Downtown San Diego City College Farm ‘Not for Hobby Gardeners’
September 23, 2015 | AJ Hughes
Urban agriculture is thriving in San Diego, thanks in part to [email protected] Urban Farm, a working farm in downtown San Diego that serves as an outdoor classroom for San Diego City College’s sustainable urban agriculture program.
Seedstock caught up with Damian Valdez, an urban farmer at the downtown San Diego farm, to see how the farm has progressed in recent years and what’s in store for it in the future.
Have you been able to boost production on the farm? If so, how?
We’ve been cataloging everything and collecting data because we’ve been expanding. We went from a garden setting into being more production-focused. What makes it difficult for us to keep the numbers as accurate as possible is that I’m only paid 25 hours to be there. So even though we try to weigh everything that leaves the farm, we’re not always able to harvest everything off the farm. So for us, making sure that we get things to market is rather difficult. Sometimes we’re losing a lot of poundage that just goes back into compost or gets donated.
Unfortunately, we don’t have accurate numbers as to how much we’re producing on our parcel just yet. We’re hoping within the next year that we can take the numbers and start looking at them more critically. We also want to look into water usage and land availability, so that we can start looking more critically at what we can expect to be producing within our size limits.
What types of crops are grown at the farm?
We grow different seasonal produce. We strive to stick within the seasons—San Diego is one of those places that’s famous for being able to grow everything year-round. We still try to stick with a seasonal rotation though, so that people can get to see what different types of seasonal produce are out there. We also do this from a pest management perspective—when we grow seasonally, we don’t have to worry about certain types of pests and insects coming and going. We also have a variety of fruit trees—most of them are stone fruits.
How do you decide what to grow? How do you determine growing methods?
We grow as intentionally as possible. We’ve developed a few different ways of planting. We use 8-inch strip tape and measure everything out using either 8- or 16-inch bunting. So if it’s something that’s bigger and needs more space, we use 16 inches; if we need something smaller, we go about 8.
We try to emphasize different and practical ways of using tools. We want students to use something inexpensive when starting their business, to begin to optimize their potential yield, as opposed to something that wastes more seed, such as a dowel method. What we do is try to emphasize the value of a single seed. If we’re using new, high-quality seeds, then we shouldn’t have to plant three seeds to a hole, hoping one of them germinates.
How has the farm progressed since its beginning? What is its impact on students and the community?
The [email protected] Urban Farm started out as a community endeavor with San Diego City College and San Diego New Roots. It then became an academic program in 2011 (the farm was started in 2008). When it became an academic program, the whole focus started to shift. Until this past year, the college has not provided us with any budget, so we’ve had to go it alone. That’s one of the things that makes the farm so special and makes the students the caliber and quality that they are. Nothing’s been handed to us—we’ve had to work for everything every step of the way. That includes being part of the college campus.
This spring we’ll actually get a full-time person, which means our program will be permanent at San Diego City College. That impact is going to be huge for the entire region. We’ve had some of the highest success rates in the county with our students going on and getting jobs and actively participating in the food system—whether that’s starting their own farms or working at agriculture-related jobs. We just finished our most successful semester, with two people starting their own farms, and we had about 12 people get jobs over the summer. That’s a high success rate for us. That was mostly students who were in their first semester who were able to go out and get jobs in the field, based on the quality of their education. That’s been really good.
What we’re looking forward to is the longevity component—knowing we will be around with the college for quite some time, and knowing how that’s going to affect the region. Students who are on a four-year track with our college can transfer to Cal Poly Pomona (or similar institutions).
What has been the level of student interest?
We definitely get a lot of people. As a community college, we get a huge range of individuals in terms of age and experience. We get people coming straight out of high school who think this might be a good idea, but we also get older individuals who have already had careers and left because they want to become urban farmers and learn new skills. To paraphrase a different urban farmer, Mud Baron from Pasadena: Gardening is for self, and farming is for others. That’s one of the things we try to emphasize—this is a public service, not just something you’re doing at home. Because we have a service-learning component, this requires a lot of activity.
We make no bones about it that this is a very active situation. You have to be willing to put in the work, rain or shine. Generally the first few weeks I spend getting right into it, and kind of showing people not necessarily the extremes but the reality of what is expected every single day in this career. Some people stick with it, and other people will drop out in the first few weeks. We try to make it clear very early on that this is a vocational program focused on farming—this is not for hobby gardeners, necessarily, just looking to get tips and tricks to grow better tomatoes.
What is your vision for the future of the farm?
One of the things we’re focused on doing is being able to measure our production better, and how we can get produce to market and generate more revenue. We emphasize technology, and how we can use technology to improve not only our own operation but essentially creating a network. We’re going to be getting a new shed—we would like to get some solar panels on it, as well as a Wi-Fi hub. We feel there is definitely a market for being able to create “smart farms.” As an urban farmer my time is very limited, but if I have 10 lots and I can network all 10 of those lots from my iPad, I can then adjust irrigation and complete other tasks remotely. We’re really trying to look at how to use technology more on the farm in order to use time better in becoming more effective in providing a great product.