Though farming probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of San Diego, there’s no shortage of local farm operations throughout the county that generate a broad spectrum of delicious produce. In conversation with three different spots around the region, it’s immediately evident that every farm has its own unique personality, specialty, and niche, but more importantly, that farmers create a vibrant, collaborative community that coexists with a very common goal: to benefit their neighbors and share the (literal) fruits of their labor.
Longtime Encinitas residents remember when the entire area was dense with flower farmers, and Aschbrenner Acres was one of the originals. The third-generation heritage farm has been part of the landscape for 60 years. Now owned and operated by Kate and Gene Aschbrenner, the farm has undergone a bit of a reinvention as their three daughters have joined the family business. There’s a large wholesale flower business, now run out of Vista by general manager Sarah Aschbrenner, and back on the three-acre plot that surrounds the family home, Sarah’s sisters Emily Burkle and Charlotte Ring work alongside their father to create an updated farm to serve the local community. Where once they leased greenhouses to other farmers, they now grow their own produce — root vegetables especially love their rich soil — on land they work with their own hands. They’re proud to already have their produce featured on local menus including Umi Japanese Restaurant, Death by Tequila, and Encinitas newcomer Herb & Sea.
There’s not currently a farm stand on-site (it’s on Ring’s wish list as the farm continues to grow), but their produce is available at Encinitas and Leucadia farmers markets, and any surplus is donated, something that Burkle celebrates rather than laments. “It’s incredible what just one plot produces, so we do give a significant amount away to local food pantries, which feels really good to us because the whole idea behind this is to do something for the community,” she says.
The farm also hosts private events and farm-to-table chef’s dinners, which Burkle, who manages the farm’s marketing, says bring a wealth of new ideas that help them continue to plan and evolve.
A few miles north in Carlsbad, Donal Yasukochi also knows a thing or two about family farming. His Yasukochi Family Farms has endured for four generations, beginning with his great grandfather. Even when the family was interned during WWII, with the help of very good friends, the farm persisted. On about 20 acres between his Carlsbad and Bonsall farms, he grows strawberries, Japanese tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, squash, green beans, and more. His distribution was solely through numerous farmers markets from Coronado to Pasadena, but about two years ago he added a CSA (community supported agriculture) weekly delivery program, which now accounts for about ten percent of his business. Yasukochi works with other farmers, buying their surplus and collecting a rotating variety of product from fruits and vegetables to eggs and honey to fill the boxes he delivers on Fridays to more than 200 customers for $20 per box. “A list goes out every week along with the box showing the source of the product, so there’s never a question about where it’s coming from. I think people appreciate that,” says Yasukochi. “Our vision is to keep working with different farmers, grow more for the CSA boxes, and try to eliminate any surplus,” he says.
Unlike the Aschbrenners and the Yasukoshis, Susan Guenther wasn’t always a farmer — far from it. A former member of corporate America, Guenther was on the launch team of the IBM PC, but after 30 years, she left the rat race behind and found herself on a hilltop property in Valley Center, where she’s created MotherLoad Certified Organic Farm. Her specialty? Hydroponics.
“I’ve grown so many things it’s hard to remember!” Guenther marvels of her Swiss chard, bok choy, basil, lettuces, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, okra, squash, and herbs. Greenhouses made of recycled and repurposed materials hum with the operation, where plants grow in rows through holes in long tubes; a large bin on the floor with a pump keeps water circulating past the plants’ roots within and recaptures the water as it flows back. Others are watered via an overhead method with all runoff reclaimed below. Guenther says that since she’s started, her water bill hasn’t risen by even a dollar.
As any farmer will tell you, no one does this work for the money, and Guenther is no exception. She’s constructed a farm stand on the property and posts information online about when the stand will be open and what’s available, and plans to host classes on canning, growing, and hydroponics in the new year. If she can’t stay to man the farm stand the entire time, she just asks that people leave money for what they took, and if they don’t? Well, she says kindly, they need it more than she does. She is also dedicated to bringing more of her fellow growers together to facilitate getting their product to market. “The ultimate vision would be to create something of an Angie’s List for farmers and cottage food people, so they could post their products on there without a middle man so chefs and home cooks could access that info,” she says.
Ultimately, says Burkle, “I think for the health of our souls and our mental health, being a little bit more connected to where things come from and who’s right down the street is a really beautiful thing.” aschbrenneracres.com, yasukochifamilyfarms.com, motherloadfarm.com