Janet Cortellessa leans over a planter, inspecting a stalk of chard with a look that is both thoughtful and sympathetic. A caterpillar inches toward her fingertips across the broad leaf. She knows this plant (and even this caterpillar) and takes a few seconds to catch up. Ten feet away, a persimmon tree sits heavy with fruit – its branches drooping under the weight. A hummingbird flits past, wings buzzing. At the far end of the Laguna Beach property, chickens cluck softly, exploring their coop.
“I got started growing herbs when I had my first daughter,” Cortellessa says, “and I killed so many plants… but it carried my family down this rabbit hole of seeing what we could produce on the space that we have.”
Currently, Cortellessa, who with her husband Scott, owns the eco-friendly La Sirena Grill, is able to grow all of the leafy greens and most of the fruit for her family of five. The garden is treated like a sixth member of the family with nothing going to waste.
“We make jams and rose water, and my girls and I have been experimenting with our own lotions,” she says.
Families like the Cortellessas have become more and more common in Orange County: Homeowners are switching out lawns for edibles, keeping hens so that they can have fresh eggs, composting, and eating with the seasons. Non-homeowners are taking advantage of community supported agriculture (CSA) baskets and farmers markets. The rise of the “eat local” movement has united people under the idea of producing the majority of their food within county lines.
In Orange, Ken and Natalie Bauer (whose surname has been changed for this article) have a pocket farm on 1/16th of an acre. Like the Cortellessas, the Bauers converted gradually to their homesteading lifestyle.
“Most of the people I talk to agree that it starts with tomatoes,” says Ken. “Tomatoes seem to be the gateway plant, because they’re just so much better than what you can find at the grocery store.”
After plenty of trial and error, the Bauers now produce 400 pounds of tomatoes per year and more than 80% of their food through growing or trade. They have planters in the front and back yards, the roof, the porch, and even the zero-lot line. They raise chickens, quail, rabbits, and tilapia. They’ve designed their own aquaponics system, they “aggressively can extra fruits and vegetables,” and they even trade avocados for oranges and quail hatchlings for bacon from a rancher they met at the farmers market. They speak wistfully of the “cow-share” in which they participate. And yet… the Bauers have no desire to eschew society and go off the grid – rather the idea is to be self-sustaining within the constraints of an urban environment. Ken likens their property to the WWII-era Victory Gardens.
“Back then,” he explains, “it was a patriotic thing to produce as much food as you could so that you weren’t taxing the farm systems. My wife and I are scientists, and we examine this through the scientific method as to how it can benefit our family and the society.”
One of the Bauers’ main goals is sharing information. They maintain a website at ocmetrofarm.com that offers a wealth of content and detailed anecdotes of their successes and failures on what they call their “micro farm.”
“We want to help people realize that they really can be a big part of their own food production,” Ken says. “We have more chores than many people, but we still have time to surf, and we have day jobs.”
Holly Jakobs doesn’t have any problem with the extra work that her urban gardening efforts create for her. Jakobs spends hours on her North Tustin property, both tending her garden and caring for a flock of chickens. For her, the effort expended isn’t simply about saving money at the grocery store; it’s a part of her bigger approach to life.
“I’ve always had a garden,” she says. “It’s a moving meditation, it’s quiet and yet there’s a physicality to it – turning the soil is the best core workout a person could ever hope for.”
Optimism seems to grow perennially in Jakobs’s garden (along with enough fruits and vegetables to sustain her family of three through the summer) – her outlook on the energy that successful gardening requires is an incredibly sunny one.
“It gives me something that I find difficult to explain,” she says. “Something akin to religion – when I see seeds come up, I get a thrill that never goes away. It’s what sustains me.”
Like Cortellessa and the Bauers, Jakobs seems to truly enjoy sharing what years spent tending the soil have taught her, and those lessons extend beyond what makes the best compost. There is a unique appreciation of nature present in many gardeners and farmers – something local educators have taken note of.
Dozens of schools across the county have launched or significantly bolstered their gardening programs over the course of the past three years and the benefits are wide-ranging.
“Our garden program has a direct translation into academic and teaching success,” says Shaheer Faltas, director of The Journey School in Aliso Viejo. “Over the last three years our Academic Performance Index (API) has increased more than 100 points as we’ve emphasized gardening and deemphasized standardized testing.”
In that same period of time, students at The Journey School have seen their weekly hours in the garden double. The campus has six outdoor classrooms, in which gardening is tied in to English, science and art lessons. For schools like Journey, the garden is where students are taught to value the environment and to appreciate the work it takes to produce food.
Liesa Schimmelpfennig, director of Anneliese Schools in Laguna Beach, views her school’s garden curriculum as part of a bigger message on the importance of stewardship.
“Sometimes food is grown specifically for a lesson, other times it’s earmarked for our production kitchen and used in the lunch program,” she says. “We also have a student-run farmers market and donate our excess to the Laguna Food Pantry.”
Anneliese Schools grow all of their herbs in-house, along with many of their fruits and leafy greens. They have a full aviary, which houses 55 laying chickens, plus geese and peacocks. It’s not unusual for students to eat pasta with a sauce of tomatoes, onions and pesto that was produced completely from items harvested on-site. Still, Schimmelpfennig is even more keenly interested in gardening’s broader implications.
“There are social, cultural and natural connections in the garden,” she explains. “The understanding of how food ties into everything has been lost – now we’re seeing that knowledge make a comeback and we see the direct benefit to our students and our wider community.”
Schools across the county seem to agree. San Clemente’s Concordia Elementary School recently won the highest national honor for its Junior Gardener Program from the National Garden Clubs. In Tustin, 13 of the 23 primary and middle schools have a gardening program. At Sage Hill School, children not only learn how to tend crops but also help neighboring schools as they develop their own garden programs.
Even for those who are no longer in school, or don’t have a yard to grow food in, the options for accessing locally grown edibles have blossomed in recent years.
Scott Tenney and his wife, Mariella Simon, are nearing the end of a three-year redevelopment plan on Bluebird Canyon Farms in Laguna Beach. From the outset, the couple have envisioned the property as a working farm for experimental concepts to be explored and taught on-site. The idea of bringing farming back into the urban environment was a chance to share their ideals while staying connected to the land.
“We love to do this,” Tenney explains. “We’re people who have always been surrounded by folks growing and making things. So it’s a value we hold dear.”
Bluebird Canyon Farms already hosts a speaker series and plans for more workshops and a small, neighborhood-based distribution of CSA baskets. The goal is not to make tremendous profit (the farm is a 501c-3) but rather, to prove that smaller farms can operate effectively without endless acreage.
“It’s becoming harder and harder to live that suburban ‘ship it to me’ lifestyle,” Tenney says. “Instead, we have to get behind the idea of delivering agriculture closer to where people live.”
Erik Cutter, director of Alegría Fresh, understands the desire to do a lot without a ton of space. His farm, based at the OC Great Park, is the county’s only example of vertically integrated hydroponics. Water and minerals are delivered to the rows of planters through a drip system – gravity does the rest of the work. Cutter’s stacking pots are a sight to behold, with fist-size planters filled with coconut fibers used as soil producing Jurassic-sized growths of kale, chard and romaine lettuce. His towers house 40 plants in two square feet, which he estimates to be 20 times the yield per square foot of conventional farming.
“My goal is to bring farms very close to where people live,” Cutter says, “both to shrink the farm-to-table travel time and to ensure a fresher experience for the people eating the food.”
At present, Alegría Fresh sells their produce in vegetable boxes online and Cutter offers tours of his farm in hopes that the system will catch on. He envisions a world in which rooftops, vacant parking lots and other unutilized urban space can all become growing sites.
“The last great open spaces left in Orange and Los Angeles counties are the 35 square miles of vacant lots, unused spaces and parking lots,” he says. “Imagine a world in which we have thousands of networked micro farms run by people with diverse cultural backgrounds – we’d have superior access to locally grown foods and an exponential amount of variety.”
Along with Bluebird Canyon Farms and Alegría Fresh, Orange County is also home to more traditional farming within its urban boundaries. A.G. Kawamura, ex-secretary to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, operates Orange County Produce – with 105 certified organic acres abutting the OC Great Park. In San Juan Capistrano, South Coast Farms has a certified organic farm on 28 acres. They also host an on-site produce market, and a close relationship with neighbor The Ecology Center allows for a community tie-in.
For those who aren’t quite ready to grow their own produce, farmers markets and CSA baskets offer a chance to bring the food-purchasing experience closer than the traditional supermarket model. Zucchini Xpress, operated in Irvine by husband and wife Jutta and Jesús Gamboa, and their close friend Alison Brown, acts as a gatekeeper for their clientele, vetting farms, ranchers and even honey and olive oil suppliers.
“Our mission is to pull together local suppliers,” says Brown. “We’re constantly looking for sources that are humane, organic and aren’t chemically treated, depending on the situation.”
Zucchini Xpress has found partners they’re excited about across the county, they even source raw honey from a beekeeper dealing exclusively in rescued bees. “There are just so many reasons why supporting the local food movement is optimal,” Brown continues. “Not just from an environmental point of view but also as a way to create community.”
Zucchini Xpress’s food drop-offs (including stops at Sage Hill and all three Anneliese campuses) give Brown and the Gamboas a chance to share their excitement over the local purveyors they use. In order to make this link clear, they lead monthly tours of their favorite farms as well as 5 Bar Beef ranch near Cook’s Corner.
“Community-based values are hugely important to us,” Brown says, “and part of that community-based mentality is knowing, connecting and understanding the people who are supplying your food.”
Whether it be at-home gardens, micro farms, school gardening programs, or CSA baskets, the trend across Orange County is reclaiming ownership for food production, reconnecting to the land and cultivating a new generation of environmental stewards. In fact, it’s the myriad ancillary benefits to urban farming and gardening that seem to make it such an inviting prospect. Cortellessa counts her time spent in the garden with her family as some of the most valuable time they have together – her kids each have plants that they feel a special fondness for. The Bauers have a spot on their website dedicated to their daughter Bryn’s adventures raising chicks and growing plants from seed. For Jakobs it’s impossible to place a value on these intangibles.
“At the end of the day, when you eat something from your own yard, you get the satisfaction that you know the grower,” Jakobs says with a laugh. “And that you like them.”
With its adherents so filled with positivity, it’s no surprise that urban farming has taken root so deeply across Orange County. Here’s hoping that the ideas espoused by this new wave of OC-centric food-producers continue to bear fruit.
Thursday, December 5 @ 6 p.m. :: The New Farmers Movement with Severine von Tscharner Fleming at The Ecology Center
The center welcomes Severine von Tscharner Fleming, farmer, activist and founder of the Greenhorns documentary and movement for a free talk and book signing on farming, gardening and the history of the grange. :: theecologycenter.org
Saturday, December 7 @ 1 p.m. :: The Ecology Center Guided Tour
Free docent-led guided tour of The Ecology Center historic home and learning gardens including orchard, container garden demonstrations and raised vegetable beds.