Saving the family farm: Murky Encinitas ordinances cast shadow over urban agriculture

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Scott Allison

Laurel Mehl’s urban farm is nestled among several residences. As she looks over her organic fruits and vegetables, a homeowner in the adjacent lot (background) is installing solar panels. (Photo by Scott Allison)

Gisela Lagos

Coral Tree Farm is working to gain back the ability to sell produce and hold community educational events for children and adults since losing its farm zoning rights due to city ordinances that do not account for urban farms.

Sixteen years ago, Laurel Mehl and her family started the process of downsizing their farm with fruit trees that consumed less water and a renewed emphasis on heirloom seeds. The process of converting their farm put them outside of the current Encinitas city agricultural ordinance, which was written in 1986 before the development of the small urban farm.

“We are all in the position of working with what has been written back in 1986. Everybody involved with this, we’re not the people who wrote the laws,” Mehl said.

While the laws were not written for urban farms in mind, it is the urban farmer who is now in jeopardy of losing their ability to generate an income and sustain their farms.

“The city currently de-incentivizes (agricultural) businesses and organizations,” said Mim Michelove, co-founder of Healthy Day Partners, “by having a limiting and narrow view of acceptable land uses on (agricultural) zoned property and a cumbersome, expensive permit process, both of which can powerfully impact a small farmer to the point of inability to survive in Encinitas.”

Right now, urban farms are in a gray area of the current agricultural ordinances. They do not produce enough to maintain the farm zoning standards, but without the status they are not able to sell anything at all. An urban farmer’s inability to maintain the zoning mandates makes the costly process futile to even attempt. Even if an urban farm qualifies for the proper zoning, there is no guarantee that the farm will be able to maintain the standards.

Only a few months ago, Coral Tree Farm provided CSA (community supported agriculture) boxes and produce for neighbors, area residents and youths who participated in its educational programs. It was also a place where school children could see the process of creating a meal from seed to plate.

One Coral Tree Farm visitor described their outings to the farm as a visit with family rather than just a place to get their produce.

Tiffany Fox, an Encinitas resident and Coral Tree Farm neighbor, said the Saturday walks to the farm felt like adventures for her and her children. They learned about seeds that are on the brink of extinction and the great flavors of heirloom produce.

“She places a large emphasis in farming from heirloom seeds,” Fox said, “so we’re also getting exposed to the nutritional benefits of seeds that have been used for hundreds of years. You can’t buy that at the grocery store.”

While Mehl said she is proud to provide the city with the heirloom-style farming her parents raised her with, she is particularly excited about the conservation abilities the urban farm provides. She said that with a small amount of space a farmer is able to save a nearly extinct line of produce.

“If we don’t save it, there is no bringing it back,” Mehl said.

The Silverleaf sunflower, found in only three parts of the United States, grows wild at the farm. Its heirloom tomatoes are on the Slow Food Ark of Taste list, which means it’s on the brink of disappearing. Other seeds were brought to Coral Tree Ranch by Joseph Simcox, who travels in search of bio-diverse farms where nearly extinct seeds will thrive.

A farm highlight is the Armenian purple fava beans. From an original handful of fava seeds, visiting school children harvested the beans and were able to fill nearly two jars with them. While the children wanted to eat the beans immediately, they learned that seed-saving means putting off immediate satisfaction for the propagation of an even larger harvest the next season.

“The concept of seed saving is still a new concept to a lot of people,” Mehl said, but she is working on educating adults and children about slow foods, heirloom plants and the importance of crop lineage.

The Encinitas City Council has said it plans to hold talks about the current agricultural ordinance.

In Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer’s weekly newsletter, she wrote that during the community planning meeting on May 9, the council “agreed to consider an urban agricultural ordinance that could address permitting, conflict resolution, incentives, etc.”

Currently, Mehl and the Coral Tree Farm are in the process of applying for a permit that will allow her to keep growing produce and to restart classes for the children and adults of Encinitas. The application process has a cost of $1,700, and due to the farm’s current financial situation, it held a “Yoga at the farm” fundraiser on May 24, where the farm was able to raise $700 of the application fees. More fundraisers will be scheduled throughout the summer to raise money for the remaining application fee and for additional processing.

“We didn’t make all the funds but we are well on our way,” Mehl said.

The city has not yet scheduled the open discussion on the issue, and any result from such a discussion might come too late to help Coral Tree Farm, but Mehl said she hopes her experience will create a change for other urban farmers.

“We hope that our model and experience with the city will be the opening for other people who might want to be an urban farmer, as well,” Mehl said.

Gisela Lagos is a National University journalism intern