. "You reduce the need for medication because you enjoy the nutrients the food has to offer at its optimal time. You can't compare the flavor of a harvested fruit or vegetable within hours to one that has been harvested days and sometimes weeks before you get it."

Diana and her husband, Saul developed a taste and appreciation for farm-fresh produce when they began purchasing fresh produce to use in her restaurant in Indiana and as a chef in fine restaurants in Chicago. When a temporary work assignment in 2004 brought the couple to the Rio Grande Valley, they soon realized the need and demand for fresh produce. The Padilla's never planned to stay - much less see their dream come to life when Diana found her the farm they now call, Yahweh's All Natural Farm and Garden. Now they can't imagine leaving.

The Padillas feel it is important for Valley residents know where their food comes from and for consumers to develop a relationship with farmers and ranchers at the local farmers markets.

"If you know your farmer, you can see where your food comes from," said Diana. "You can ask your farmer to grow a special item for your family because you become family with the farmer. You build a trust."

After seeing the demand for their fruits and vegetables at the farmers markets, the Padillas started their CSA during the 2009-2010 growing season. The CSA has grown from 15 members to 100 members during the 2012-2013 growing season, with a waiting list of folks wanting their weekly fresh produce delivery.

"When you purchase direct from the farmer you help him succeed and survive as well as help him create jobs," said Diana. "Buying into a CSA, you help the farmer financially, with the prepaid money they can buy seed and anything needed to begin the season's crops. As a farmer, if you know your product is sold, you don't mind the labor because you know it will be appreciated."

After being told about the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in 2009, the Padillas worked with San Benito District Conservationist Oz Longoria to develop a conservation plan to help them meet their goal of expanding their vegetable farm production while protecting the soil and conserving water. They leveled the land for better water distribution and use on their flood irrigated crops. They also installed irrigation pipeline and drip irrigation lines to control the precise amount of water specifically to where it is needed on their vegetables.

"By working with NRCS, it saved a lot of trial and error on our part, which would have cost time and money," said Diana. "They have taken time to answer our questions, given us free technical advice, and continue to be there for us as we grow and diversify our farm.

Last year, the Padillas worked with NRCS to install a system to catch rain water that runs off their barn roof. This year, they installed three water storage tanks to hold the rain water from the barn roof and are using the runoff they have caught for irrigating their vegetables.

Diana knows firsthand the struggles of starting and operating a farm on a limited budget, so she takes every opportunity to make the most of what they have or are given. She held a fundraiser earlier this year for purchasing the shovels, hoes, wheelbarrows, seeds and supplies for the H.O.P.E. community garden. The Padillas will use the community garden to show local residents how to grow their own healthy, nutritious food on a small plot of land. These "small farmers" will also learn how to prepare the foods they grow in the commercial kitchen called a kitchen incubator located on the Padilla's farm.

"Limited resource makes our efforts more memorable to us," said Diana. "When we find ways to success, we feel we just went up a step on improving our new business. It is very hard for us and sometimes it can get frustrating, but if you are happy at doing something as we are at farming, you have to find a way to make everything work. You just have to sacrifice something for what you want."

"We love this life," said Diana. "It is how God wanted our food to grow."

Saul Padilla rain catchment system

Saul Padilla brings an assortment of fresh vegetables into Alhambra's farmer market in McAllen. The Padilla's are selling their homegrown products at five farmers markets including one located at their farm.

The USDA-NRCS helped the Padilla's develop a conservation plan for a gutter and three tank rain catchment system that would allow them to capture the rain runoff from their barn roof. The stored water is used for irrigating vegetables during dry times to conserve irrigation from the canals.

Padilla's booth at Alhambra's Farmers Market in McAllen

The Padilla's booth at Alhambra's Farmers Market in McAllen is a popular stop for fresh producer for local residents and Winter Texans. Saul and Diana Padilla's grow a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on their farm. They enjoy showing visitors to the farm how they can do the same with limited resources on small acreage plots.