Leichtag outlines vision for Ecke land

The Ecke Ranch property in Encinitas, pictured Nov. 21, will soon be under the stewardship of the Leichtag Foundation. (Photo by Roman S. Koenig)

Roman S. Koenig

The Ecke Ranch property in Encinitas, pictured Nov. 21, will soon be under the stewardship of the Leichtag Foundation. (Photo by Roman S. Koenig)

Manny Lopez

The purchase of the famed Paul Ecke Ranch in Encinitas by the Leichtag Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization, marks a turning point in the history of the community, where the poinsettia industry was revolutionized and the association between the plant and Christmas was advanced. After more than 80 years in business at the site, the Ecke family no longer owns the 68 acre parcel, bordered by Saxony Road to the west and Quail Gardens Drive to the east.

The Ecke family lived and worked on the land since 1923.

“The property will now stand as a major cultural platform to stimulate a robust Jewish community in North County, centered upon the agricultural heritage of the area,” said James Farley, president and CEO of the Carlsbad-based foundation.

Farley described the land purchase as a significant step for the organization, reflective of Max “Lee” Leichtag, a self-made businessman who had very big ideas.

While Farley emphasized there is no plan as of yet for the iconic property, he expects that a blueprint for much of the space, renamed Ecke Ranch, will emerge over the next 12 to 18 months.

“We’re at the epicenter of what was once the flower growing capital of the world,” he said. “How do you honor that legacy is the question.”

Farley acknowledged that three tenants, including Ecke Ranch Inc., currently occupy the property, and a fourth will be moving in after the first of the year. He said the hope is to create a sustainable agricultural hub that will attract innovative companies using the best and most modern farming practices to intensify food production on the ranch.

Over time, Farley said, the public will begin to see modern greenhouses constructed throughout the property and a new urban farming model implemented to support the Jewish Food Justice Fellowship, designed to bring people in touch with their agrarian roots and inspire them to fight hunger and poverty by rebuilding local food economies.

Program fellows would live on the ranch in homes that are already on the property, although the foundation will wait and see what develops with the 20-acre subdivision planned for the property north of Ecke Ranch, owned by Shea Homes, Farley said.

With more than 1,100 trees on the property that have not been cared for in quite some time, the foundation doesn’t believe it would be a good idea to spend money caring for them, Farley said, particularly since they do not yield any food. He said they would instead prefer to see a vibrant food source along a public trail that connects Quail Mountain Drive to Saxony Road.

“The Leichtag Foundation is committed to supporting food programs in the region for the food insecure, which include military families on Camp Pendleton, and various food banks,” Farley said. “In an effort to provide them with a steady source of produce, the foundation wishes to grow those types of crops on the ranch.”

Among the many ideas being considered, Farley said, is one that would in some way grow the San Diego Botanic Garden footprint, which sits adjacent to the Ecke Ranch land.

“It’s an iconic institution in the region and it needs some additional space,” Farley said. “But accomplishing such a feat would be challenging, since the property already has two landlords, and raising funds for such a project would require a significant amount of time and effort.”

Farley said the foundation supports all of the recommendations in the “Vision for a New Commons in Encinitas,” a proposal released in June 2010. However, not all of the uses suggested in the document are consistent with the agricultural heritage of the site, he added.

Other ideas that might gain some traction within the foundation, Farley said, include the support of a local arts organization that currently has no space and a weekly farmers market on the property.

More information on the Ecke Ranch property and the Leichtag Foundation can be found at www.leichtag.org or by calling 760-929-1090.

Manny Lopez is a North County freelance writer