It’s 93 degrees and everybody’s sweating, but the temperature plummets as I pass beneath a big, hand-painted strawberry sign that says U-Pick and I enter the perfect green rows. We’re at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano for First Saturday, a monthly open house at one of the last real farms in Orange County. The air smells like wet earth. The fields seem to be breathing.   

“Picking strawberries is harder than I thought it would be,” says 12-year-old Emma Laroche. “You see what you think is the perfect berry, and you have to bend down to get to it, and then you find out it has a brown spot.”

Her mother, Karen Laroche, laughs, shifting her gold Kate Spade bag to get a better grip on several large, rounded loaves of bread. As a single mother and medical salesperson, she values this precious time with her daughter.

“I stood in line since noon for these, sweating,” she says. She’s mainly here for the fresh baked bread, having tracked it down as the primary ingredient in the avocado toast at a favorite teahouse in Mission Viejo, where they live.

In the native garden in front of a white Victorian farmhouse, the bread lines form at least an hour early. The house is the heart of The Ecology Center, which is devoted to helping visitors discover ways to incorporate environmental sustainability and conservation practices into their lives. The farmhouse, built in 1878, is the oldest wooden house in San Juan Capistrano and was the original home of Joel Congdon, who delivered mail on horseback for the Pony Express.

Typically, the activities available to the public on First Saturdays have included cooking classes with garden ingredients, craft sales, natural dye demonstrations, projects that involve plants and seedlings, jam tastings, and a garden tour. The cooking classes are usually based on a seasonal ingredient. On this Saturday, they’re exploring radishes.

Beginning in September, the farming experience will get more real because the center expects to take over the lease on a 28-acre adjoining farm, owned by the city of San Juan Capistrano. 

Long-term plans call for community gardens that will be open to the public, with opportunities for weekend farmers to plant, nurture, and harvest the crops. Leaders have a budget goal of $15 million so they can add more areas—a natural cafe, culinary school, and special-events space. The center’s executive director, Evan Marks, acknowledges the ambitious goal, but his organization has already demonstrated its ability to raise funds. The annual Green Feast in September, an outdoor farm-to-table dinner, fetches $325 per ticket, sells out quickly, and often attracts big corporate donors. This year’s feast is Sept. 15.

“We see this as a training facility for future farmers. They’ll be able to experience everything,” says Marks, as he looks over the fields that stretch to the horizon. “They’ll be part of the farm. They’ll harvest their own bouquets, plant and pick radishes, strawberries, beets, fennel, carrots,” and help the center plant almost a third of the land in tree crops.

Marks reminds us that beneath modern-day San Juan Capistrano (and much of Orange County, we should add) lies some of the richest alluvial soil in the world: “Not long ago, there was farmland here as far as you could see. This is really special soil, millions of years of deposited sediment.”

Backyard gardens have it made. All that’s needed is water, and The Ecology Center folks suggest recycling it from in-home use. Want to know how to do this? They will show you.

On the shady, broad porch of the center, a group gathers. Each First Saturday event offers a tour of the facilities. Visitors immediately begin peppering operations director Bret Babos with questions: How can we grow anything in this drought? What vegetables use less water? How do we keep the pests away without using harsh chemicals? Babos shows them gray water systems, raised beds, compost systems, and natural garden pesticides such as marigolds.

“This is all very, very simple,” he says. “Our great-grandparents lived just like this. It was second nature. They had chickens in the yard; they got eggs from the chicken; the chicken ate the waste.”

The farm is just the latest expansion for The Ecology Center, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in the fall. Last year, it partnered with the nonprofit Mercy House to take over a motel in Santa Ana and provide housing and access to services for 82 formerly homeless residents and about 35 dogs. It’s not your average homeless shelter—residents plant, prepare, and eat their own healthy food. The center helped bring in solar power, mulching, and water conservation.

This year, the center rolled out Road Trip, the name of a 32-foot double decker bus that visits schools. It has a full kitchen and provides exhibits and experiences similar to those at The Ecology Center. In Encinitas, the center plans to farm 10 acres that will provide organic food for the school district there, as well as offer community farming and eating experiences, such as a recent pop-up brunch series with Eilo’s Kitchen, a mobile Airstream that serves locally sourced, grain-free food.

I leave the tour early to catch the bread truck before it leaves. The line has drawn down, and so has the bread.

Laguna Niguel resident Catherine Mayou says she rarely misses this First Saturday experience: “If you talk to the people in line, you find many of them are from other countries, where there’s a bread culture. I’m from South Africa where bread recipes are passed down. In every bite, you can taste that tradition.”

As I’m leaving the center, Marks says, “We want to train up farmers so we can shift the tide to a viable form of agriculture, one that looks like we grow our own food in our own communities.”

I can’t help but stop at the farm stand. Everything looks healthy and new and plump. I load up on spinach, garlic, local honey, squash, fennel, and an obscene number of freshly laid eggs. I used to live nearby, and we only had strawberries to buy at this corner at that time, but they were fabulous “jam strawberries,” as my mom called them. One of my favorite food memories was my friend’s grandma baking bread and us girls coming home from a U-Pick and making a kind of hot strawberry soup, which we slathered over the hot bread.

I do exactly this when I get home. Pop the baguette in the oven, cook down the strawberries, and eat them on the bread—the hot jam dribbling down my chin.

The Ecology Center is more than a collection of sustainability exercises. It’s testament to the idea that you can go home again. And it still tastes amazing.

Photographs by Britney Jay

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