A little closer to home

Anthony Lima, NOAA CCME Scholar and PhD student, reflects on the values of growing food locally.

Much of Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies research considers coastal space- its value, function, and uses. These concepts are multi-faceted and complex, especially with the academic rigor and strong scientific approach that a researcher must follow. Aquaculture researchers like myself often take a smaller geographic space used for experimentation and data collection and work to understand how the expansion of that area would affect others. For example, researchers might consider the broader ecologic effects of utilizing more submerged land for oyster mariculture compared to other uses. These outcomes are complicated and involve many competing spatial uses and actors with different objectives.

However, when I leave my desk and unwind at the end of the day, some activities allow me to put aside these complexities and think about our local space in a more relaxed sense. Growing up in California, I was always surrounded by greenery that thrived from the mild tropical climate and grew to appreciate the productive outputs of these plants. I have found that gardening allows me to consider the benefits of land use and the wonders of biology. Since I moved into my home in 2019, I have explored the possibilities and options of producing a small portion of my own food. I live in an average-sized home in a Corpus Christi suburb on a .15-acre lot and have experimented with planting nearly everything available that the climate here produces.

Black Mulberry (sometimes referred to as “mora” in Spanish”) a fast-growing, heat-tolerant, fruit-bearing tree. Their shelf lives are short, so they are not often found in grocery stores. Photo by Anthony R Lima.

Our diets are a major consideration for long-term sustainability, especially if the majority of food is grown in single-crop monoculture farms. Farming uses a significant amount of space (over 900 million acres or 37% of American land) and often utilizes chemical fertilizers or insecticides throughout their cultivation. Furthermore, produce consumes limited sources of fresh water, requires chemical fertilizers, and uses plastic and fossil fuels in packaging and delivery. Farming at this scale has become a part of modern life, as we cannot expect every individual to be able to spend hours gardening to produce their own and their family’s food. However, we may not have to make considerable diet and lifestyle changes on a path toward sustainability.

The growing region in southern Texas, 9b, offers a tropical climate with long warm periods that enable proper growing conditions for a wide range of produce. Corn and sorghum can be found growing throughout Nueces and San Patricio Counties, while corn, onions, and citrus are grown commercially in the Rio Grande Valley. Within the grocery stores of the Coastal Bend, tropical fruits such as avocado, mango, and papaya make their way as imports from Mexico. These are only a tiny fraction of the possibilities of produce that can be grown in South Texas. Others not commercially available can also be successfully grown (such as mulberries or loquats).

Permaculture is an agricultural design philosophy that seeks to center self-sufficiency and sustainability for everything that is grown. Aside from the ethics of sustainability, it also translates to careful consideration of planting that does not require substantial effort for cultivation. Fruiting trees often can produce the most with the least amount of work, with older trees often far outproducing what a family could consume. Mature citrus, peaches, and papayas are examples of highly productive fruiting trees that can last for decades. An initial small investment of time and money for planting can grow to be a memorable annual household event. Surplus given to friends and family is a thoughtful gift and can be a fond lifelong memory.

Red Queen Papaya bearing fruit. Many sizes and varieties of fruits and trees grow easily in Corpus Christi. Photo by Anthony R Lima.

In addition to favorable weather for produce, the prevalence of single-family homes in Nueces County offers space required for planting. There are roughly 83,340 single-family homes in Corpus Christi. Driving across SPID, the main highway through the center of Corpus Christi, single-family homes can be seen for miles on each side. If even a tiny proportion of these homes decided to plant a fruit tree or two, it could produce thousands of pounds of healthy produce within a few years. Community gardens throughout the Coastal Bend can provide planting space and offer a great way to become more familiar with local conditions. Thinking more holistically about our local area, these trees are everyday reminders of society’s reliance on the natural world and invoke stewardship and appreciation within local communities. Appreciating what the land provides is not only spiritual practice but a practical solution that can benefit humans and natural ecosystems simultaneously if done responsibly. 

“Blessed is he who plants trees under whose shade he will never sit.”

-Proverb with a debated origin

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