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Vegetables as a way of life

The Esalen Institute is known for personal growth and social change. Its Farm and Garden advances those goals through connection to food and the soil.

By Caitlin Keller

Special to the Los Angeles Times

March 1, 2012

Reporting from Big Sur

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— Morning fog weaves its way through colorful rows of vegetables, herbs and flowers as staff and apprentices gather at the center of the garden at Esalen Institute. It's 7 a.m. The freshly awakened faces sit calmly in a circle for a morning meditation, listening to the Pacific Ocean until the sound of chimes lets meandering minds know it's time to tend to the day's harvest.

Bins of chard, arugula, parsley, radishes and carrots are picked, washed and delivered to the back door of the kitchen, roughly 1,250 feet from the field.

Long before farm-to-table became a slogan of sustainability, it was being practiced here. Esalen Institute's Farm and Garden, on the Big Sur cliffs, has been growing food sustainably for more than 40 years. Through land stewardship, the alternative education center sows, harvests, consumes and composts the produce grown on the 5 acres that make up its farm.

The Farm and Garden works with the kitchen at Esalen to prepare menus based on what's available seasonally. The kitchen, made up of a kitchen manager, five chefs, students and volunteer interns, prepares three meals a day for the institute's community and 13,000 visitors a year, using produce picked fresh daily by the Farm and Garden and from local growers. Particularly popular is the kale salad — the Farm and Garden harvested 10,800 bunches of the hardy green last year.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the institute, which opened in 1962, devoted to the exploration of human potential. The nonprofit organization is a community and retreat center highlighting personal growth and social change.

Esalen, along with Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, Calif., and the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), started practicing community-supported agriculture in the late '60s and early '70s and has upheld a simple and sustainable way of growing food that others, in the midst of the farm-to-table trend, see as a model.

In 2009, the Farm and Garden began developing a more formalized educational program in hopes of teaching people who will go on to spread the practice through their own growing and activism.

"Part of our mission is to educate the people that come here about sustainable agriculture and the value of locally grown food," says Esalen Farm and Garden manager Shirley Ward. When hiring staff, Ward, who has been part of the Esalen community for more than 10 years, says she seeks candidates with a background not only in organic farming but in teaching too.

She hired garden supervisor Christopher La Rose, who met those qualifications, a little over a year ago. La Rose, a New York native, has a background in social work in addition to farming experience earned by apprenticing and then teaching at UC Santa Cruz's extension program.

It was through CASFS that La Rose took a liking to the teachings of English master gardener Alan Chadwick. "He's sort of the father of the organic agriculture movement in California in a lot of ways because he ended up touching all these people's lives in the '60s, '70s and into the early '80s who went on to start all these highly regarded farms," La Rose says.

Chadwick was hired by UC Santa Cruz in 1967 to start a student garden project. The failed Shakespearean actor captivated students with his integration of storytelling, poetry and philosophy. "He knew a lot about mythology, so he would start talking about the technique of growing roses and then he would tie it into a Greek myth and the history of rose cultivation in the world," La Rose says. "He was a real synthesizer in a lot of different disciplines."

Chadwick practiced "French intensive biodynamic" gardening methods that included using compost, creating raised beds and limiting weed competition by placing plants close together. Biodynamics — agriculture as a self-sustaining system without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides under the "influence of the cosmos" — informed Chadwick's practices and teachings, which La Rose believes has, in many ways, carried over to Esalen's Farm and Garden through the hands that work the soil. "I think that's what we think about here too, the interrelatedness of plants, people and nature," La Rose says.

The Farm and Garden is a place where growing isn't just for food but for people too. "We're not just farming, we're also dealing with human emotions and communication strategies, trying to really model a more holistic idea about gardening and farming where it's not just about the plants and it's not just about working hard; it's about us taking care of each other too," he says.

Through hands-on experiences, the Farm and Garden uses horticulture as a therapy to reconnect nature and visitors, who experience what regulars laughingly call "nature deficit disorder" in their day-to-day lives. "It's exciting to see adults who have been eating broccoli all their lives come to the garden to cut broccoli and reveal: 'I've never touched a broccoli plant in my life!'" Ward says with a chuckle.

After visitors experience their own harvest at the institute, Ward hopes they will go home and start growing some of their own vegetables and herbs. Introducing new ways to educate is the Farm and Garden's way of reaching the largest possible audience. Setting up a potted-plant garden, for example, would show visitors that growing one's own food is doable, even if only a few kale plants, lettuces and herbs such as parsley and basil.

The Esalen Farm and Garden, in conjunction with the kitchen, offers a daily changing, seasonal menu just by default — there isn't much choice.

When a student experiences a revelation just by running his or her hands through soil, La Rose understands the feeling. "These are our most basic needs that we're dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Everybody needs to eat; it's at the root of all human experience."

For more information on Esalen workshops, the work-study program and the Farm and Garden apprenticeships, check out http://www.esalen.org.

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