Uprooted Encinitas farmer plotting his next move
Ryan “Farmer Leo” Goldsmith two years ago transformed a vacant plot in Encinitas into a 2-acre organic farm. A tight-knit community also sprouted there.
Families without green thumbs learned how to plant at Farmer Leo’s. A steady stream of volunteers leant a hand. And events like bi-monthly dinners at the property produced plenty of friendships, not to mention romance — Goldsmith even officiated the wedding of a couple that met there.
But this chapter of his life is drawing to a close. He recently dismantled his greenhouse and packed it up into a trailer. The crop beds at Farmer Leo’s cover only about half the area they did during the farm’s heyday.
The property owner is selling the land to make way for a senior living facility, and with that, Goldsmith’s last day there will be Jan. 15.
“I definitely went through an acceptance-mourning period,” Goldsmith said. “It wasn’t just cultivating vegetables, but so much of my focus was on cultivating community. There are many people I will miss.”
Goldsmith knew when he signed the year-to-year lease in fall 2013 that the land could be sold, although that happened sooner than anticipated. He found out in early December his days there were numbered.
“There’s no finger-pointing or blame on my part,” Goldsmith said. “I had just hoped to stay longer.”
Now acceptance is setting in, and he’s looking forward to what comes next. Goldsmith plans to start a new farm somewhere up north — maybe the foothills of the Sierras or Portland, Ore.
“At 40 years old, I’m asking myself, ‘What do I want to do? Where do I want to go?’ There’s so much possibility. I’m fortunate in many ways to be in this position.”
Goldsmith said he loves Encinitas, but he ruled out launching another farm in the city or surrounding San Diego County, in part because of the lack of rain.
The water situation has been especially tough ever since July, when Goldsmith voluntarily cut back water use 15 percent to help the city meet a state conservation mandate. Plus, water rates went up for farmers.
“Because of the cycle of dry years and less-frequent wet years, it’s not a steady, predictable vegetable-growing climate here,” Goldsmith said.
Another reason he’s relocating: real estate economics. Such high land values in the area make it difficult to buy farm property or lock down a long-term lease.
“I’ve learned the hard way I want to own my next farm,” Goldsmith said.
At its height, Farmer Leo’s was a throwback to the city’s agricultural roots, yet still on point with urban farming trends. He said making it as a farmer these days is all about adding value where possible, which is why he hosted bi-monthly dinners, made with his crops, on the farm.
And similar to other urban farms, the property is close to homes and roads. This suited Goldsmith, who said he liked having “one foot in the country and one foot in the city.”
Goldsmith has been a fixture at local farmers markets, and he sold his produce through a CSA (community-supported agriculture). Those who want to buy the last crops can visit the farmstand on his property, open Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. at 1920 S. El Camino Real.
For his next venture, he’d like to teach everyone from seniors to youth how to grow food. Plus, he’s interested in offering farming as therapy.
“I just really think it’s a good way for people to heal, regardless of what they’re facing,” Goldsmith said.
To help make a decision on where to move, he’s going to volunteer through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) at various farms to get a feel for cities’ agriculture scenes. No matter where he ends up, Goldsmith can’t imagine doing anything other than running his hands through the soil every day.
While he’s spent much of his adult life tilling and planting, he grew up on the beach in Orange County. As a teenager he took an interest in sustainable food, leading him to study ecology in college. He put this knowledge to practice by farming in Australia as part of WWOOF.
Later, he graduated from UC Santa Cruz’s Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture program. He then ran a catering company, but couldn’t take working under fluorescent lights.
“This is what I love to do, and I’ve been lucky with the level of support I’ve received,” Goldsmith said.
Before Farmer Leo’s in Encinitas, he farmed a quarter-acre plot in Leucadia, honing his growing techniques. In 2013, he jumped at the opportunity to start a larger farm in Encinitas.
“I remember signing the lease and clinking champagne glasses on this completely empty, scrubby land,” Goldsmith said.
The land’s transformation was particularly impressive given that Goldsmith, two farm hands and volunteers did essentially all the work by hand. Only once did he run a tractor over the property.
Laurel Mehl, who owns Coral Tree Farm and Nursery in Encinitas, said the city is losing a source of beautiful vegetables. More than that, Mehl added she’ll miss Goldsmith’s “big smile and amazing laugh.”
“Whoever walked onto that farm just knew how much love and effort went there,” Mehl said.
When asked if she feels like she has the only farm left in Encinitas, Mehl cited the new Encinitas Community Garden and Coastal Roots Farm at the Leichtag Foundation property.
“I don’t feel alone,” Mehl said. “But I will miss Farmer Leo.”
Looking back, Goldsmith has many fond memories during his time in Encinitas: neighbors pitching in to erect the greenhouse; delivering his produce to local businesses such as Priority Public House via bike; and kids volunteering to harvest lima beans, a heritage crop he planted to pay tribute to North County settlers.
“It’s sad to think the land will probably be vacant again for a little while,” Goldsmith said.
Plans call for building a senior living facility on the site. The Encinitas Planning Commission in November expressed concern that the facility would be too big, requesting that the developers shrink the project’s footprint and come back before the commission.
Come mid-January, Goldsmith will drive off with a trailer storing his greenhouse, farming equipment and irrigation infrastructure. It’s exciting, albeit bittersweet, he said.
Goldsmith said even though he won’t be around, he wants residents to keep supporting local food sources that build community and Encinitas’ economy.
“That would be my final word to folks who are interested in local food. Go to farmers markets, local farms and restaurants that buy from them.”