The Ecology Center is Making Regenerative Organic Farms Mainstream

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The Ecology Center is dedicated to teaching the next generation of farmers and chefs the basics of regenerative farming.

Evan Marks grew up as your typical Orange County surfer, catching waves on the beautiful Southern California beaches. 

He quickly realized that rainstorms often made his hobby difficult. Bacteria and harmful pollutants would traverse through storm drains during and after the rain, flushing illness-causing runoff into the ocean. The experience, and his growing curiosity about the interaction between humans and nature, led him to study agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. 

Post-graduation, Marks participated in fieldwork apprenticeships in West Africa and Central America, implementing what he learned in college through ecological observation and permaculture design. However, on a trip back home, he had a realization: People in the U.S. also needed to strengthen their relationship with agriculture.

So when he came across a 28-acre farm owned by the city of San Juan Capistrano in 2008, his wheels started turning. Just one acre of the farm, complete with a historic farmhouse, was up for sale, but that was enough for the project Marks envisioned: an environmental education and cultural hub. 

He proposed the idea to the city, which gave him the green light to turn the dirt lot into his dream. He dubbed it The Ecology Center, and this year, it’s celebrating its 15th anniversary. 

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Over those 15 years, the center has welcomed more than 300,000 visitors, who’ve stopped at the farm stand, visited the EcoTots outdoor classroom, feasted with friends at Community Table dinners, and volunteered at the farm. It’s also trained 150 farmers and another 150 culinary leaders, and donated more than 100,000 pounds of food grown on the property.

Through every event and learning opportunity The Ecology Center has offered, it aims to shift people’s behavior toward the land. 

“It’s always rewarding to design with nature and for healthy, happy humans,” Marks says. “It’s a relationship that we work on building. The behavior change is the bigger arc. That’s the harder part, and so that’s now the fun work we engage in.”

In the center’s early years, Marks and a small team experimented with programming. Visitors learned about drought tolerant, ecological gardens, among other environmental topics. School field trips came through, while locals signed up for workshops and certification courses. 

Over the years, the offerings at The Ecology Center grew to include all of the institution’s four core pillars: grow, eat, make, peace. All of the classes, events, and programs offered at the center today share one goal: to inspire in visitors a new way of relating to the Earth.

Many of the center’s programs are aimed at local kids. The EcoTots program allows kids ages 1 to 5 to help out in the garden, plant seeds, build shelters and fairy houses, taste produce fresh from the farm, and create arts and crafts from natural materials. The annual immersive summer camp turns children into mini farmhands: They collect eggs from the farm’s chickens, learn to use farm tools, harvest fruits and vegetables from the farm and cook with them, and plant seeds while also making music and playing games. 

Jonathan Zaidman, The Ecology Center’s director of engagement, leads the education team in developing an interactive curriculum on topics ranging from environmental history to nutrition and makes sure the kids can explore every corner of the center’s vast grounds. 

“Our educational philosophy is really quite simple: Let’s create opportunities for our children to work with their hands, to get outside and experience nature,” Zaidman says.

We raised some real capital and evolved the 28-acre landscape from a commercial endeavor into a community, an ecological paradise around food.

– Evan Marks

Kids and families are also invited to the center’s other functions, including Friday night Community Table dinners featuring a menu designed and prepared by a rotating roster of distinguished Southern California chefs; morning yoga and meditation classes on the farm; and free monthly festivals with live music, vendors, workshops, demonstrations and food samples.

Starting this spring, the center is also offering tours of its farm, which has grown exponentially since 2008. In 2019, Marks and his team took over the remaining acreage that was still owned by the city and turned the plot, which had served as a commercial organic farm, into a community regenerative organic farm. 

“We went from about 10 employees to about 50 pretty quickly,” Marks says. “We raised some real capital and evolved the 28-acre landscape from a commercial endeavor into a community, an ecological paradise around food.”

The transformation received an official certification from the Regenerative Organic Alliance, signifying that the farm’s practices are thoroughly sustainable and take the entire farming cycle into account. Organic farming, soil conservation, animal welfare, and farm worker equity are the main pillars. 

The center gives back to the community through its farm in more ways than one. It hosts an apprenticeship program aimed at teaching the next generation of farmers and chefs the basics of regenerative farming, such as soil-building techniques, water conservation practices, and organic management of pests and weeds. In 2020, it launched the Nourishing Neighbors initiative to help provide meals and produce to local families experiencing food insecurity. The center recently expanded the program to its Farm Stand, which now accepts CalFresh and matches all EBT purchases 1-to-1. 

“That to me is the really exciting impact that we get to point to every day,” Zaidman said.

The Ecology Center has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. They recently broke ground on a brand-new facility they’re calling the Wellness Dome, a structure with a 44-foot diameter that they plan to use for meditation, yoga, sound baths, and tea ceremonies. 

Moreover, they hope to continue moving the regenerative organic movement forward, especially in Southern California. Zaidman hopes to inspire people and organizations to build healthier communities and make headway on food equity. “I look at our success and think, ‘Yeah this is fantastic,’ and I also really wish that there was more of what we [are] doing,” he says.

“We don’t want to win this race,” he adds. “It’s not about being the best in the world, it’s about being the best for the world.”

The Farm Stand at The Ecology Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the on-site Campesino Café is open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., for breakfast, lunch, and coffee. Classes, events and workshops are listed on the center’s website

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