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Organic farm gets back to American roots

SAN DIEGO — The first time people meet Stephenie Caughlin, owner of Seabreeze Organic Farm, they usually tell her she’s nothing like they imagined.
“They expect to see me dressed in overalls, standing in front of a red barn,” she said. Hoping the public will continue believing that’s how their food is produced, Caughlin said growers perpetuate that stereotype even though it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I can’t think of anyone more important than the one who grows your food,” she said. But nowadays, people are almost completely unaware of where their food comes from. As an example, Caughlin cited the recent spinach recall and how difficult it was to trace where the product originated, let alone the farmer who grew it.
“The average supermarket food item travels approximately 1,400 petroleum miles to get there,” her Web site states.
“We have distanced ourselves so far from our food that no one cares about what happens to me when I eat it,” said Talley Hutcherson, who provides office support for Seabreeze Farm. “The mindset is that cheap and easy and fast is the way to go,” she said. “But eating healthy provides more benefits down the road.”
With two advanced degrees and careers as a gold broker, chief executive of a futures trading company and high school teacher, Caughlin bought her 2-acre hillside property off Sorrento Valley Road in San Diego in 1978. At the time it was mostly chaparral and eucalyptus trees.
“At 40 … I was looking for something sustainable to do with my life,” Caughlin said. “I was always interested in family so it was natural that I would go into growing food.”
Caughlin, who taught home economics for seven years, was one of the original growers for San Diego’s first farmers market. In 1988 she began growing and delivering food that is healthy for several reasons.
In addition to not using chemicals or pesticides, Caughlin produces her food seasonally. “By eating with the season, we are meeting the body’s needs,” she said.
In winter she grows the root crops, such as carrots, turnips and parsnips, which bolster the immune system when it needs it most, she said. Spring brings the leafy green vegetables — collards, kale and spinach — or “miracle foods,” as Caughlin calls them. “They help fight off the change in weather,” she said.
“In summer, when it’s hot and we sweat, we have all the fruits — watermelon, peaches and other stone fruits and citrus — all with extra liquid.”
In addition to fruits and vegetables, Caughlin grows herbs and flowers and raises poultry for eggs. Customers can order from her online green store for other groceries, household goods and cleaning supplies.
“What we don’t grow here we buy from other organic suppliers we know and trust,” she said.
Caughlin currently delivers weekly or biweekly to about 150 families per month. For $62.50 per week, customers receive a bouquet of flowers and fruits, vegetables and herbs that change weekly. For the week of March 1, items included a Hass avocado, navel oranges, bananas, pears, apples, a lemon, bok choy, carrots or scallions, beets or turnips, lettuce, salad with edible flowers, an heirloom tomato, parsley or dill, mixed sprouts, cabbage, celery and cauliflower or broccoli.
The list is updated weekly on her Web site, which also features recipes, quotes and some personal thoughts.
Because of the topography, Caughlin uses vertical farming to maximize yields and decrease labor and water use. A variety of food, from bok choy to strawberries, is grown in stacked pots.
The property, with a view of Torrey Pines State Beach, includes her home, an art gallery where she spends her rare free time enjoying her other passion, an assortment of animals including a goat and a straw-and-bale rental unit made with reclaimed windows, doors and roofing material.
Although she’s been in business for 22 years, Caughlin said Seabreeze isn’t profitable. To help make ends meet, she offers tours for students, scouting groups and others interested in her farming techniques.
Knowing her items are more expensive — a dozen eggs from Seabreeze cost $5.99 — Caughlin encourages people to start their own backyard gardens.
“People think it’s a novelty, but we’ve been growing food for more than 10,000 years,” she said.
“Lots of food can be grown in a small area, especially in Southern California, where we’re blessed with such good weather. And a small garden can build a strong family unit. It teaches life skills and the value of chores.
“It’s a matter of priorities and appreciating the value of a proper diet,” she said.