San Luis Obispo's City Farm preserves fertile farmland and a 'signature landscape'

Oct 20, 2018

Alongside Highway 101 in San Luis Obispo, between the Los Osos Valley Road and Madonna Road exits, there’s an expanse of agricultural land. Until last year, the land produced crops like brussel sprouts and broccoli. Someday soon, 580 homes and apartments will be built on a portion of the acreage as part of the approved San Luis Ranch development.

But wedged between that future developement and a new car dealership is the City Farm. And it will be there—prolifically growing fruits and vegetables—for at least the next 20 years. That’s if City Farm’s stewards accomplish their mission.

[Sound: Ok, let’s bring everything over to our kitchen, we’ll show you our kitchen area...working on the farm here.]

That’s Teresa Lees guiding a handful of high school students around the City Farm. Lees runs a portion of the farm, called Our Global Family Village.

“I’m into education, outdoor education, and in this case, farm education,” Lees said.

“And I'm the executive director and president of Central Coast Grown,” Steven Marx said. “We are a nonprofit that manages a farm operation here.”

Marx started a recent tour of City Farm by outlining its history. In 1994, the San Luis Obispo city council approved an update to the city’s general plan. Included in that update was a requirement applicable to the “Dalidio-Madonna-McBride” area—the last names of the former owners of an 180-acre expanse of agricultural land. About 70 acres of farmland will be preserved as San Luis Obispo's Calle Joaquin Agricultural Preserve.

“The general plan specified that if this land, in this whole area here, which is Class 1—some of the best farmland in California—is to be developed by its property owners, half of it must remain in agriculture,” Marx said. “It was zoned as an agricultural reserve, within the city, this is something that’s unique.”

In the early 2000s, the city put out a call for bids to manage the farmland. A nonprofit formed to do the job, and today Central Coast Grown operates the City Farm. It has a 20-year lease on the land.

“Where we pay a dollar a year for this and then it's completely our obligation to manage it,” Marx said. “So we raised the funds to put in this very substantial irrigation system. We do the leasing and the administration for our sub-farmers, and a term of our lease to run educational programs.

Those educational programs include twice weekly classes with students from Pacific Beach High School. A portion of City Farm is dedicated to the high school.

[sound of Marx showing showing class how to use pitchfork to dig up carrots, laughing] Iri Dela Cruz and his students walked over from Pacific Beach to spend part of the morning working, harvesting and cooking some of that harvest into quesadillas.

“It's an active lab,” Dela Cruz said. “I'm the science teacher at the school, so it's nice to have them have a real world experience.”

While a portion of City Farm is dedicated to education programs and community events, the rest is farmed by six subtenants.

“This land grows food 365 days a year,” Marx said. “Because it's six feet deep, this topsoil. This was one of the original motivations to say, well, this should not all be paved over.”

Marx says it was a struggle to keep the farmland as it is.

“But the desire to maintain some food production and some education about [agriculture] within the city—that is the whole idea of an urban farm—that prevailed over time,” Marx said.

These days, City Farm offers a Wednesday afternoon farmstand, selling the land’s harvest to the public under a newly-built pergola. The pergola serves as as a public event space, and, as City Farm itself, as as open air classroom.

On Sunday, October 21, City Farm is hosting a Fall Harvest Festival. From 1 to 5 p.m., there will be activities for kids like a rotten tomato toss, and a beer garden and live band for adults. The event is free and open to the public.