Volunteers plant ambitious ‘food forest’ on Leichtag land

A “food forest” that will welcome community foraging, feed the poor and train the next generation of farmers recently took root at the Leichtag Foundation property in Encinitas.

More than 200 volunteers on Jan. 24 planted 1,000 trees along sloped Leichtag land, with ocean views as the backdrop. The food forest — an ecosystem of edible plants and fruit-bearing trees — will begin sprouting produce in a few years.

“The food forest in the long term will be accessible during daylight hours for the public to pick produce,” said Daron “Farmer D” Joffe, the foundation’s director of agricultural innovation and development. He added foraging will be supervised by staff, and donations will be welcome to maintain the forest.

A large chunk of the yield will also go to the food insecure to honor the Jewish tradition of leaving the corners of one’s property for the poor. It’s but one example of the Leichtag Foundation, a Jewish philanthropic organization, rebooting ancient growing practices.

“We see this as an opportunity to demonstrate agricultural traditions to the wider community,” said Joffe while strolling across the food forest.

In 2012, the foundation bought the 67-acre site at 441 Saxony Road, which was internationally known for the Paul Ecke Ranch poinsettias that once grew there. The foundation has already dedicated much of the property to agriculture, and the food forest will ultimately cover 8 acres.

Food forests — an age-old, low-maintenance way of growing food — have become trendy in recent years in cities like Seattle. But because the concept is still new to many, the Leichtag Foundation hopes its forest becomes a model for others to follow.

“The idea is to show how having a fresh source of produce is important to a community,” Joffe said. “We’ve already started sharing our best practices.”

A recipient of this knowledge was the Encinitas Union School District, which recently started a small food forest just across from the Leichtag site on Quail Gardens Drive.

The Leichtag forest will eventually double as an access trail during the day, since it will run from the eastern edge of the property on Quail Gardens Drive to the western border on Saxony Road. Joffe said this path, combined with plans to make Encinitas Boulevard more walkable, will encourage pedestrians in the area to make their way to the coast.

Careful planning went into the project — determining which trees to plant first to shade the varieties that don’t like as much sun, finding the ideal drip irrigation, landscaping to optimize rainwater harvesting and thinking about how to create layers of interconnected, self-sustaining vegetation.

Plans also had to account for chickens, goat and sheep that will roam part of the food forest once the trees mature.

“It’s called stacking functions,” Joffe explained. “You’re getting both abundant orchards, and you’re getting grazing grounds for animals. You can grow certain trees, and as you chop and drop, the animals can eat what falls.”

Leichtag staff and volunteers had plenty of time to get ready for planting, because late 2014 into fall 2015 marked the once-every-seventh-year practice of shmita, a time when many Jews refrain from growing crops in the ground.

Now the goal is to plant as much as possible to mimic nature.

“We’re basically taking ecological succession, which happens naturally on a landscape like this over the course of decades, and we’re speeding it up so the forest grows produce quickly,” said Yasha Magarik, a Leichtag arborist who headed the project.

Volunteers planted everything from fig to pomegranate trees, with plenty of varieties that are in danger of dying out. The aim is to preserve agricultural diversity, as well as history.

“A lot of these pomegranate varieties, for instance, they represent a culture of central Asia and Russia that you don’t want to lose,” said Magarik, who sourced rare trees from nurseries across Southern California.

Magarik, who has been working on the food forest for the last two years, propagated other trees in a nearby greenhouse on the site.

Fittingly, the food forest took root on the annual agricultural holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees. Volunteers will be asked during future Tu B’Shevats to play a part in the food forest’s evolution.

“In Israel, they plant trees on this day as reforestation, and we too wanted to restore the land,” Magarik said.

Volunteer Chris Ponzi, who was covered in dirt, said an interest in permaculture led him to lend a hand.

“I firmly believe in what we’re doing — building community and putting innovative agriculture into practice,” Ponzi said.

Ari Katzenellenbogen, 8, said planting was “more fun than I thought it would be.”

The Leichtag Foundation provided the infrastructure to launch the food forest, and Coastal Roots Farm, a Leichtag-affliated nonprofit, will manage it. Down the line, apprentices will tend to the animals and trees.

“That’s a critical piece for us — we want to train farmers who launch food forests and farms around the country,” Joffe said.