Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 | He can still picture the converted school buses, loaded with fresh produce, trolling Coronado’s streets like ice cream trucks for adults. At the sound of a clanging bell, housewives would pour into the streets and stock up on veggies.

It was the 1960s, and Mel Lions was just a child. Though those local deliveries are long gone, the image has stuck with him. As awareness continues to grow about the environmental benefits of eating locally grown food, Lions and a group of 17 others are hoping to give their own boost to local organic food production. Their nonprofit, San Diego Roots, is raising money to buy and operate a 6-acre plot of farmland near Jamul.

The Willow Glen Farm Project, as they call it, would be part farm and part school. Lions envisions it as an incubator to train would-be organic farmers, a model for people who hope to start other small community farms and an education center for schoolchildren.

The origin of food has increasingly drawn attention as a choice individuals can make to reduce their carbon footprint. Locally grown food has to travel fewer miles from farm to fork. Unlike blueberries in stores now that were grown in Chile and flown or shipped thousands of miles, consuming local produce generates fewer greenhouse gases and has less of an impact on climate change.

Lions, a 52-year-old graphic designer, embodies the slowly shifting awareness. As he has learned about the threats posed by climate change, he says he began considering how he could alter his food supply. He’s always had an interest in his food. He’s been a vegetarian for 30 years, once owned a restaurant and describes some meals as if they were near-God experiences, tossing around phrases like “sensual deliciousness.” That fresh cauliflower soup he ate a few years ago? He still can’t comprehend how absolutely flavorful it was.

Those experiences contributed to his efforts now. The produce of his childhood, the bounty that came straight from those buses, was ripe, juicy, mouthwatering. But something happened in the 1970s. He can’t quite explain what. Store-bought peaches started tasting mealy.

“That happened across all the fruits,” he says. “I had this memory of what it was like. (But) you can get that again.”

So when his phone rang in late 2000, and a friend carried news that his farm was going under, Lions helped organize a group to save the farm. They called themselves ALOFT — A Local Organic Farmland Trust. But they didn’t save the farm, and the idea faded. Lions kept an eye out for another piece of property. He spotted one just more than a year ago, and last February began plotting a way to acquire it.

Something was different this time, though. When he turned to the members of the Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market looking for volunteers, he says he was greeted with more support and interest than he’d expected. An electric excitement, he calls it.

“When we started (in 2000), there was no consciousness for that,” he says. “Today, you say quietly, ‘We want to start a farm,’ and everybody wants to help. There’s been a shift in people’s awareness.”

That shift is occurring slowly in San Diego County, where 6 percent of farmers are certified organic producers. The county had 10 percent more organic farms in 2007 than it did in 2002.

While San Diego County has more organic farms than any other county in the state, they cover a smaller area. San Diego County has about 3,500 acres of organic farms. Rural Fresno County has 36,000 acres, Marin and Monterey counties each have 17,000 acres of organic production.

“People eat unconsciously, you know,” says Barry Logan, who operates a small organic farm north of Escondido. “Educating folks about local food systems is a way to bring them in and get their support so we can extend these models and make them grow.”

Nancy Casady, general manager of the Ocean Beach People’s Organic Food Market, says she hopes the Willow Glen Farm will also provide an opportunity for schoolchildren to learn what it takes to put food on the table.

“The fact that we import so much of our food might not be the future of food for San Diego,” Casady says. “We want a place where people who are interested in putting in a 5- to 10-acre farm can see what it would take, and really get their hands dirty.”

Casady also plans to market what’s grown at the farm. She pictures fresh greens harvested in the morning going on her shelves by lunchtime.

While Lions’ group is still raising funds to buy the farm, he has other customers lined up. Jeff Jackson, executive chef at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, says he’d like to buy produce from the farm, which will produce everything from tomatoes and cucumbers in summer to broccoli and cauliflower in winter.

“It’s all about flavor at the end of the day,” Jackson says. “Sustainably grown and organically grown food will have a better flavor.”

The group will face challenges in fulfilling its vision. Another nonprofit organic farm, run by the Tierra Miguel Foundation, had faced an uncertain future before the Pauma Band of Mission Indians bought its land last year and began leasing it back to the foundation. That allowed the organization to continue its farming and educational effort.

“It’s tough. Farming’s not easy and it’s usually the profit motive that drives someone to do it everyday,” says Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. “When it’s a benevolent motive, my hat’s off to them if they can pull it off.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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