New ideas at Leichtag property bearing fruit


Inside Go Green Agriculture’s 3-acre greenhouse, employees holding iPads inspect rows of spinach. Tapping on the screens, they document its progress.

People might not associate computer tablets with agriculture. But Go Green, a hydroponic farm on the Leichtag Foundation’s Ranch, could represent the future of agriculture.

“For food safety and inventory, you need to keep a lot of logs,” said Pierre Sleiman Jr., Go Green’s 27-year-old CEO. “Rather than having to remember — did I write this or that down? — the iPad asks questions and the answers are recorded.”

Over the past year, Sleiman, who has a degree in computer science, wrote the agriculture app, tailoring it to the company’s needs.

“Everything here is shifting to a paperless system, saving us time,” he said. “It’s actually a huge competitive advantage.”

Two years ago, the Leichtag Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization, bought the 67-acre Ranch — once the center of the Eckes’ poinsettia-growing operations.

Since then, the foundation has brought in groups that put a new spin on old traditions.

Besides Go Green, a hub space for nonprofits dedicated to supporting Jewish communities and agriculture is now up and running. And ambitious plans call for planting an abundant food “forest” and community farm as a way to give back.

Go Green, which has been there for a year and a half, is perhaps the most developed of the new Ranch operations. Thanks to a steady increase in grocery store orders, the company started construction June 16 on yet another 3-acre greenhouse.

Additionally, Sleiman is also looking to open locations in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Apps and iPads are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the company’s technology-centric approach.

While soil is a staple at most farms, that’s not the case with Go Green.

Crops in the greenhouse grow in trays 3 feet off the ground.

The roots are fed by nutrient-rich water funneled through plastic channels. Because it’s a closed loop, water that isn’t absorbed is recycled into the system.

Without runoff, Go Green uses 85 percent less water than the average farm, according to Sleiman. And it appears the farm’s water demand will decline even more.

Instead of continuously running water through the system, Sleiman recently discovered that pulsing water at set intervals used less water and energy.

“This is taking what we do to the next level of resource conservation,” he said.

The new greenhouse will be even more energy-efficient than the present one, he said. It will feature an aluminum shade curtain — as opposed to the cloth one now at the greenhouse — that closes at night, trapping the heat inside. As a result, less electricity is required to warm the greenhouse.

Controlling the environment is another major part of hydroponic farming. Again, Sleiman drew upon his computer science background.

Armed with iPads, employees adjust the temperature and humidity with Sleiman’s software so conditions are always optimal for growing.

“Experimenting with growing techniques started about a block away on a small plot,” he said of his early foray into farming. “Getting to build a world-class facility is amazing.”

Leaving the silos behind

When Leichtag took over, a run-down, 15,000-square-foot barn sat empty on the property. It’s gained new life in recent months, courtesy of a fresh coat of paint, serious retrofitting and a dozen nonprofits setting up inside.

Moishe House, one of the nonprofits, provides a sense of community to Jewish 20-somethings.

“Young people are getting married later than their parents and grandparents,” said Jordan Fruchtman, chief of programming for Moishe House. “Between getting married and settling down, they’re moving to different cities and taking five or six different jobs. There’s a real need to be connected to others.”

Moishe House subsidizes the rent for three to five young adults (the nonprofit has 63 homes, including one in La Jolla). In turn, the residents organize events, from those aimed at Jewish peers to those for the larger community.

The beauty of working in a hub, Fruchtman said, is the ability to collaborate and share resources. For instance, he cited teaming with JDC Entwine, a Jewish nonprofit focused on humanitarian issues, such as providing food and medical care in Ethiopia.

“We’re not in silos working by ourselves,” Fruchtman said, adding that this is “a fresh way of looking at things.”

The nonprofits have different missions, but there’s a common interest in expanding access to fresh produce for those in need — what’s known as food justice.

To that end, Fruchtman noted Leichtag and hub representatives will soon lead a retreat on that topic.

“It’s teaching leaders so they can go back to their home communities and do things like create gardens, teach about food justice and teach about agriculture,” Fruchtman said.

Planting the seeds of a community farm

Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, who recently signed on as director of Ranch development, knows a thing or two about planting crops.

Nationally recognized as an expert in agriculture, highlights of his resume include running a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm on a 175-acre plot in Wisconsin and writing “Citizen Farmers,” a book calling for people to develop sustainable gardens.

His next project? Build a community farm on the Ranch. He wants to demonstrate innovative growing techniques, from biodynamics to permaculture to organics.

“People will see how it’s done, and then go out and start their own farm,” Joffe said. “A big piece is getting people to ask themselves, ‘What can I do?’”

Another reason he’s passionate about agriculture education: demographics.

“The older generation of farmers is dying off,” Joffe said. “And the newer, younger generation isn’t farming as much. So there’s this big gap. And the demand for food is only going up with the population growing. It’s why we need a place like this.”

Many of the farm’s goals dovetail with Jewish tradition, Joffe said. For instance, some of the harvested produce will be donated to underserved areas.

Recently, Leichtag hosted workshops with civic and community leaders to gather ideas on how the farm can best serve the community. With more meetings to come, it will be at least a year and a half until that plan sprouts, Joffe said.

“The farm should complement other agriculture offerings in the community,” Joffe said. “It’s a matter of determining how we can do that.”

In the meantime, as a trial run, a smaller farm will be planted on a 1-acre horse pasture near the Ranch’s entrance. Produce from it will fill food pantries and go toward celebrating Sukkot, a Jewish agriculture festival this fall.

Plus, Joffe will have his hands full developing a food forest — an edible ecosystem teeming with fruits, vegetables and nuts that will stretch along the northern boundary of the property.

Food forests date to prehistoric times. But they’ve made a comeback in recent years throughout the world. The idea is that they offer plenty of produce to go around for the community.

“So much new stuff is happening,” Joffe said. “What were doing is in its infancy, and it’s starting to come together.”

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