ENCINITAS — Scott Murray’s shovel plunged into the ground on a sunny afternoon.
A small hole he dug out revealed soft soil beneath the hard surface. It was a sign of new beginnings for a long vacant, 10-acre plot of land across from the San Diego Botanic Garden.
Murray will bulldoze and plow the land in the coming weeks, turning the hard ground fertile — for both crops and ideas. The land will soon host a one-acre community farm and one-acre satellite campus for the EUSD (Encinitas Union School District). Also in the works: an aquaponics lab that will let researchers experiment with the innovative growing technique, greenhouses and more.
Murray envisions a spot that’s equal parts neighborhood hub and learning center of the future, bordered by seven acres of organic fruits and vegetables.
“This is all about food bringing literacy to the community — young and old,” Murray said.
It’s been like navigating “through a large maze” to get to this point, Murray said. But it appears light is at the end of the tunnel.
After 18 months of planning and negotiations, EUSD and Murray Farms inked a one-year operating agreement last week. The agreement gave Murray the go-ahead to finally start planting.
And if all goes as planned, the land should sprout produce for years to come. EUSD and Murray Farms are currently seeking approval from various state agencies for a 30-year, joint-occupancy agreement.
The land was given to EUSD as part of a larger development deal about a decade ago. State law demanded that the district build a school or some other kind of educational facility on the property — or face financial penalties next year if the land went unused. The district determined there aren’t enough students in the district to justify another school at this time. Yet a farm, the district decided, is an opportunity for students to spend more time playing with dirt.
Currently, each school in the district has its own small garden. With the farm, the aim is for students to get a more complete picture of food production.
“Seed to table is the idea,” said the farm’s architect Jerry Miller. “They’ll understand the science and distribution of farming — it takes a hands-on experience to reinforce that.”
EUSD Superintendent Tim Baird said it’s important students have a better connection with the land.
“We’re in a region with a lot of farming, but we’ve forgotten where food comes from,” Baird said.
“Students will learn about farming techniques,” Baird added. “Not only that, the farming techniques can be tied into larger lessons they’re already learning about, like water conservation.”
The pilot school farm is tentatively scheduled to debut in the fall with four portable classrooms, trained instructors and farming equipment suitable for children, according to Baird.
The curriculum and details are still being ironed out.
There is, however, a loose plan: Each year, third and fifth graders throughout the district would go to the farm for five straight days, instead of their regular classrooms. One day will be dedicated to planting crops, while subsequent days would tackle cooking, earth sciences, alternative energy and farming equipment. And they’ll return a few times throughout the year to see how their produce is doing.
Eventually, there’s a good chance younger grades will get schooled in the art of farming, too. But they likely wouldn’t visit as often as older students.
At the field, Murray pointed out which patches of the farm will receive organic fertilizer first. With 40 years of experience, Murray is certainly no stranger to sustainable farming. He put himself through college by growing and selling organic produce, and he now owns a farm in Vista. Murray also developed school farms in Fallbrook and San Pasqual. Now Encinitas students will be trained in the art of cultivating crops.
For Murray, this is important in light of the fact that America is running out of farmers. That’s because most farmers are nearing retirement age, and a new generation will need to replace them, which a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture attests to. Some of those jobs will be in San Diego, he said.
“We’re the seventh largest agriculture county in the nation,” Murray said. “There’s opportunity locally.”
Of course, Murray said most students in Encinitas probably won’t become professional farmers, but they’ll still walk away with knowledge about healthy eating, and a dose of science.
“We want them to pursue science,” Murray said. “They’re less likely to get that when surrounded by four walls.”
The farm will offer education for teenagers, adults and seniors, too. Residents will be able to rent plots of land for the community farm in the next few months and start planting. Those who don’t have a green thumb can ask for help from more experienced farmers.
In the next year or two, graduate students will research aquaponics — a booming farming technique that combines hydroponics (water-based planting) with aquaculture (fish cultivation). The process involves fish waste providing nutrients for plants. In turn, the plants filter the water where the fish live.
The spot will also feature vertical growing, a method popular in urban areas confined by space. Other kinds of farming are welcome, with the caveat that they’re agro-ecological, which combines organic and sustainable farming.
Murray referenced a 2011 report from the United Nations stating that agro-ecological farming could double food production within 10 years, while also helping the environment.
“We could double world food production by going to agro-ecological techniques and at the same time heal the land from the abuses of the chemicals,” Murray said. “We need to teach this new technique to farmers.”
As far as paying for the farm, development of the school site is being funded by Proposition P, a $44 million bond passed in 2010 that pays for facility and technology upgrades.
Most of the fruits and vegetables cultivated at the farm will be served at the schools. But a portion of the excess produce will be sold to the community to help fund the school’s part of the farm. EUSD has yet to release the expected cost of the farm.
Murray said leasing plots of land to residents will finance the community farm. Other amenities, including planned greenhouses and a solarium, will primarily be funded by grants and donations, Murray said.
Tilling and planting — there’s still much to be done. But Murray said the soil below is more than promising.
“Looking at the land, I’m starting to picture what exactly everything will look like when it’s finished,” Murray said.