When developers were granted permits to build new housing in Encinitas in the 1990s, they were required to reserve land for schools to serve the children of the new homes.
A 10-acre parcel on Quail Gardens Drive was set aside for this purpose and was deeded to the Encinitas Union School District in the early 2000s.
Because the projected number of students did not materialize, the land sat empty for years, said Tim Baird, EUSD superintendent.
The state frowns on unused school land and was moving forward on an assessment of about $60,000 per year, Baird said, prompting the district to have serious discussions about the property.
Although he said the district didn’t need a school then, he felt the district eventually might.
“This was the last big parcel of land available to us,” he said. “We therefore knew that whatever we did on the land, we had to be able to turn our work into a school at some point in the future.”
The unique idea of Farm Lab met all requirements. The property was eventually transformed into an outdoor classroom that offers hands-on learning about bio-diversity, crop production and environmental science.
Only one acre of the site is currently growing food for the district’s schools, but three more acres on the northern side of the property are being primed for future farming, with cover crops and soil amendments building soil fertility.
We love our worms!
Water usage and conservation are a major focus in Encinitas schools.
“We have a whole series of lessons around water use,” said Baird.
Each of the nine K-6 campuses offers filtered water, and drip irrigation nourishes the crops at Farm Lab.
Farm Lab Director Mim Michelove said the San Dieguito Water District measured water usage at Farm Lab last summer, when more water is used than at any other time of the year.
“They calculated that … we used less than half of the water used in an average San Diego home,” she said. “That amount is consistent year-round, although we obviously use even less in cooler months.”
Three Israeli-designed rain barrels, using an innovative yet simple concept to capture rain water, are in place at Farm Lab.
Michelove said the rain barrels utilize a uniquely designed release valve at the bottom that eliminates bacteria and sediment.
The health department has restrictions on how rain water can be used in schools. For now, the water can be used for landscaping purposes, and the district hopes to eventually use the water to flush toilets.
Recycling is also part of the district’s environmental lessons.
Children learn to sort their trash and food waste carefully, using special bins at every school site including Farm Lab.
One of the six bins is labeled “worm composting food.”
I asked Michelove if this awareness has taken the yuck out of worms.
“We love our worms!” she replied, smiling.
Farm Lab also loves the idea of providing food for the community by way of a Food Forest along the edge of the property.
A tree garden has been planted along Quail Gardens Drive which will bear many varieties of fruit in about three years, free for the community.
Michelove said about 25 drought-tolerant trees have been planted, including pink and yellow pomegranate, nectarine, papaya, fig, plum, apple, persimmon, loquat, pineapple guava, and black and green coastal olives.
The trees were planted through a joint effort of volunteer community members and the California Conservation Corps. The trees and supplies were purchased with funds provided through donations.
Signs along the walking path will provide information about water conservation and urban agriculture.
Not without controversy
Despite all this, Farm Lab is not without controversy. Some parents have said Farm Lab is as controversial in the community as the yoga program has been.
Said parent Danica Edelbrock, “As a health expert and a mom concerned with the environment for future generations, I applaud the idea of the EUSD Farm Lab. The importance of teaching children about these concepts is crucial to them growing up healthy and respecting our planet.
“I would however like to be assured that the curriculum has been written by, and that farming practices are being managed by, educated leaders in these fields. I would also like to be assured that the [bond] proposition monies are being used wisely, that all children in the district have benefited from this program, and that the agriculture yields are in fact accurate.”
Most seem to agree that the idea is good, but they question the cost.
Baird said he plans to prepare a complete budget showing income and expenses for Farm Lab in the next month or so.
Baird offered assurances about the crop yields at Farm Lab, saying, “The produce amounts that Mim gave are accurate. We are still purchasing some produce outside of the district farm and gardens, but our goal is to get as much as possible from our own fields.”
Complaints have focused on the Farm Lab director herself, some questioning her qualifications and abilities. But Baird backs her, saying, “She is the best person in the world to be in this position doing this important work.”
“Mim has acquired more money in donations and grants than her entire salary last year,” which Michelove said was about $80,000 not including benefits.
Michelove was a co-founder of the non-profit Healthy Day Partners, which the website says was established “to provide schools with sustainable programs that help students make informed healthy lifestyle choices … [and to] support programs that engage students through school gardens, wellness and environmental education.”
Michelove, through Healthy Day Partners, contributed to the success, Baird said, of the one-acre garden and farm at Ocean Knoll School, regarded by many as a showcase of nutrition and agricultural education. He said she also helped implement school gardens and garden instruction at other district schools.
One common criticism of the program is that the students are learning how to garden, harvest and prepare farm-grown food not at Farm Lab but at the schools’ gardens.
Michelove said the Ocean Knoll farm is where the district piloted most of the programming and philosophies now implemented at Farm Lab. “OK Farm serves as proof of concept, prior to the natural extension of this work at Farm Lab,” she said.
The future of learning
Geographically, Farm Lab is ideally positioned in what’s known as the Encinitas Environmental Educational Cluster, or E3 Cluster.
The E3 Cluster is a rare convergence of nonprofit organizations within close proximity to one another: EUSD’s Farm Lab, Leichtag Foundation, Coastal Roots Farm, San Diego Botanic Garden, San Dieguito Heritage Museum, Seacrest Village Retirement Community, the YMCA, and others.
It’s a location that gives students access to learning opportunities rarely realized in other school communities.
This has contributed to Farm Lab’s growing reputation, which has resulted in official visits from schools in central and northern California, from Los Angeles, and some San Diego County schools.
“Out of state visitors have come from Colorado, Wisconsin, and even from Ontario, Canada,” Michelove said.
Jim Farley, president and chief executive officer of the Leichtag Foundation, is proud of Leichtag’s association with Farm Lab, through Leichtag’s offshoot – the nonprofit Coastal Roots Farm.
The idea is to get kids into farming, Farley said. He’d like to see the next generation “heavily engaged in growing their own food” and believes programs like Farm Lab are an important step in that direction.
Farley called Farm Lab a “transformational experience” that he acknowledged was in the early stages. “We’re just beginning to understand the possibilities here,” he said.
“This is the best farm-school program in the country,” said Michelove. “This is where the future of learning is going.”
Involving San Dieguito
The long-term goal is to turn Farm Lab into a pre-K through adult learning center. What’s missing is a way to continue the learning after EUSD students leave sixth grade.
Farley said the San Dieguito Union High School District can help fill the gap by extending EUSD’s program into middle and high schools, to allow students to stay connected to the land.
Mike Grove, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of educational services, agreed and called Farley’s ideas visionary.
Grove said he sees numerous ways the program could enhance learning, in classes such as AP environmental science, chemistry and culinary arts.
He said San Dieguito Academy and La Costa Canyon high schools both have thriving culinary arts programs, and SDA has its own garden.
Grove said discussions need to happen with teachers “to make them aware of the possibilities.”
According to the United States Botanic Garden, 200 years ago a vast majority of Americans worked in agriculture, but today fewer than 2 percent do.
EUSD is trying to do its part to connect future generations more closely with the land.
As Farley likes to say, “Farm on!”
Part one of this topic appeared in the March 2, 2017 issue.
Senior Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.