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Column: Shmita seasonal concept takes root at Leichtag Foundation

A nationally known farmer, Daron Joffee recently relocated to Encinitas to serve as the development director of the Leichtag Foundation’s 67-acre property on Saxony Road.

While we may not feel the seasons as strongly here in Encinitas as some places, there is definitely a change in the air.

Nights are getting cooler, and the welcome winter rains are starting to bring life to the soil and plants. This time of year is perfect for spending more time in the garden growing mineral-rich leafy greens and brain-nourishing root vegetables, and for planting perennials like fruit trees and herbs. Some examples of great crops to be sowing or transplanting now are kale, collards, cabbages, lettuce, spinach, garlic, beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, celery, chard, broccoli and cauliflower.

I will save the long list of fruit and nut trees for another article, when I can do them justice and elaborate about how we are planning to grow and share them on a farm here at the Leichtag Foundation property on Saxony Road.

In addition to the seasonal cycles of the year, the Jewish calendar has larger cyclical rhythms. In late September, we celebrated the end of the year 5774 and welcomed in the year 5775. For thousands of years, Jews in Israel have honored the biblical law of Shmita, the sabbatical of the land, which comes around every seven years.

It literally means “release” and insists we give the land a full year to rest from human cultivation and exploitation. In this year, we cease from toiling the soil, including tilling, planting, weeding, mulching, fertilizing and harvesting from the land. It is a time for rest, renewal and reflection.

There is also a release of debts, and in every seven-year cycle, the Jubilee year, there is a redistribution of land to ensure a balance of wealth and equity for all people. It is a very powerful concept that we decided to embrace and celebrate in our own way here at the farm.

On Sept. 21, we hosted a Shmita Farm Work Day, where a group of about 50 volunteers came together to help prune the recently planted 2.2-acre biodynamic vineyard. From the vineyard, a “crop mob” of sorts walked down to the community farm and broadcast a cover crop mix of peas, vetch, clover and rye seeds over the long rows of vegetables.

Cover crops capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and pump it into the soil, along with adding large amounts of organic matter to the soil. Typically, organic farmers will plow under the cover crop in the spring (called “green manuring”), which gives the soil a boost of nutrition and biology.

The farm’s neat rows of highly productive crops such as beans, cucumbers, squash and melons will set seed and decay, giving way to a wild meadow of soil-nurturing legumes, grasses and volunteer vegetables. Whatever food crops come back up from last season’s fruits and seeds will be shared freely with community, especially those who lack access and resources to acquire fresh produce.

During this Shmita year, we will be dreaming, planning and constructing the next phase of the community education farm on the Leichtag property. There are old fences to fix, rundown buildings and greenhouses to repair, garden beds to build and animal shelters to construct in preparation for the next seven-year cycle of agricultural production.

In an effort to continue growing and sharing fresh vegetables with local food banks, we are in the process of launching our “Shmita Farm.”

While the land rests and gets nourishment from the cover crops, we will be busy growing above ground in Gro Soxx, which are 8-inch-diameter fabric sleeves that are filled with an organic soil mix.

By growing in these contained “soil sausages,” we can produce high-quality produce without exhausting or even turning over any land. These easy-to-move growing containers can be used to grow in areas with contaminated soil or no soil at all, such as parking lots, blacktops at schools and even rooftops.

We filled them with a high-quality mix of coir (coconut fiber), peat moss, worm castings and enlivened rock dusts, which was stuffed into the fabric “soxx” using a large soil-mixing apparatus that one of our tenants generously let us borrow.

This effort is being led by George Workman, our new assistant farm manager, who grew up in Carlsbad and has been experimenting with this unique growing system for the past few years. George is a graduate of Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in plant sciences and has an infectious passion for growing food in a healthy and sustainable way.

We will be planting the Shmita Farm this fall, with vegetables and herbs such as lettuce, collards, kale, broccoli, celery, parsley, peas, carrots, beets, spinach and onions. We have selected these crops based on feedback from local food pantries who have informed us that of the cool-season vegetables that will grow this time of year, these are the most liked by the individuals who will be the beneficiaries of this produce.

In addition to letting the land rest, Shmita requires farmers to share their harvest openly with the public and especially those in need. While this has been our mission from the get-go, this year provides a unique lens from which to explore and bring awareness to issues of food access and poverty in North County. We are working hard with community partners to better understand these issues and find ways to alleviate hunger and poverty with tools such as gardening and farming, food and social enterprise.

While we are holding back from planting food crops directly in the ground, we are generously amending the soil around the property with compost and cover crops in an effort to further replenish the land during this year of rest. In the coming weeks we will be adding dozens of cubic yards of compost on the roughly 5-acre site of our future food forest. In the spirit of Shmita, we are taking this year to build the soil fertility of the site, lay irrigation, sow pioneer soil-building cover crops and design the food forest trail with hopes of planting it all out this time next year.

If you are interested in volunteering to help us build, plant and grow our Shmita Farm and Food Forest, please follow The Leichtag Foundation on Facebook and sign up for our newsletter at leichtag.org. We look forward to seeing you down on the farm soon!


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