If you shop at the Pearl Farmer's Market, you've likely met Pedro and Dayana Martinez Schambon, who founded My Father's Farm (MFF), a certified organic farm that sets up shop at the farmer's market every weekend.
The seasoned farmers were among the very first to sell their produce at the Pearl more than six years ago.
"It was only two farmers then. It's funny to remember that we used to spend a whole Saturday and we were probably making $10 or $20 a weekend," he reminisced.
But just fifteen years ago, farming was not part of the plan for the Schambon family.
The Schambons hail from Columbia, but moved to Florida and became U.S. citizens. As a successful real estate agent in Florida, Mr. Schambon felt he was not hororing his faith, and the family embarked with a group on a missionary trip to Haiti, Which altered their lives forever.
"It changed our hearts," he said.
Soon after, they found themselves building an orphanage for homeless children in Santa Marta, Columbia.
In 2006, they left Florida for Texas to participate in the booming real estate market and started farming here as well, using the funds to support the orphanage in Columbia. By 2008, their first Texas farm was certified organic.
"How we started farming was so odd. We were buying groceries to feed the kids at the orphanage. We had this beautiful piece of land for the orphanage with a river and perfect weather, and I said to myself, we should change farming," Mr. Schambon explained.
But then in 2010, Mr. Schambon was severely injured and wheelchair-bound for almost two years. Although he lost both properties in the interim, it was not the end for the stalwart farmer with the faith of far more than a single mustard seed.
Today, thanks to sheer determination, the successful farming famly sells organic produce to H-E-B for distribution to nine Central Market stores in Texas.
"The great thing is that we have not missed one week. Every single week for the past year we've been able to provide organic herbs and produce to Central Market," he shared.
Currently, My Father's Farm provides Central Market with organically grown collard greens, micro greens, a mix of Italian rapini, French sorrel, spinach, their special Juicy mix 3 and mint, cilantro parsely and radish. The Schambon family also recently became the proud owners of land they were leasing from Larry Walker of Trekker, who also owns Bob's Burgers and the Schulz Nursery on Broadway. Mr. Walker doesn't remember exactly how they met, but notes they've been friendly business associates for years.
"My Father's Farm started small, but he's done a great job of building it. Pedro is a really knowledgeable organic farmer and very true to the word organic. We wanted to help him be successful - maybe this next move will help him do that," Mr. Walker said.
Mr. Walker isn't the only one who speaks highly of the farmer. Chef Stephen Paprocki, president of the Chef Cooperatives in San Antonio, agrees.
He's helping kids, teaching them how to grow something, and helping people make educated decisions about putting good food in their bodies instead of junk," Chef Paprocki commented.
The Chef Cooperatives was one of the first groups to lend a hand to this independent local farm.
"We heard about Pedro and his backstory. Pedro explained that he needed some equipment, so the group selected him to be the beneficiary of a Chef Cooperatives dinner. We presented him with a check and he said, 'You guys gave me more money than anyone in my entire life.' Now, to see how much his place has grown from the old abandoned greenhouses to the lush and beautiful gardens... it's just amazing," Chef Paprocki, who also founded Texas Black Gold Garlic, added.
My Father's Farm is indeed a verdant sight. The new farm, organically certified in 2012, boasts about 100,000 square feet of greenhouses on 53 acres of land. The farm was also awarded a Good Agriculture and Handling Practices certificate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"We only farm 10 acres in an open field, so we have plenty of room to grow," the farmer explained.
Besides crops already committed to H-E-B, they grow broccoli rabe, red turnips, Swiss chard and rosemary. The crops, of course, change with the seasons. As we move into summer, he'll start growing squashes, amaranth and other warm weather crops.
Those that already buy from Pedro are almost fanatically dedicated. His micro greens, which are 40 percent more nutritive than full-grown plants, are very popular at the Pearl Farmer's Market.
"The chefs love the intensive flavor," Mr. Schambon noted. "But it was a challenge to fine tune the growing at first with the water requirements, the light."
Thanks to the greenhouses, they are able to grow year round.
"we can protect our crops. It's a controlled environment, but it's not 100 percent safe from the elements,' he explained.
When it comes to the topic of using organic versus non-organic methods, Mr. Schambon believes the correct path is clear.
"We need to be good stewards of the land. We don't call it dirt. We call it soil because it's alive - full of microbial life. Organic soil has more nutrients and we have to protect that," he said. "Iwent once to visit a conventional farm. Everything was so neat and clean, no insects, the cabbage was perfectly formed, the soil so sterile. The farmer ask me, what do you think of the farm? I replied, 'With all due respect, I feel like I've entered a cemetary."
He was very disturbed not to see holes in the leaves or life in the soil.
"I didn't see any insects or weeds. Everything looked perfectly machine-made. If I looked at the soil, there's probably no microbial life in the soil here. It made me think corporate America will eat us alive," he added.
He's not terribly hopeful about the future of farming in America. He sees farmers being bought out right and left. He strongly believes the onus should be on the farms using chemicals and GMO's to inform the public about what's in their food, but sadly, it's not. The burden of labeling foods "organic" and non-GMO" rests on farmers using sustainable methods who grow crops without harmful pesticides and chemicals.
But consumers today seem more willing to buy organic.
"Hopefully more people will get into organic farming and the price will become more reasonable for consumers," he said.
In the spring, look more for news from the farm as they expand their offerings and ways to bring their organic produce to market.
Despite the odds, the farmer's efforts continue to bear auspicious fruit.
Besides revitalizing a work program for those less fortunate to work the land in exchange for fair wages and a bounty of veggies, he also partnered with Robert Maggiana to develop a network of local organic farmers.
Mr. Maggiani, a former Marketing Director for Go Texas, garnered a USDA grant to create an organic hub to help smaller farms compete with large commercial farms.
Lots of farmers don't have access to the big buyers. As a group or hub, the collective is more attractive because buyers can purchase from just one entity," Mr. Schambon explained.
My Father's Farm is an active member of the hub. As a licensed organic inspector, Mr. Schambon plans to use his training to help other farmers use organic methods.
Today, Mr. Schambon's influence reaches across the country, but it's his work ethic that makes a grand impression at home. Their youngest daughter, 16-year-old Nicole, recently ventured into her own agricultural business. Thanks to the USDA Youth Loan Program, she acquired a $5,000 loan to purchase 150 chickens.
"I thought it was a perfect opportunity when the FDA started giving loans," Nicole said. "It was a long time ago when we were just starting out with the farm, and Mom told me to go pick up the eggs. My love of chickens started there."
Perhaps living close to the land and participating in the day-to-day toil of life on the farm also made Nicole aware of the importance of knowing where our food comes from.
"The faith they have - moving to Texas and trusting the farm will work, as bi-polar as Texas weather is, has given me a different perspective. Someone planted this 30 to 60 days ago," she said, pointing to growing greens. "It takes time and hard work, and it makes me so much more grateful for what my parents put on the table to eat each night," Nicole said.
Mr. Schambon is delighted with his daughter's entrepreneurial spirit and determination to build something organic and local.
"Instead of going to work for McDonald's or Burger King, she has her own enterprise of organic eggs. The chickens get all-organic feed plus leftovers [from the farm]. They're spoiled!" Mr. Schambon laughed.
To learn more about My Father's Farm, visit myfathersfarm.org. Chefs seeking a farmer to grow exclusive produce or anyone in need of more information can also contact Mr. Schambon at email@example.com.
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