As a kid in Houston, Tommy Garcia-Prats didn’t so much as grow a tomato in a pot. His gardening experience was limited to mowing the family’s lawn.
Now he and two brothers run an award-winning urban farm in one of the city’s historic industrial heartlands, and they’ve planted the seeds of what they hope will grow into something big.
Their company, Small Places LLC, won $10,000 in The Pitch, a contest from the Dynamo and BBVA Compass that rewards a Houston-area small business for creating their own, unique brighter future. This initiative supports BBVA Compass’ larger mission to create opportunities in the communities it calls home.
“Small businesses are significant components to communities on the rise. BBVA Compass understands this and is committed to their success,” said BBVA Compass Houston CEO Mark Montgomery. “That’s why we launched our “Year of Opportunity for Small Businesses” initiative, and why we’re happy to contribute to a business that is doing so much for its community. Small businesses know that they can come to us for trusted advice, and together, we can create opportunities for a bright future. Congratulations to Small Places LLC – we’re excited to invest in this bright, new opportunity with them.”
A panel of judges narrowed more than 130 entries to the final four, and Small Places’ short promotional video - featuring a fun animation of a player made of fruit and vegetables scoring a bicycle kick - won a fan vote on HoustonDynamo.com.
The longtime Dynamo supporters were heralded for their achievement on the BBVA Compass Stadium field on June 23, when the Dynamo faced FC Dallas: “The highlight of our Dynamo fandom,” Tommy said.
One of ten brothers – two of whom became college soccer coaches – he graduated from college in 2008 and hoped to become a firefighter. Instead he took an apprentice job on an organic farm in Maine. He also worked in Iowa and Central America, realizing that agriculture offered a challenging, diverse and non-traditional career path.
“I’ve never been a science person but it’s chemistry and biology, it’s meteorology, relationships of plants and ecosystems, and then it’s just planning, business, accounting, marketing. It can be overwhelming at times but I like the diversity of knowledge base that you kind of have to have,” he said one morning, sat at a bench amid tall banana plants in the middle of Finca Tres Robles (“Three Oaks Farm”).
It’s a one-and-a-quarter acre oasis tucked away in Houston’s Second Ward about three miles east of the Dynamo’s home.
A couple of workers tended to a variety of plants as machinery buzzed in the zinc plant opposite. There’s a coffee-roasting factory around the corner, and the occasional blare of a train horn from nearby tracks. This used to be a vacant lot; now it’s a thriving riot of greenery.
There are 30-50 crops grown here each season: herbs, fruits and vegetables. In the summer, Tommy, Daniel and Mark grow crops hardy enough to handle Houston’s fierce summer heat: okra, eggplant, melon, squash, beans. In the winter and spring, they cultivate tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers – sold from the farm and at the Eastside Farmers’ Market.
Tommy is the general manager, Daniel the director of operations and Mark the director of education. Finca Tres Robles opened in 2014 after a six-month environmental study of the property; Tommy estimated the brothers worked 100-hour weeks at the start as they planted, built and cultivated to make the soil fertile.
“We had a PVC and rope greenhouse that would sway with a 5mph wind. We really pieced things together,” he recalled. Now there are two full-time employees, a part-time employee and there is a summer internship scheme for local high school graduates.
As the only business with a privately-operated farm inside the Interstate 610 Loop, the company wants to deepen its roots in the local East End community. An educational mission is an important aspect of the project in a city with few farmers’ markets, meaning that some Houstonians have little knowledge of how the fruit and vegetables they eat ends up on their dinner table.
“If you don’t see where your food is coming from or have any connection to it, you’re ignorant of it by default. And that’s not a critique of the individual, it’s a critique of the system. So how do we start changing our system to change people’s interaction with it, their access to it and the conversation around it?” Tommy said.
To improve the visitor experience, Small Places hopes to use their Pitch prize money on a covered space for their classroom area, as well as a walk-in cooler to keep produce fresh.
“I feel lots of pride in getting this far and being able to show people that we weren’t just crazy people when we started this, we knew where we were going and with enough hard work and support we could actually make something out of it,” said Daniel.
Tommy and his brothers embrace life’s limitless opportunities and challenge the status quo by creating this unique initiative and brightening the East End community. BBVA Compass is proud to announce them as this year’s winner of the Pitch and is banking on their brighter future.