ENCINITAS — The four bungalows sit atop a wooden deck, surrounded by what might appear to be to the untrained eye a vacant lot across the street from the San Diego Botanic Garden.
Mim Michelove and Camille Sowinski will tell you that it is far from vacant.
To the east, there are heads of lettuce that will help feed some 5,400 students. To the south, smaller gardens will teach those same students about water conservation and how food ends up from a local farm to your dinner table. A bridge will be built over an on-site bioswale, connecting the bungalows to the “amazing, lush outdoor education space,” Sowinski said.
And in those four bungalows at the heart of the 10-acre site, students will learn the science and nutrition behind agriculture in a classroom and laboratory setting.
This is the Encinitas Union School District’s Farm Laboratory, an ambitious educational project spearheaded by the school district an its chief partner Healthy Day Partners, and it is rapidly taking shape through a recent series of events.
On Sept. 27, the district held its first community event on the property where members of the community scattered seeds on the land that will serve as cover crop that will prime the land for future farming.
At the same event, community members, under the stewardship of Paint Encinitas, covered the large steel-grey electrical box on the grounds with a beautiful mural.
In October, the district hired Emily Staalberg as the farmer charged with planting and cultivating the farms that will produce the produce for the district’s student nutritional program, which was recently rebranded as the Green Garden Cafe.
At the November school board meeting, Sowinski, Michelove Staalberg and Jennifer McNeil, the director of the aforementioned nutrition program, briefed the school board on the progress at the farm lab, a report met with the adulation of the school board members.
And in January, students from Park Dale Lane Elementary School will fill the bungalows on the first field trip to the farm lab, Sowinski said.
“There has been a lot of momentum recently,” said Michelove, who co-founded Healthy Day Partners with Sowinski. Their nonprofit is managing the farm lab project and oversees another school farm at Ocean Knoll Elementary.
“It’s an exciting time. There is a lot of curiosity from the students, and I’ve only felt their enthusiasm,” she said.
While there are a lot of moving parts, at the heart of the operation is a school, despite it’s non-traditional makeup, Sowinski and Michelove said.
The district acquired the acreage a little over a decade ago and it was originally slated for a traditional K-6 school, but the district didn’t have the enrollment to justify another school. Rather than do nothing with the land — which would have cost the district in financial penalties — Superintendent Timothy Baird and staff developed the idea of a laboratory-type agriculture setting that would help the district satisfy its, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, requirements.
“There will be a lot of education going on in those fields and in these classrooms,” Sowinski said.
Meanwhile, the development of the land and the curriculum that will be taught in the classrooms is moving in a series of phases that should be completed over the course of a few years.
In addition to the educational goals, the land will serve as the primary source of produce production for the district nutritional program. The district anticipates growing at least half of the produce used in student breakfasts and lunches in three years from the acreage as well as the Ocean Knoll farm, which has already produced lettuce, tomatoes and bell peppers used in the newly revamped menu.
Recently, students at the schools ate cheese and veggie pizza made with tomato sauce from Ocean Knoll’s first tomato crop.
McNeil said the results of using organically grown local crops in the food have been positive.
“The kids could taste the difference, and I think that’s a very rewarding feeling for everyone involved in the program,” McNeil said. “It truly is a labor of love.”
As part of the district’s nutrition program, Staalberg has the goal of growing 100 heads of lettuce per week starting in the springtime. Additionally, she is working on getting the farm registered with California’s State Organic Program, and ultimately applying for certification through the California Certified Organic Farmers, though that step is in the future.
Ambitious as all of the goals might sound, school district officials said they believe they are attainable — but not without the help of the community.
The district has received a lot of support to date from the Leichtag Foundation, which provided the district with the farmer who originally tilled the land and got it “farming ready,” and the architect who designed the lab’s footprint.
The San Diego Botanic Garden and the San Dieguito Heritage Museum have pledged to teach lessons for students during their trips to the farm lab.
Paint Encinitas has also pledged to do three other murals on site.
But more help — and funding — is needed.
“It is an intricate amount of work that needs to be done and we are looking for sponsorship opportunities and investors,” Sowinskis said. “We are open to working with as many community partners as possible who share our vision for the site.”