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On Food: The Ecology Center celebrates 10th anniversary with a new Farm Stand

On Food: The Ecology Center celebrates 10th anniversary with a new Farm Stand
Executive director Evan Marks happily picks apples on one of the learning landscapes at The Ecology Center which celebrates its 10th anniversary in San Juan Capistrano. (Photo by Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

One day in Nigeria, Evan Marks had a realization that he wanted to go home and change the Orange County community where he grew up.

Marks had been on the road awhile — international roads, that is. He ran an organic farm in Costa Rica. He consulted for hotels on ecological design. In Nigeria, he was teaching agriculture.

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All good deeds abroad, but none of it at home.

So Marks, a Newport Beach native and UC Santa Cruz graduate, repatriated himself and came upon a dirt lot in San Juan Capistrano. The property along Alipaz Street contained a very old palm tree, a very old citrus tree and an 1878 farmhouse, the oldest wooden structure in the city. The bare homestead had belonged to Pony Express rider Joel Congdon and was the site of the county’s first walnut grove. Now it belonged to the city. Nothing was happening there.

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Next to the Congdon house was South Coast Farms, a for-profit enterprise offering organic produce.

Marks saw potential. He had a vision to change that corner of the county, which was otherwise full of “cul-de-sacs and consumers,” as he puts it.

In a saga he now calls all too perfect, as executive director he oversaw what eventually became The Ecology Center, a nonprofit founded in 2008 with a multitude of missions, including agricultural education, eco-design consulting and event hosting. It hosts a series of “learning landscapes,” from greenhouse growing and aquaponics to demonstration gardens and outdoor kitchens.

“We take pride in curating transformative ecological experiences for everyone and believe in a culture that gives more than it takes,” the center says of itself. “The Ecology Center ... believes everyone should have access to the tools, knowledge and skills that promote healthy communities and an abundant future for all.”

The Ecology Center headquarters and general store is inside the 1878 Congdon farmhouse in San Juan Capistrano.
The Ecology Center headquarters and general store is inside the 1878 Congdon farmhouse in San Juan Capistrano. (Photo by Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

This year marks a pivotal milestone for the center. Not only is it celebrating its 10th anniversary, but it recently expanded by consolidating with South Coast Farms. That operation has been renovated to become the Farm Stand, which will offer dry goods year round like local grains and legumes, artisan products and organic breads. It will source organic produce from farmers within 250 miles.

The move added 27 acres of farmland to the center, bringing its total to 28.

If that weren't enough, this month the nonprofit debuted a new book, “Community Table: Recipes for an Ecological Food Future.”

In a recent interview at the property, Marks walked around the newly acquired expanse, envisioning its future. As a cool breeze swept through, he chomped on a piece of fruit he had picked from one of his gardens.

It was a brief pastoral moment of a bygone Orange County: farmland, fewer people, less noise, more moments to reflect on one’s sense of self in nature.

“Almost no one gets this feeling anymore,” Marks commented.

Beans grow on a field behind The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano.
Beans grow on a field behind The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. (Photo by Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Perhaps they will, though, when The Ecology Center continues innovating itself. Marks visualizes a revitalized farm on those new acres: more types of fruits, vegetables, flowers, all available right there for the picking. And 5,000 trees. Donors can sponsor one for $100.

On another end of it, there could be a camping option for youngsters. Overnight stays on the farm, he called it.

“I can’t wait to do all that over 28 acres,” he said.

Marks wasn’t done. He said he wants The Ecology Center — which employs about 20 and thrives off an army of around 100 volunteers — to expand its educational mission with school groups, dinners of food from the farm, produce for school lunches, and festivals, like the maker's market it hosted earlier this month.

“It’s building a world-class institution of food, agriculture and the arts,” Marks said.

For more information on The Ecology Center, visit theecologycenter.org.

Bradley Zint is a contributor to Times Community News.

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