Back on the farm: Encinitas students have returned to Farm Lab

Students check out the produce at Encinitas Union School District's Farm Lab.
(Julie Burton)

After a year and a half hiatus due to the pandemic, Encinitas Union School District students are finally back at the Farm Lab. The district’s Farm Lab provides a way for students to experience hands-on, project-based learning in sustainability and enviro-literacy that has its roots in next generation science standards.

The 10-acre Farm Lab on Quail Gardens Drive houses the DREAMS (Design, Research, Engineering, Art, Math and Science) campus, research and design spaces (currently the home of the district’s COVID testing sites) and the first certified organic school farm in the country. The produce feeds directly into the Farm to School program and the fresh veggies and fruits are featured on salad bars at all nine schools and used in scratch-made lunch items. The Ecology Center located on the site is the district’s farming partner.

All kindergarteners, first graders and fifth graders have visited the farm and sixth graders have started their week-long entrepreneurial experience where they work in teams to develop their own salad dressing company during Salad Wars.

“Being that we had no students for a year and a half, our education team disbanded and we are back with an all new team that is absolutely phenomenal,” said Julie Burton, coordinator of innovation and Farm Lab development during an update at the Jan. 18 school board meeting. “One of the gifts of having an entirely new staff is we have fresh eyes on absolutely everything.”

During the layoff, Burton said Farm Lab staff have made enhancements across the grade-level curriculum to ensure students have deeper levels of understanding, improved engagement and more technology integration. As an example, first graders used to design a contraption to deter pests from munching school lunch crops but the curriculum has now shifted to have students designing and coding robots to scare away pesky predators.

The farm itself also grew significantly in the year and a half hiatus.

“There are now a lot more learning opportunities right at our farm,” said Burton, noting fifth graders used to have to walk across the street to Coastal Roots Farm to see water-wise irrigation practices and farming but now those can be seen on site.

Since 2015, Farm Lab has partnered with The Ecology Center, which took a construction fill lot and pulled concrete and rebar out of the dirt to convert it into a thriving ecosystem. Jonathan Zaidman, director of engagement and impact at The Ecology Center, said they have created a learning lab for the future where students can find owls in owl boxes, check out native landscape and the over 10,000 pounds of organic fruits and veggies that is produced a year.

The barn and farm stand
The barn and farm stand on the Farm Lab campus, a collaboration between the Ecology Center and the Encinitas Union School District.
(Courtesy of The Ecology Center)

“It’s our honor and true inspiration to see a school district really leading in this subject matter,” Zaidman said. “We have almost 14 years of experience working with schools and really pulling them along the way in the conversation on sustainability and food systems, and sometimes Julie is pushing us to meet the district’s expectations and goals.”

Last year The Ecology Center and district built a new barn and community farm stand, open to the public on Tuesdays from 2-5 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

In 2021, the district was additionally awarded a $20,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The grant monies are being used to support the Seed to Soil Farm Stand Ambassador program in which students run a small, “pay as you can” farm stand once a month after school at Flora Vista Elementary. The district’s partner BCK Programs coordinates the student engagement piece and The Ecology Center grows the produce they sell.

Farm Lab is located at 441 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. To learn more visit