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He’s in Rare Farm: Weeds to Riches

Times staff Writer

Less than a year and a half ago, acres of weeds eight feet tall grew on the hillside overlooking Del Obispo Street in San Juan Capistrano.

Today, the same 14 acres, tucked in a residential community and abutting several estates, sprout fruit trees, grape and berry vines and more than two dozen varieties of vegetables--all grown without fertilizers or pesticides.

New Hope Farms uses a technique known variously as organic, sustainable or regenerative farming. Thelma Moses, Orange County Farm Bureau executive manager, said the enterprise is the only one of its scope in Orange County.

The farm was started by Donald W. Pavlis, 53, who says that in the past, “the reputation of organic farming was second class, appealing to fringe levels of society, idealists, and not considered practical.”

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New Hope Farms, he said, proves that “organic farming can be used in and around the best of urban developments and be compatible and beautiful.”

And from a commercial standpoint, Pavlis said, the farm has “turned the corner” and begun to show profits from its produce, which is shipped to restaurants, specialty and health food stores across the country. In fact, Pavlis said, demand is outgrowing supply and he is looking for more land.

Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) said he has visited the site and “could hardly believe what I saw. To tell the truth,” he added with a laugh, “when I looked at things like his apple trees, I thought he might have been fooling me, like in the old days when real estate salesmen tied oranges to trees to attract buyers from the East. But Pavlis isn’t fooling.” Considering the erosion of millions of tons of topsoil and the pollution of streams and ground-water sources, Ferguson said, widespread use of organic farming “certainly deserves careful consideration.”

“What we see on Pavlis’ small acreage is so unusual, so superior to produce in the markets, and what he’s doing in the way of saving the soil and the water makes me think it’s incumbent upon farm bureaus and universities to look into his operation,” said Ferguson, who for many years was closely associated with the Irvine Co.'s vast farming enterprise.

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New Methods Tried

In the East and Midwest, according to some agricultural bulletins, farmers faced with erosion and pollution problems and the rising cost of pesticides and fertilizers increasingly are turning away from such products. Instead, they are trying to regenerate the land with homemade composts and even certain weeds that are beneficial to the soil or that repel insects.

Pavlis leased the 14 acres early in 1984. He cut the weeds, then used power discs and plows to turn them back into the soil. During the process, new weeds began sprouting, and these were chopped and mixed with the earth as “green manure.” Then he installed an underground watering system that, he said, uses only about an eighth of the amount of water required for flooding or sprinkling.

During the weeks that followed, he and his 23 full-time employees planted more than 2,000 apple, pear, peach, apricot, plum and citrus trees and another 2,000 boysenberry, raspberry, currant and grape vines. The intensity of the land use can be seen in the rows of celery growing in the few feet that separate fruit trees and berry vines, and in the cucumbers sprouting around the trunks of apple trees, their roots adding nitrogen to the soil and their leaves shading the roots of the young trees.

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Vegetable Beds, Apple Trees

More than five acres divided into raised beds produce a wide variety of vegetables, including bok choy, squash, chard and herbs. When they are harvested, leaves and stems are culled and converted into mulch.

“People told me that this land had been burnt out by previous farming, that it wouldn’t grow anything but weeds,” Pavlis said. “I was also told that you just couldn’t grow apples in this climate. Well, in 15 months, starting from bare-root trees hardly an inch in diameter, we’ve had four sets of blossoms and three sets of fruit.”

Pavlis, who grew up on a farm in Indiana, worked for years as a nurseryman and land-use consultant, and he has studied organic farming for 15 years. When he proposed to launch New Hope Farms, though, he had trouble getting financial backing.

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“Consultants from two universities told prospective investors that this one field (he pointed to a grove of trees interspersed with vegetables) wouldn’t produce a single thing. Well, in the first 15 months we turned out 2 1/2 tons of squash, 1,000 pounds of radishes and beans and 600 peach and nectarine trees, with fruit on every tree,” he said.

Some San Juan Capistrano city appraisers have estimated that the property might be worth up to $50,000 an acre as farmland, and as much as $200,000 an acre for development.

But Pavlis says he can “produce more money per acre per year than could be gotten from housing development.”

‘Rural Atmosphere’

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The “ideal situation,” he said, “would be for a developer with a large piece of land to put 55% of it in our type of agriculture. In 20 years, the agriculture would produce more money than the other 45%. Plus it creates a delightfully rural atmosphere, and profits (from produce) would offset the costs of adding such amenities as swimming pools and tennis courts.”

Right now, Pavlis said he “desperately needs to expand” to meet demands for his produce distributed nationwide through a Dana Point brokerage firm, and he is looking for 300 to 500 acres in the south part of the county.

Ferguson said there “probably are many thousands of acres around Orange County that have been required to remain as open space. The land sits there doing nothing, and I think much of it could be used for farming like Pavlis.’ ”


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