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Farmer's market with social import, luscious food: McAllen, TX's Grow'n Growers

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Grow'n Growers is an important community program in McAllen, Texas, sponsored by Texas A & M Agrilife Extension Service. McAllen is at the tippy tip southern point of the state, right near the Mexican border. Grow'n Growers began in 2007 as an outreach program to teach low-income families from local colonias to cultivate their own backyard fruit and vegetable gardens in order to supply both fresh produce and supplemental income for their families. Students attend weekly classes taught by local experts in organic gardening and fruit production, health and nutrition, food preparation and food safety, marketing and finance. Produce is grown according to strict organic farming methods, but it is not certified organic because the participants can’t afford the cost of certifying small-scale farming operations. Produce is available to the public at the Grow'n Growers Farmers Markets and some local restaurants. Farmer's Markets are held on Saturday mornings from 8:30 am to 11:30 am under the pavilion at Fireman's Park. It is located on First Street just north of Business 83 in McAllen. (201 N. 1st St.).

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Here is some information about colonias:

Where are colonias found?

Colonias can be found in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, but Texas has both the largest number of colonias and the largest colonia population. Approximately 400,000 Texans live in colonias. Overall, the colonia population is predominately Hispanic; 64.4 percent of all colonia residents and 85 percent of those residents under 18 were born in the United States. There are more than 2,294 Texas colonias, located primarily along the state's 1,248 mile border with Mexico.

How were colonias developed?

The development of Texas colonias dates back to at least the 1950s. Using agriculturally worthless land, land that lay in floodplains or other rural properties, developers created unincorporated subdivisions. They divided the land into small lots, put in little or no infrastructure, then sold them to low-income individuals seeking affordable housing. Colonia residents generally have very low incomes. Per capita annual income for all Texas counties bordering Mexico-where most of the colonias are located-tends to be much lower than the state average of $16,717. In border counties such as Starr, Maverick and Hidalgo, per capita annual incomes in 1994 were $5,559, $7,631 and $8,899, respectively.

Why do people buy land in colonias?

A limited supply of adequate, affordable housing in cities and rural areas along the Texas- Mexico border, coupled with the rising need for such housing has contributed to the development of new colonias and the expansion of existing ones. People with low-incomes often buy the lots through a contract for deed, a property financing method whereby developers typically offer a low down payment and low monthly payments but no title to the property until the final payment is made. Houses in colonias are generally constructed in phases by their owners and may lack electricity, plumbing and other basic amenities. Colonia residents build homes as they can afford materials.

I was so impressed with the produce and other products that Grow'n Growers was selling! I brought a little cooler, as I was traveling on an airplane home that day, but still couldn't indulge in fruit juices. The exotic fruits that are able to be cultivated so far south are amazing! Imagine farm-fresh guava. They have a fruit that's unique to the area, "Valley Lemons". They are a super-sweet lemon similar to the hybrid of Meyer lemons, but extra big and so much juicier. I took some home and used them in salad dressing and hot bourbon toddy cocktails. Excellent!

There are also exotic foods like quail, popular in Texas.

Maybe one of the best and most appreciated souvenirs I ever brought home from my travels was a big steak from Eagle Catcher Farm. I think everybody already knows that a Texas steak can't be beat. However, Eagle Catcher Farm goes it one better, by producing 100% natural, grass-fed steaks -- cook them a touch more rare than normally, like bison. The steaks come from nearby Harlingen, Texas. They don't ship! It's a small, artisan meat ranch. You either get them at the farmer's market or you ain't gettin' them! That's fine . . . McAllen is considered to be the "Texas Tropics" and their balmy weather now would be balm to Polar Vortex-worn spirits.

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