Taking agricultural education to a whole ‘nother level

Scott Murray drive-by.


West side of San Pasqual Academy.

West side of San Pasqual Academy campus.

SAN PASQUAL VALLEY — Organic farming pioneer and consultant, resource conservation leader, and now agricultural educator, Scott Murray hoped his back-to-the-future efforts will keep farming viable in California and the nation.

murray-copy Murray was doing it, in part, at a groundbreaking venue, the San Pasqual Academy. Located in the San Diego Agricultural Preserve about 35 miles northeast of downtown San Diego, it’s a first-in-the-nation residential education campus designed specifically for foster teens. The program began in 2001 with a bed capacity of 135 teens and now houses 250 courtesy of recent expansion.

With grants, donations, volunteers, and students contributing, Murray created a seven-acre virtual experimental farm and real-world, hands-on agricultural education program to serve as a template for future community farming efforts.

“The opportunity is to show a fully integrated farm of the future, which looks like going to the past in many ways,” said the indefatigable Murray, as he got soil ready for winter vegetable plantings. When harvested early next year, the produce will go directly to the school cafeteria a few hundred yards away for healthy student lunches. Surplus is sold to world class restaurants in La Jolla and Rancho Santa Fe.

“We’re at a  turning point where agriculture must become diversified, and localized,” Murray continued. “The average produce must ship 1,200 miles from where it is produced. We must re-localize our food.”

This is not mere theory, but growing fact at Murray’s San Pasqual Academy farm. His two agricultural classes have 25 students each. Students work for pay at the farm, giving them vocational and job experience.

Other students in the school’s culinary program cook up the school-produced crop, while students working in the cafeteria serve the food. Lessons from the farm are taken into the classroom for nutritional education.

Surveying the grounds

Surveying the grounds

Straddling Santa Ysabel Creek and Highway 78 between Escondido and Ramona, spanning a ridge line in the historic valley, immediate plans are to expand to 20 acres of production with an eventual goal of 80 acres under school production.

“We’re planting a third section under a three-year, $299,000 grant from USDA’s commodity food program,” Murray said at the time. “I’m looking for a grant to make this farm sustainable and a demonstration. We are building a packing shed with a 22-by-33-foot walk-in cooler.”

The academy has been a cause celebre’ in San Diego’s County’s substantial social world. The school farm program also has been gifted through local farming and business interests.

Burnquist Organics for whom Murray is developing a new line of organic foods, donated $20,000 in equipment. Rotary International clubs from Coronado, La Jolla, and Rancho Santa Fe donated $40,000. As well, 186 Rotary members spent a recent Saturday at the school picking orchards.

The Witch Creek Fire in October 2007 destroyed citrus,  avocado, and olive trees on campus. A freak flash flood in February destroyed field crops.

All have come back. Murray’s crew is growing seven types of tangerines to see which type grows best in Southern California, as well as limes and lemons. They grow Valencia oranges next to the Whitman Family’s farm, legendary citrus growers in San Diego North County.

In the crop rows, students this week were picking the last of the tomatoes, red bell peppers, string beans, beans, cucumbers,  and zucchini. They were starting a winter crop of radishes, lettuce, and experimental strawberries and berries.

All good, but what’s food without purpose? Murray, and company’s agricultural education doesn’t end in the fields.

“The first objective was to feed our students,” Murray said. “But this year we have been regularly shipping to four other foster facilities and selling the rest. The Marine Room at La Jolla, the Lodge at Torrey Pines, the New Stone Bistro in Escondido all buy from us.”

Those are some of the finest four-star restaurants in the world, but the demonstration of value continues in other ways.

“We’re a township,” Murray said. “We have our own water system. We have a biological sewage system. We would like to do experimental biodiesel algae. Wouldn’t it be great down the road if we could produce diesel fuel on campus for our  delivery trucks.”

Food from the farm dished up at San Pasqual Academy cafeteria.

Food from the farm dished up at San Pasqual Academy cafeteria.

Murray added: “It’s so important what we are doing with the kids, teaching them about food literacy. Part of what we’re doing is improving the quality of our students diet.”

Murray started at San Pasqual as a volunteer. He signed up for 20 hours a week, but often spent up to 60 hours. Previously, he began the Ivy School organic farm in Fallbrook. It is handicap accessible as well as organic.

Murray’s resume is long and deep. He has been active in public life, currently serving as secretary of the California Association of Resource Conservation Development Councils and the South Coast Resource Conservation and Development Council. He is former president of the Mission Conservation District in Fallbrook.

A Cal-Berkeley graduate, Murray heads his Murray Sustainable Development Group and Murray Farms in Vista. An organic grower and consultant for 30 years, he is considered expert in sustainable farming and agro-eco-industrial planning, as he  converts chemically dependent farms to organic and sustainable practices. He also is an early advocate of the Slow Food movement, president of Slow Food San Diego, advocating land stewardship through sound food production.

And the non-stop father of three has some other ideas for the immediate agricultural advocacy future.

“How come we have homeless people going hungry in America?” Murray said. “We need to start asking people to grow food again. Why not ask every church in America to sponsor a garden? Imagine if they had an acre for every 100 members.

“We have a new president. Why not ‘Farmer-in-Chief’. The first family has to buy its own food. Why not a White House garden?