Farming education center closer to taking root

Farming education center closer to taking root
Scott Murray, left, and Jerry Miller hold up soil from an unoccupied piece of land on Quail Gardens Drive that will be transformed into an organic community garden and campus for the Encinitas Union School District. After two years of planning and some delays, the project broke ground on Wednesday. Murray and Miller have spearheaded the project. Photos by Jared Whitlock

ENCINITAS — The plans include seven acres of organic crops. Bordering those, a one-acre satellite campus, another acre for a community farm and then space for researchers to develop innovative farming techniques as well as alternative energy. 

That’s what farmer Scott Murray and EUSD have in mind for a 10-acre vacant plot on Quail Gardens Drive, across from the San Diego Botanic Garden. On Wednesday, the project broke ground after two years of planning.

“Patience has been a necessity,” Murray said. “That said, we’re very excited things are finally moving along.”

EUSD and Eat Well Group, a company Murray co-heads, signed a one-year operating agreement in the spring, giving Murray the OK to begin planting. Or so he thought. The city and other agencies withheld issuing a grading permit for the project due to questions about drainage on the site.

With that recently sorted out, Murray will finally bulldoze, till and add organic compost to the land, readying it for growing kale and Swiss chard, among other plants.

He expects EUSD students to help harvest the first crops in four months or so.

“Farming education — it’s a sign of the times,” Murray said. “After hearing about the EUSD farm, other districts are interested in their own farms as well.”

The school’s portion of the farm will debut with four portable classrooms sometime around October, and students will visit the farm three or four times this upcoming school year. The aim is to drive home classroom concepts like the growing cycle, said EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird.

“It will be pretty basic here the first year,” Baird said, adding that the curriculum for the program is still being written.

“There are bigger plans,” Baird said.

In subsequent years, the district envisions a farming immersion program. Students will plant crops, cook food they harvest and take soil profiles, among other earth science lessons. Also in the cards, students tinkering with alternative energy.

To that end, Murray is in talks with SDG&E and other partners to install solar ovens and solar stills — boxes that collect water by replicating how nature makes rain — on the campus. And technicians will demonstrate natural gas powered fuel cells — an increasingly popular technology companies like SDG&E are exploring to generate power and heat for buildings.

“We want to inspire our next generation of scientists,” Murray said. “From what we’ve found, instead of the four walls of the classroom, hands-on learning is the best way to ignite the imagination.”

A construction crew sets up shop to cultivate the future farm, designed to get the young and old alike interested in planting.

A construction crew sets up shop to cultivate the future farm, designed to get the young and old alike interested in planting.

After school and on weekends, college students will use the campus to research energy and farming techniques of the future. Plus, energy companies plan to offer training for employees onsite.

“Our nuclear station is closed,” Murray said, referring to San Onofre. The question is: How do we compensate?

“It’s important these questions are understood by the community and researched by professionals,” Murray added.

Murray, who’s passionate about organic food, has another farm in Vista dedicated to educating the community about sustainability.

“Food issues intersect with energy and water issues,” Murray said. “Food literacy will solve overlapping issues.”

EUSD is leasing the farm to Murray’s Eat Well Group, which in turn, is leasing to subtenants.

One of the tenants, an organic community garden, is scheduled to launch this fall. As part of it, there will ultimately be more than 100 planter boxes for fruits and vegetables.

“With all the food that’s imported, it’s more important than ever people learn to farm,” said Gordon Smith, president of the Encinitas Community Garden Foundation, a group spearheading the community garden.

“The garden will bring the community together,” Smith said.

The foundation has been working on a community garden for five years. And much of the time spent has been on finding a site. Seeing it finally happen is “overdue” and even a bit surreal, Smith said.

“This is Encinitas — a place with strong ties to agriculture,” Smith said. “How do we not have a community garden?”

The garden is open to anyone who wants to rent a space — no experience wielding a trowel necessary.

The foundation aims to raise $60,000 for the planter boxes and other amenities. Down the line, a solarium and other features are possible.

“We welcome volunteer support in any capacity,” Smith said, noting those interested can sign up at encinitascommunitygarden.org.

The district has yet to release the cost of the farm. What’s known so far: Proposition P, a $44 million bond passed in 2010 dedicated to facility and technology upgrades, is funding the development of the school site.

Extracurricular classes offered by the district and Stand for Sam, a nonprofit Murray launched as a tribute to his son who passed away, will fund teacher wages and ongoing costs on the farm.

The land was gifted to EUSD following a large development deal about a decade ago. But the district faced financial penalties if a school or some other kind of educational facility wasn’t built on the property by this year.

The district decided there wouldn’t be enough student growth to justify another school. A farm, it was decided, would give students a clearer picture of food production.

And it seems the land will sprout produce for quite a while. EUSD and Eat Well Group are in the process of securing a 30-year, joint-occupancy agreement.

“I’m convinced that you gain something important if you have a sense of where your food comes from,” Smith said

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