Student field trips to help Encinitas Farm Lab finally sprout


Nearly five years in the works, the Encinitas Union School District’s 10-acre farm recently gained irrigation lines — and crops followed. The farm is approaching another first: student field trips.

On April 18, fifth-graders from Park Dale Lane will spend a day at the property, dubbed Farm Lab. Three more district schools will get their chance April 23, 28 and 30.

“That’s going to be our biggest milestone — actually having students here,” said Mim Michelove, the co-founder of Healthy Day Partners. The nonprofit is overseeing Farm Lab, as well as a smaller farm at Ocean Knoll Elementary.

“I can’t imagine something more exciting. That will bring the space to life.”

Down the line, students will get a firsthand lesson in planting, growing and cooking produce at the 441 Quail Gardens site. The goal is to reinforce science, technology, nutrition and ecology concepts in the curriculum.

“I think it will truly bring science alive,” Michelove said, adding that Farm Lab aligns with new Common Core educational standards that emphasize experiential learning.

But crops won’t be the focus of the upcoming school trips. Rather, because the property is still a work in progress, student groups will take part in a timed challenge where they’ll suggest ideas for Farm Lab.

To inform their vision, the students will spend time at the nearby San Diego Botanic Garden and the Leichtag Foundation property, posing questions to experts and noting amenities that would be ideal for Farm Lab.

“They’ll be looking at signage, pathways and exhibits at the Botanic Garden, and then see what a working farm looks like at the Leichtag site,” said Leighangela Brady, assistant superintendent of education services.

Then the student groups will come up with plans and present their recommendations to a panel of community members, district staff and the E3 cluster — a collective that formed a year ago to collaborate on educational initiatives on Quail Gardens Drive and nearby Saxony Road.

Funders who could potentially bankroll the students’ pitches will also be on hand.

“This is a great real-life challenge,” Brady said.

In future years, Brady said K-6 students would visit the farm, with more frequent seasonal visits likely for third- through sixth-graders.

“Each time they go, they’ll be building off what they learned previously,” she said.

Besides educating students, Farm Lab’s crops will provide fresh produce for school lunches at the district’s nine campuses.

On less than an acre of the site, tomato plant vines have begun to wrap around wooden support poles. Snap peas, lettuce and more are poking out from the ground.

Still, much of the land is vacant, though not for long. Michelove said in the coming months, quite a bit more will be planted (the site’s master plan shows six acres of crops).

“There will be that much more produce,” Michelove said, noting the Ocean Knoll farm’s yield is already contributing to school lunches.

On a similar note, a planned “food forest” will run along the western edge of Farm Lab. Fruits and vegetables from the forest, according to plans, will go to local food pantries.

Along with crops, Farm Lab now has four portable buildings, with two devoted to classroom learning, one lab for nutrition and the other for science. At the science lab, students will be able to inspect soil with microscopes, for instance.

“They can see all the microorganisms that are alive in the soil,” Michelove said.

Farm Lab’s master plan outlines a number of ambitious projects.

A sample of the blueprint: A kitchen would have solar ovens harnessing the sun’s energy, allowing students to cook produce in an environmentally friendly fashion. A maker’s lab would encourage students to build items that might come in handy on a farm out of natural materials. And an area would let students peruse wildlife and record their observations in journals.

The 10-acre site was gifted to the district after a large development deal about 12 years ago. Enrollment projections showed there wouldn’t be enough students in the district to justify another school, so the school board approved a farm concept in 2010 with the aim of offering hands-on education.

Progress has been slow. For one, the city withheld a grading permit because of questions over drainage. And permitting is still being finalized for some parts of Farm Lab.

Another reason for the delay: The district originally wanted to lease much of the property to an outside organization called Eat Well Group, which would have managed the farm and leased to subtenants.

The district eventually decided it wanted to retain control of the property. As a result, the district had to take a step back and revise its blueprint, Michelove said.

In the past six months, however, there’s been a flurry of activity. Most recently, the city installed a crosswalk next to the property, making it safer for students at the farm to visit the San Diego Botanic Garden and Leichtag Foundation property.

A request for Farm Lab’s cost was not returned by press time. In the past, the district has stated that Proposition P, a $44 million bond passed in 2010 for facility and technology upgrades, is paying for most of the site development.

The district has also asked for community donations to make the master plan a reality — and groups have answered.

Coastal Community Foundation provided a grant for the first student field trips. And engineering students from UC San Diego have collaborated with Farm Lab to design solar ovens.

The E3 Cluster, too, has supported the farm. For instance, a farmer from the Leichtag Foundation, an E3 member, enriched the soil last fall.

Michelove said the hope is that Farm Lab inspires more school agriculture, locally and nationally.

“When you think of building a school, it’s typically a lot of concrete and really industrial,” she said. “This is the opposite. This will honor the land it’s on and the city’s agriculture history.”