The road to Tierra Miguel farm winds from the I-15
at Fallbrook up a steep and stony valley, past historic Gomez Creek
and Warner Ranch, past the starkly anachronistic mega-story Pala
casino, and finally into the Pauma Valley at the foot of Mount Palomar.
Bison and horses lounge by white board fences. A hand-lettered
sign nailed to a fence offers lessons in tango argentine. Oranges
glow like Chinese lanterns among the green leaves of countless trees
behind white board fences. For most of Tierra Miguel’s student
visitors, this countryside is a world away from their neighborhoods
Hats are de rigueur today: all kinds of hats. Wide-brimmed straw
lifeguard hats, canvas slouch hats and those Lawrence of Arabia-style
caps with neck flaps that mothers pick out and children hate. It’s
barely 10 am and already over 90 degrees, and though there isn’t
a breath of air or a cloud in the sky, the rocky hills are vibrantly
flushed with leafy scrub, and the 86 acres of Tierra Miguel farm
stretch out on all sides in a haze of a hundred shades of green.
It’s spring, and there’s plenty of work to do.
Past the nascent orchard or peaches and apricots, not far from
the farm trailer, second and third graders from the Waldorf School
of San Diego are lined up on either side of a long heaped row of
earth, planting spindly young plants. The children carefully settle
each wobbling stem into holes, then scoop and pack the earth around
the pots. The earth is dark and crumbly moist beneath the dry powdery
surface. The students have dirt up to their elbows, streaking their
faces with sweat and sunscreen. Several mothers hover, applying
“These are sunchokes,” farm teacher Robert Farmer
says to the children working beside him. He is wearing shorts, sturdy
boots, a wide-brimmed hat and a thin layer of grey dust. “These
are a special kind of plant that nobody else has. It has a kind
of carbohydrate that diabetics can use. They’re very special.”
The kids nod, showing varying degrees of interest. It’s hot,
and some people are fooling around and talking instead of working.
Farmer lines the class up to help stretch a long line of black drip
irrigation tape. He patiently coaches them through the steps of
straightening, turning, and sealing off the drip line, then hands
out an array of fierce-looking rakes, hoes and shovels.
Immediately there’s some non-specific, vigorous shoveling
in one area, but the kids set to work grooming the sides of the
rows. The Waldorf School has its own garden, so most have some inkling
of what they’re doing, though Tierra Miguel shows it to them
on a much larger scale.
Farmer supervises the grooming, packing a little more earth here
and there, coaching a child on the use of a cultivator while working
himself with quick, efficient motions.
“I like them to get their hands on everything, and really
feel what they’re doing,” he explains. He points to
the young fruit trees behind him. “When Roosevelt school came
out, they pruned the orchard. Now the trees are leafed out and making
fruit. It would be great if they can come back and see the results.”
Tierra Miguel hosts about two dozen schools a year on day outings
like this, where elementary and middle school kids can spend a day
or two learning about composting, planting, watering and harvesting.
The certified organic teaching farm also offers internships to post-graduate
agriculture students from around the world. The not-for-profit foundation
offers programs in organic, biodynamic and sustainable gardening
The farm supports itself through various grants, donations and
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA,) which is a kind of seasonal
produce timeshare in which members pay a fee and receive a weekly
box of fresh-from-the-farm produce.
Farmer (his real name) is Educational Program Director. His vision
is to create an integrated learning cycle linking farm visits, school
garden development and learning, and hands-on culinary technique-
a program he calls FACTS: Farmers And Chefs, Teachers and Students.
He worked with Memorial and Roosevelt middle schools to create school
gardens as part of the state LEAF grant.
He’s upbeat about how farms and schools can work together.
“This program can be very enriching, and support the classroom
in a positive way, while teaching these kids some real life basics
in a hands-on way.” He turns again to the very hands-on students,
who are almost finished planting.
Soon the sunchoke plants are tucked into surprisingly neat, even
rows, and the drip tape is delivering water. Farmer calls the group
to the end of the row for a lesson in farm math.
He tips up a wheelbarrow of compost and moves it one side. “We
planted about 100 sunchokes today,” he says. “Each of
these plants is grown from one tuber, and every one of these plants
you put in the ground today will make about 10 new tubers. So when
we harvest, how many new plants can we make?”
Hands shoot up. “1000 plants,” says one.
“That’s a lot!” someone says.
Farmer continues. “And when we plant the 1000 new tubers,
and they each make 10 tubers, how many plants will we be able to
“100,000!” a boy calls out and his friends roll their
eyes. “Ten thousand,” says a blond child in a straw
Everyone is suitably impressed by their morning’s work.
Farmer says, “Before it gets too hot, let’s go pick
our strawberries. After snack we’re going to plant the Three
Sisters (Native American style mound plantings of corn, beans and
squash) and then we’ll visit the goats. Now-let’s put
our rakes back in the pile over here. And remember, always put the
Even one generation ago, most of these children would have known
to set a rake with points down, Today, things are different.
“We had a school out last week, and most of those kids had
never been on a farm before,” Farmer says, as he leads the
way to the strawberry fields. “They had grown one huge carrot
in their school garden, as long as my forearm, and they all had
their pictures taken with it.”
A girl, overhearing, pipes up to no one in particular. “How
come we can’t harvest carrots like yesterday?”
Her friend gives her a playful shove. “Because they aren’t
“But they were soooo good.”
There’s a lazy drone from planes taking off and landing
at the small airfield nearby as the group trudges up the dusty road
to the strawberry fields. The air is alive with bugs and birdsongs.
White butterflies flutter and fall over a field of dark green cabbages.
The strawberry field is full of bees, working the tiny white flowers,
undisturbed by the children. The students fan out, each with a stack
of clear plastic clamshells to fill.
“Remember to pick the dark red ones, and look at it before
you pick it to make sure it doesn’t have any white spots or
brown spots,” Farmer calls out. The children are serious and
careful, lifting the thick green leaves to reveal the red fruit
below, examining each berry before picking it and adding it to their
collection. It’s like a relaxed, quiet Easter egg hunt.
“Ms. Austin!” urgently calls a boy, who crouches bareheaded
under the merciless sun. Heide Austin, the Waldorf teacher, hurries
“Look, there’s a whole family here of strawberries,
big ones and little ones. And this one’s the grandfather.
He’s all shriveled up.”
When the clamshells are full, Farmer writes each child’s
name on his or her boxes with a felt-tip pen.
“What’s your name?” a boy asks Farmer.
“Mr. Farmer,” Farmer replies.
The boy shakes his head. “I mean your real name,”
Farmer smiles. “That is my name.”
But now the students have discovered a trap with a dead ground
squirrel up the road, and the strawberries – and Farmer’s
real identity—are forgotten. The stiff grey body dangles at
the end of the chain as the bravest of the boys swings it around.
“Drop it,” says Ms. Austin. Exploration of nature only
goes so far, even at a Waldorf School.