Wild Willow Farms Heals Soil and Produces Farmers
“There are trillions of microorganisms right here,” Mel Lions says as he reaches down and fills both hands with dark, crumbly soil.
Lions is standing amid rows of kale and stakes of tomatoes at Wild Willow Farm, a six and a half acre education center where anybody can learn to grow food that is not only sustainable, but can actually restore soil and repair the damages of industrial farming or other destructive land practices.
Just a mile from the ocean and a stone’s throw from the border, the curriculum of Wild Willow Farm is based on what is called regenerative farming, which Lions says is an emerging concept, one that has developed from—and is in a sense superseding—organic farming and sustainable farming. “With sustainable farming you’re simply trying to maintain, to sustain, what you’re doing,” he says. “But through industrial farming, we’ve done a lot of damage to soils and the environment. Regenerative farming takes that damaged land and soil and makes them better.”
Like organic farming, regenerative farming uses compost and manure for soil enrichment instead of industrial fertilizers. Wild Willow Farm also eschews the use of pesticides, even the ones sanctioned for organic farming. According to Lions, the health of the soil, with its trillions of microorganisms, as well as good farming stewardship, helps the ecosystem of a regenerative farm to naturally fend off pests and requires no pesticides.
One of the core principles of regenerative farming is planting without tilling. “Soil is like an apartment building,” Lions says. “There are residents who live on the top floors, lots of folks living in the middle floors and those who live on the bottom floors. Tilling upsets that order, forcing all the organisms to spend time reorganizing instead of supporting crop growth. With low-till or no-till farming, the soil microorganisms are ready and waiting to go to work.”
Lions has always been involved in food. The San Diego native partnered with a friend to open a pizza joint, The Leaning Tower Pizza, soon after leaving SDSU. After getting involved with a local farm project a few years ago, Lions established San Diego Roots to promote and educate on the topics of local food and sustainable agriculture.
Lions established Wild Willow Farm six and a half years ago after visiting a demonstration regenerative farm at UC Santa Cruz that has been in operation since the 1960s. “I walked around their farm in 2002, and I realized that there was no similar educational farming program in Southern California,” he said.
The entire farm, where students take part in composting, planting, and harvesting, is in essence a large school. For lectures and PowerPoint demonstrations, the farm has a classroom–-a simple tent that sits on a raised platform with a whiteboard off to one side. During the summer, instructors pull back the sides of the tent so students can watch others working the farm from their classes.
Adjacent to the classroom is a community area with tables and chairs. At one end is a wood-fired pizza oven that Lions constructed. He believes that growing food is not meant to be industrially isolated from the rest of society and needs to include family and community, saying, “Remember, it is called agriculture!”
Two classes comprise the core of the curriculum, and both are taught by Paul Maschka, who had previously taught sustainable agriculture at San Diego City College. In the introductory 101 class, students learn about soil and its component parts. They learn about composting, how to use farm tools, and principles of irrigation. The 102 class concentrates on propagation and raising and harvesting crops. Both classes run for six weeks, with class time in evenings and on weekends, allowing for folks to participate without interfering with their work schedules.
Two-thirds of the students are women. Most of the students are young adults, many of them professionals who are looking for something more meaningful in their lives. Lions says, “We have people coming to us who are backyard gardeners who want to improve their gardening practices. Some of them are teachers who want to get this knowledge to their students. We have people who work in the restaurant industry who want to know more about the food that they serve in their restaurants.” While most students come from San Diego County and Southern California, some students have come to the farm from as far away as Argentina, Mexico and Norway.
Over 300 graduates have completed their coursework at Wild Willow Farm. Many of the alumni have made a career change into agriculture, finding jobs on farms or starting farms of their own. Wild Willow Farm also has students involved in continuing education. Students and graduates can also get work experience on the farm.
Though the farm was established as a school, it is nonetheless a functioning farm, producing tomatoes, beans, corn and lots of other vegetables. The farm sells the produce locally. Among the restaurants that buy Wild Willow Farm produce are Nate’s Garden Grill, Tiger!Tiger!, Blind Lady Ale House and Cosecha.
Lions volunteers his time, but the farm employs a small staff. Cathryn “Cat” Henning, a former water resource control engineer for the San Diego Water Board, came to Wild Willow Farm after working on a biodynamic farm in Costa Rica. She started as the farm’s Education Coordinator but now serves as the Lead Farmer. “I love working here,” she says. “We’ve built a strong community that supports our efforts. The people here care about the soil, care about the community, care about the wildlife that surrounds the farm.”
With each graduate, Lions sees the practice of regenerative farming spreading to farms and anywhere else food can be grown. “I saw the need for regenerative farming,” he says. “There is a societal need, an economic need, an ecological need. We need to have food growing in vacant lots, parks, and backyards. We need to grow food where people live.”