Food for Thought
Organic farmer Scott Murray is changing the face of SD’s food scene—one crop at a time
Murray specializes in growing citrus, vegetables and herbs for local chefs at his family’s organic farm in Vista.
LIKE LOTS OF KIDS, SCOTT MURRAY put himself through college by serving food. The difference is that Murray farmed the food on a small lot, then sold it to restaurants near UC Santa Cruz. Before he graduated with a business and communications degree, Murray’s deep-seated passion for agriculture pulled him back to the land.
“My connection to farming comes from my mother,” says Murray, the current president of Slow Food San Diego. “She survived the Great Depression in Salt Lake City by farming a two-acre lot where she grew food for her family and the neighbors,” he explains.
Murray’s been an organic farmer since 1974. He came to San Diego 29 years ago, growing specialty vegetables and herbs for high-end chefs. “For the first 15 years, we shipped them to restaurants in New York City and Chicago,” he says. “When the quality of California restaurants grew, we started selling here.”
Together, Scott and his wife, Laura, an organic inspector for California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), grow herbs, vegetables, five kinds of citrus, and macadamia nuts on their Vista farm. Along with fresh eggs, the bounty goes to local restaurants or into CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture, a subscription-based model of buying local produce).
A few years ago, under doctor’s orders to find more indoor activities, Murray shifted his focus toward sustainable development. He’d already had success in the field. From 2001 to 2003, he helped Fallbrook’s Ivy High develop an organic farm, which served as both an educational tool and food source for the school. He created another organic farm and vocational program at San Pasqual Academy, a live-in school for foster children. Seven years later, the farm still contributes to all of the residents’ meals; excess produce is sold throughout the county.
“This project was very exciting for us as we taught food and vocational literacy,” says Murray. “Several of the foster students went on to become employees of the farm with viable jobs. And now the county of San Diego has its own organic farm.”
Next, Murray and his collaborator, Jerry Miller, have their sights on a 10-acre plot in Encinitas owned by the Unified School District. They want to host a working farm, environmental center, and science camp for third- and fifth-graders. Classrooms will be surrounded by seven acres of organic agriculture, including greenhouses and a community garden. It will be a vernal R&D lab for innovative farming techniques like vertical growing and aquaponics—a hybrid of aquaculture (raising fish, prawns, etc. in tanks) and hydroponics (growing plants in water), in which the plants act as a natural filter/cleaning agent for the fish’s water.
“We hope to break ground in July,” explains Murray, his crystal-blue eyes lighting up at the thought.
Over in Twin Oaks Valley in San Marcos, Murray is working hand-in-hand with architect Marc Whipple on a 20-acre campus for TERI, Inc., an acclaimed educational program for autistic and developmentally disabled children and adults. Eighty percent of the seven-acre landscape will be edible. “We’ll create a culinary program on the farm and train staff and students in cooking. We hope to open a café on the edge of the farm as well.”
Clearly, the ideas keep churning. Somehow, Murray also manages to sit on five boards related to agriculture and sustainability, including Slow Food.
“Being an entrepreneur, there’s never a dull moment,” he laughs. “I am also working with Matt Rimel and his team to get their Homegrown Meats company organically certified. It takes a year for an animal to be considered organic after eating only organic grass.”
Murray has teamed up with Grammy-winning musician Jason Mraz, a slow-foodist who grows avocados on his estate in northern San Diego. “He’s been one of Murray Farm’s CSA members. He asked me to help him take his grove organic. Now we have Chipotle buying his avocados,” says Murray. “Did you know Chipotle uses 5 percent of the world’s avocados?”
Last year Murray traveled with Mraz to Farm Aid, where he spoke about the future of farming. His speech was an amalgam of philosophies that he weaves in and out of everyday conversations.
“Because of the risks taken in conventional agriculture these days, we need an alternative. I think organic agriculture is an insurance policy,” he declares emphatically. “Chemical companies say organic can’t feed the world, but nine recent studies have shown that organic and sustainable agriculture is the path to doubling world food production on the same footprint.”
With America’s population explosion and culture of consumption, growing enough food is a serious concern. In 2009, a study by University of Texas biochemist Donald R. Davis revealed a significant decrease in the nutritional quality (nutrients, vitamins, proteins) of fruits and vegetables over the last 50 years—anywhere from 5 to 40 percent. So feeding America is a problem of not only quantity, but also quality and sustainability.
“We are fortunate to live in San Diego. We produce 160 different crops and are the seventh largest agriculture county in the nation,” Murray says. “Fallbrook alone produced $148 million in avocado sales in 2009. Agriculture is a viable industry to create well-paying jobs. In the future, if you know how to grow food, you’ll be ahead of the game.”