Grant helps Farm Lab’s neighborly ‘food forest’ take root

Much is sprouting at the Encinitas Union School District’s 10-acre Farm Lab, from crops for school lunches to a community garden. And another project recently broke ground: a “food forest.”

The idea is to give the community the chance to pick, at no cost, from fruit trees, vegetables and berry plants lining the western edge of the Farm Lab property at 441 Quail Gardens Drive. That way, residents have easy access to fresh produce.

“Farm Lab will educate students, and the food forest will reach their families and the community by teaching them about health and environmental education,” said Mim Michelove, director of Farm Lab.

The food forest also aims to give to those in need. Produce from it will be donated to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church food pantry and the Community Resource Center in downtown Encinitas.

The Encinitas school district recently received a $10,000 grant from Seeds of Change for the food forest. During a grant presentation recently, Michelove outlined plans for the agriculture feature while flanked by the first fruit trees.

Seeds of Change, an organic seed and food company, awarded $200,000 in grants this year across the nation to support sustainable farming.

Recently, the fence at the western border of Farm Lab was moved back, allowing more room for the roughly 150-yard-long food forest. Soon, the land there will be tilled, and Michelove expects the district will plant many fruit trees and other produce in October.

Artichokes and other crops will grow rather quickly, but it could be a year or two before much of the food forest is ripe for community picking. Right now, the district is looking at planting seven to 10 tree varieties, from olives to figs.

Once the first big harvest comes around, signs will go up to explain the purpose of the food forest, and that yes, anyone can forage, Michelove said.

Although the food forest will be set back several feet from the sidewalk, the district is going to see whether the city will install a short fence alongside the road to make the public feel safer, she stated.

Michelove is no stranger to food forests. She was a driving force behind Ocean Knoll Elementary Farm, which already has a food forest. One of her takeaways from the experience: The produce must be accessible to the public.

“People don’t always want to reach over the fence at Ocean Knoll,” she said.

Michelove said the district will probably put in irrigation lines to water the food forest in its first year. But beyond that, it’s looking at drought-friendly infrastructure like “curb cuts” to capture rainwater from Quail Gardens Drive and divert it to the food forest.

“We don’t want to disrupt the sidewalk,” she said. “So we’re going to have to come up with some clever engineering solutions to get the water out of the street, but under the sidewalk, and to the trees.”

She added: “Rainwater that comes off of a street comes with pollution, so the plants that we put in around the trees will start to purify that water.”

The district will keep a close eye on the food forest to prevent fallen fruit from rotting on the ground.

“We’ll stay on top of harvesting, and honestly, I think that will come quite naturally, as I think people will harvest before things fall on the ground,” she said.

Besides the food forest, Farm Lab hosts a community garden, which recently got the final green light, and plots will soon be rented out. And students visited Farm Lab’s crops and classrooms for the first time two months ago. In future years, they’ll get hands-on lessons to reinforce science, health and nutrition concepts learned in the classroom.

The district is seeking additional grants and community support to help Farm Lab and the food forest flourish. Those interested can contact Michelove at mim.michelove@eusd.net or contact the superintendent’s office at 760-944-4300.

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