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Return to roots for Encinitas farmer, but some uncertainty remains at Coral Tree Farm

Coral Tree Farm and Nursery owner Laurel Mehl holds a cherimoya that she grew on the 2-acre property. The farm recently began selling produce boxes again, but the future of events there is still up in the air. Photo by Jared Whitlock
Coral Tree Farm and Nursery owner Laurel Mehl holds a cherimoya that she grew on the 2-acre property. The farm recently began selling produce boxes again, but the future of events there is still up in the air. Photo by Jared Whitlock

In recent weeks, Encinitas residents have resumed picking up boxes from Coral Tree Farm and Nursery teeming with chard, carrots, beets, wax beans and more.

After about a year without the produce boxes, it’s in many ways a return to normalcy for Laurel Mehl, who owns the Encinitas farm.

“A lot of them coming to get produce are the same families that have been coming for the last three years plus,” Mehl said. “It warms my heart.”

She stopped the boxes last spring, after neighbor complaints over traffic generated by the farm’s customers. That prompted the city to look into what’s allowed there “by right” and what needs a permit.

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Ultimately, the Encinitas City Council last September reaffirmed the farm’s right to commercially sell produce without special permits, after hearing from upset neighbors and urban agriculture supporters.

But the meeting wasn’t a total victory for Coral Tree Farm. The council also ruled that events such as educational tours on the property will need a $1,600 minor-use permit to continue, and others such as yoga meet-ups will have to stop for the time being, because they’re not directly connected to agriculture.

Mehl hasn’t pursued the lengthy minor-use permit. Rather, she’s carefully watching the progress of the city’s urban agriculture ordinance, which proposes to ease such event restrictions and permit costs for residential growers.

Under the most recent draft, urban farmers can host up to six “agri-connection” events a year, like art classes or group exercise sessions, without permits. Seven to 15 events a year would require a streamlined $800 agriculture permit, with additional events needing a minor-use permit. Events could host no more than 25 people.

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Once finished, the ordinance is slated to go to the full council for a vote later this year.

“We’ll have to see how it flows,” Mehl said. “I think the city is trying to walk the balance between supporting agriculture, but not ticking off neighbors.”

She added: “Urban agriculture is a blessing, though I know not everyone thinks that way.”

Although the council cleared the farm to sell produce boxes last September, by that point, the season was drawing to a close. So Mehl and farm helpers held off planting for a few months. She said it’s been “a long wait” to again offer produce boxes for families.

“I’ve had the sweetest comments already, like, ‘We’re so glad you’re here growing nutritional food for us,’” Mehl said.

In a rainbow of color, everything from dragon fruit to exotic sunflowers to cherimoya is flourishing at the 2-acre farm.

This season, the boxes are going to 15 local families, a number that’s lower than in the past. But that’s OK with Mehl.

“I care about small community,” she said. “And it’s important for me to know my families … That’s more important to me than trying to achieve big numbers.”

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Not having produce boxes for a year, while tough for Mehl, did allow her to focus on another passion: preserving seeds on the brink of extinction.

Over the last year, Mehl has grown new heirloom varieties, which she believes are key for maintaining historical links.

“If you knew the story of every heirloom, you’d start getting the picture of human migration,” she said. “But once industrialized food started and the hybrids came on, the stories were lost.”

Mehl is dedicated to spreading them again. Thanks to successful heirloom yields, she’s been able to share many of the seeds with individuals and groups, including with Israeli farmers who were in town recently visiting the Leichtag Foundation’s 67-acre property.

She said the local growing conditions suit many of the seeds. For instance, she started with only six Armenian purple fava bean seeds in 2011, and by next year, she’ll have enough of the variety growing to not only be able to hand out seeds, but also to feed people.

“For people who like a little history with their food, it’s really interesting,” she said.

The farm, family owned and operated since 1958, is a continuation of her own family’s history.

“I’ve grown my food my entire life. My dad grew a vegetable garden and his father grew a vegetable garden. And my family is fourth generation out of the Midwest as farmers. I think it’s genetic.”

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Those interested in signing up for boxes can visit coraltreefarm.com. The farm, at 598 Park Lane, is also open to the public to purchase organic eggs, fruits and vegetables from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays.


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