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History of San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project

Do you eat food? Do you live in San Diego County?

Then you are a part of the San Diego food community. Think of our food system as a circle, each of us interdependent and connected with every other part of the circle. Where you buy your food and what you put in your mouth not only affects you and your health, but that of your neighbors as well.

We are San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project, a network of citizens, farmers, chefs, gardeners, teachers, and students working to encourage the growth and consumption of regional food. From farm to fork, we focus awareness and work toward a more ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just food system in San Diego.

By eating locally, not only do you get fresher, better-tasting food, but you also help support family farms and encourage a vibrant local economy.

Help Preserve Local Farms

Have you ever visited a farm?

Would you like your children to see a real farm and to know that a carrot comes from the ground and not a plastic bag?

Would you like to keep San Diego green?

Do you want to support our local farmers and economy?

Rising land values and pressure from housing development in southern California have made it increasingly difficult for small farms to survive. Yet access to quality food is crucial to the health and well-being of our communities. Food now comes from farther and farther away—1500 miles on average—strung out on a tenuous food distribution system dependent on cheap oil.

This long-distance transportation chain requires that food be picked early, before the development of flavor and nutrition; refrigerated for days or weeks; shipped from grower to packer to distribution center to centralized warehouses and, finally, to your local market. This system has been called the agriculture-industrial complex, and it views food as merely a commodity.

Locally grown food is different. Fruits and vegetables are grown with taste in mind and picked when deliciously ripe and ready for eating, not for shipping. When you buy from a local farmer, nearly all the money ends up in his or her pocket, rather than going to middlemen or distributors. Most farms in San Diego are family-owned, and those families, in turn, spend their money in our community.

San Diego has an ideal climate, capable of growing food year-round, yet our local farms are disappearing at an alarming rate. To ensure a quality of life in our area for generations to come, we must make preserving local farms a priority and share the knowledge of food production far and wide.

Keep San Diego Healthy & Delicious -- Eat Locally Grown

San Diego Roots' History

2001-2003: Save the Farm! (well, not quite)

Our work began in 2001 as an unincorporated affiliation of citizens, farmers, chefs, gardeners, teachers, and students rallying together to save a small farm from losing its land to development.

The land, a mere 30-minute drive from downtown San Diego, had been put up for sale and was slated to be replaced by a housing development, a predicament for a lot of farmland in Southern California. The citizens formed a working group called A Local Organic Farmland Trust (ALOFT) and began exploring ways to buy the property. 

Seeing the need for professional land trust advice and affiliation, the founding members approached the Back Country Land Trust (BCLT), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which modified its mission statement to include the preservation of local farmland and adopted ALOFT as a project working under its non-profit umbrella.

We immediately began running public-awareness programs about the issue, including farm tours, educational lunches with fresh-picked ingredients, tabling at events and school outreach. Our intention was to purchase the land, put it into an agricultural trust, and lease it out to several small, local farmers. To further our educational goals, we wanted to create a farm education center on the property, bringing the community and school children the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from.

Despite our efforts, we were unable to buy the land, which was sold to local developers, ending over 100 years of farming and ranching on this property. This heightened our awareness of the plight of local farms and necessity of working to preserve the local-farm connection in our community.

2004: Getting our hands dirty

In 2004, our desire to learn firsthand what it takes to be a farmer brought us to create a farm on a small plot of land. In cooperation with a private landowner who offered us free use of a portion of his property, and working entirely with volunteers, we cleared the area, turned the soil, planted cover crops, installed irrigation, formed beds, amended the soil, and planted a succession of crops. Through this process we had the opportunity to work with a variety of individuals, both expert and novice, to bring several seasons of crops to fruition. Over time, the project became unsustainable as we were unable to house a farmer at the property. We learned that farming is not a commuter-friendly job.

2005-2006: We start the Morse High School Terra Nova Garden

Redoubling our efforts after losing the farm we formed to save, in 2005 we renamed ourselves San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project (still operating as a project of BCLT), and focused on educating the public about the importance of having local farms and locally produced food, and helping people in our area find local sources for their food.

In the spring of 2005 we began planning for an organic vegetable garden on the campus of Morse High School in Southeast San Diego (San Diego Unified School District). Our first few months there involved working with a single teacher in a classroom, educating students about where their food comes from, planting seedlings, and having them do research and reports about how food relates to health issues such as childhood obesity. The students also performed a campus survey, gathering information about where local families buy their food, how much fresh food is used in cooking, how many meals are cooked in the home, about the general awareness of local farms, as well as the cultural connection to food.

In June of 2005 we hosted a fundraising dinner at a local restaurant for the school garden. Several local chefs, using mostly local ingredients, prepared a meal for over 100 guests. Part of the program included a slide show and talk given by students about the future school garden and the connection between food and health.

Using the money we raised, in the fall of 2005 we broke ground on the garden. With all volunteer help, including students from the campus, we cleared brush and landscaping from an underused portion of the campus, rototilled and amended the soil (which was nearly entirely clay), created beds and began planting. At the same time, Morse High School -- a campus of 5000 students -- began creating several small learning communities within the larger campus. One of those communities, the Terra Nova Academy, was focused on science, environmental education and health, and the school garden became part of that program. It became the Terra Nova Garden.

We hosted a second fundraising dinner in June of 2006. The funds raised at that event have helped us build a greenhouse; buy material to build raised beds; buy soil, soil amendments, fruit trees, plant starts and materials; hoses, tools, plumbing and irrigation supplies; and other materials to further advance the program.

2007: Land search and partnerships

In June of 2007, in conjunction with the San Diego Unified School District, we (under the BCLT umbrella) were awarded a $30,000 grant to create and operate an after-school program in the garden. The program called “Seeds of Leadership” (SOL) involved several eight-week sessions with six to eight students in each session. Besides working the garden, participants learned public speaking, went on field trips to local farms and gardens, grew food for one of the campus diners, and sold excess produce to the community at an on-campus stand. After their successful completion of the program, students receive a $400 scholarship.

In January of 2007, after years of searching for a piece of property, we identified a parcel suitable for our goal of operating an educational farm. This property was ideally suited for our needs: it was level, had been farmed before, had wells and groundwater, was adjacent to a wildlife preserve, and close enough to most urban schools to be a viable destination for school field trips. After over a year of talks with two different land owners, we were unable to negotiate an acceptable, affordable deal as the area's real estate market went into a tailspin, and decided to walk away. However, this did not shake our resolve.

We began talks with other community groups and organizations -- notably Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Co-op and the San Diego Natural History Museum, about the advantages of creating a local, sustainable educational farm for our region. The Co-op has a long history of supporting organic agriculture in general and school-to-farm field trips in particular, so they were a natural partner in the project. The Museum is helping focus community awareness about global climate change and immediately saw the connection between food sources and climate.

Several talks within the community about the project helped us gather together a dynamic group of people willing to work as volunteers to make this happen. We started meeting weekly to map out a strategy and began making plans for a fundraising campaign to buy the land. Realizing the necessity to make decisions quickly and act on our own, in August of 2007 we began the process of organizing as our own non-profit organization.

2007-2008: Developing programs and becoming a non-profit

Early in 2008 we were approached by staff and faculty at San Diego City College, in the heart of downtown San Diego, about developing an urban farm on the school's campus. They had recently toured the garden at Morse High School and thought something similar would be a great addition to their school. After planning throughout the spring, ground was broken in June of 2008, tranforming what was a seldom-used lawn into a vibrant, active and beautifully alive (and delicious!) small farm. Apprentices and volunteers eagerly worked throughout the summer and when school opened for the fall, students, faculty and staff were amazed at what was possible.

Dubbed Seeds @ City, this program has developed considerably since its inception, and in the Fall semester 2010, credited classes in urban agriculture will be offered, the first in San Diego County!

In August of 2008 we began our Food for Thought Film Series, showing the movie "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest. This was made possible by a generous grant from Ocean Beach People's Organic Food Co-op. The purpose of the film series -- always shown free to the public -- was to offer an easy way to discuss food and how people's food choices effect not just their own lives and health, but the health of the community and the world at large.

On November 15, 2007, after a year of organizing, bylaw writing and application-filing, we were incorporated as a California Public Benefit Corporation, and on November 1, 2008 we acquired our stand-alone 501(c)3 status from the IRS. Now the real work had begun!

2009: The year of growth

San Diego Roots experienced a lot of growth in 2009 as more people became aware of the vital role local food plays in a healthy community. To stimulate this, we developed our wildly successful Victory Gardens San Diego program, teaching folks how to grow food in their homes, schools and community, and doing garden installations at all these types of locations. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, VGSD installed 14 home gardens, provided assistance and material to four schools and seven organizations, and offered three six-session "University of Gardening" classes, one taught in Spanish.

In August of 2009 SD Roots produced an art/music/food/community event called Growing Places bringing speakers, farmers, chefs, educators, economists, political leaders, authors, artists, students and citizens together to discuss the importance of keeping a vibrant, local, sustainable and delicious food system in the San Diego region. The day-long event was wildly successful, raising over $3000 for our farm program, and brought hundreds of people together for a wonderful time. After this day, many more people became involved in Roots and our volunteer corps increased several-fold.

2010: Finally a farm!

In 2010 we found the land we had been searching for to start our first Farm and Education Center. In June 2010 we began leasing five acres inside a County Park in the Tijuana River Valley. The land was just what we were looking for: within close reach of many San Diegans (15 minutes from downtown San Diego); former farmland with alluvial soils; mild climate, and surrounded by native habitat.

We started the farm off right with a kick-off party on June 26th. We had farm tours, seed-planting, music, local appetizers, local drinks, and great friends. It was also the kick-off of our Grow the Farm Campaign to raise $80,000 for our first year of the farm.

Wild Willow Farm was built from the ground up as an educational farm practicing and teaching sustainable agriculture. There, we offered community members the opportunity to connect with food sources and learn how to grow their own food for their personal and community's well-being.

Among the first programs we developed was a field-trip program for city and county school districts to bring local school kids to the farm to learn about where their food comes from. We educated students about the food system and how eating fits into our greater ecological footprint; we encouraged students to start gardens at their own schools and help provide resources and volunteers to make that possible. We will taught students and their parents about the relationship between food and health.

In 2012 we developed Wild Willow School for Sustainable Farming, an in-depth adult farm school that taught the fundamental aspects of how to grow food professionally and training up the next generation of ecological farmers. Between 2012 and 2019, we trained over 400 students, many who have gone on to start their own farms, or are engaged in teaching others how to grow food where they live.

In addition to farm school, we offered individual workshop included gardening, composting, cooking, vermiculture, beekeeping, fruit trees, seminars on food and health, natural pest control, organic soil amending, animal husbandry and more.

Produce grown at the farm was mostly marketed to local supporters through our Farmshare CSA program.

2019: Saying goodbye to Wild Willow Farm

As the farm grew it became clear that in order for it to continue to grow and meet an ever-increasing demand for our programming, it needed stronger administrative support. We looked around our community for a partner who could provide that.

We had been working side by side with the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego County to present the annual Soil Shindig in the Tijuana River Valley. We shared a similar passion for environmentalism and a goal to enrich the local agricultural community. Being the partner we were looking for, in September 2019 we relinquished ownership of Wild Willow Farm to the RCD.

The Future of SD Roots

We are passionate to bring attention to local food issues, and to educate the public about where their food comes from.

This is one of the best growing climates in the world, and we are learning and teaching ways to better take advantage of it for all who live here now and future generations.