From a one-acre dirt patch in San Juan Capistrano to a 28-acre organic farm with a restaurant and a dinner series, founder Evan Marks has created a fantasyland for farm-to-table foodies in just 15 years.
It’s a busy Friday at the Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. A big yellow school bus parked outside awaits kids on a field trip. The farm stand bustles with shoppers and the smell of fresh coffee and tamales wafts from the Campesino Café.
The rustic campus of lawn-less, unpaved, muddy ground with a barn, makeshift sheds and a vintage farmhouse on the former Kinoshita Farm site, welcomes kids at heart. From rambunctious toddlers to seniors with walkers, visitors can’t help but feel the good vibes.
Walking alongside engagement manager Colleen Culhane is like taking a stroll through Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. Everyone cheerfully greets her. A coworker returns from an appointment and happily reveals he’s gotten a clean bill of health from his doctor.
The woman in the blue-jean dress with the big smile doesn’t stop to talk but waves a heartfelt hello. It’s Adelia Sandoval, spiritual overseer (Púul) and cultural director for the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians/Acjachemen Nation. “She’s a board member,” says Culhane. “She helps guide us as part of the community that was the original stewards of this land.”
Locals keep making connections. Like moms and dads who ride bikes here, bringing their youngsters for weekly activities. Even the cashiers at the farmstand want to belong. They ring up customers with the joviality of the sassy record store clerks in “High Fidelity.”
A half-eaten loaf of Rye Goods bread sits on the counter, ripped apart by hungry hands – these guys take their snacks as seriously as their work. “We call out items as we ring them up,” one says. It’s not just a job to him. He’s on board with the larger mission, concerned that the center isn’t spreading the word wide enough to EBT (formerly food stamps) customers that groceries here are half price through the Nourishing Neighbors program. “The ones who come buy a lot of produce and fresh products made here, like soups, jams and jellies,” he says.
Founded in 2008 on a single-acre dirt lot, the enterprise has grown to an organic-certified, 28-acre farm. With 75 employees and 500 volunteers, it attracts more than 100,000 visitors annually. The city has recently given the program a magnanimous endorsement, granting it a lease that runs an additional 40 years.
Who knew that a grand plan for a regenerative farm in the middle of urban Orange County would blossom and endure for 15 years? Credit founder/executive director Evan Marks, whose enthusiasm for this ongoing project grows as quickly as the wildflowers in the surrounding hills. His name comes up in nearly every conversation with employees and in glowing terms. He’s definitely the Walt Disney of this sunny, self-contained utopia.
“It’s very inspiring,” says Culhane, a Waldorf-trained teacher who lends a hand in the educational programs. “I get to work with him every day. He has a clear vision of where he’s going and you want to go with him. It’s great fun.”
Born in Long Beach, Marks moved with his family to Newport when he was a fourth grader. Like a lot of Orange County kids, he grew up surfing and fell in love with the ocean.
“That led me down the road of learning, opening up awareness to the environment,” he said. The more he learned, the more he realized that humans had a “massive negative” effect on the environment.
“That was eye-opening. And then I started learning that the greatest impact that we have globally is how we grow our food. I just kept following that thread and took that farther and ended up getting a degree in agroecology,” he said.
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz, Marks spent time at Camp Joy, a small organic family farm in Boulder Creek, California, operating as an educational nonprofit organization since 1971. A self-described adventurer, it inspired him to travel the world, practicing what he’d learned in Africa, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru. He took on projects of 60-1,000 acres, restoring ecosystems through agriculture and sometimes providing food for hundreds of residents in those communities.
Along the way, he learned Spanish – he says he got thrown in the deep end when he suddenly found himself managing workers on an early project. All the while, he took special note of how culture played a role in sustainable farming.
“There are cultures that have modeled healthy relationships to the planet and how they provide their basic needs and steward their resources for thousands of years,” he said.
Marks’ next move was to take eight years of these experiments and combine it with what he’d learned. “I felt like I was ready to invest the next big chunk of time into another meaningful project and that was one that I was going to create myself, bringing these ideas to Orange County,” he said.
In 1948, according to local history books, 5 million Valencia orange trees grew on 67,000 acres, dairy farms dominated north county, cattle grazed in south county. The Segerstroms weren’t the only family growing lima beans and the Knotts weren’t the only ones tending berries. Celery, walnuts and sugar beets were common too.
By 1990, highways, rail lines and population growth changed the landscape as the number of residents in a county named to promote citrus grew from 216,000 to 2.4 million. Agribusiness replaced family farms in California as Orange County went from rural to suburban.
So, Evan Marks finds inspiration in the past, when the Acjachemen and others farmed as a community.
“Very few people have a relationship with their farmers and producers. We believe that the best food comes directly from the land. How we approach food – the way we grow, purchase and consume it – has a profound and lasting effect on agriculture, culture, the environment and our health.”
All the programs at the Ecology Center are aimed at “community agriculture,” working with, teaching and helping to feed locals. They include children’s education programs for tots as young as 1 year old; a fermentation lab that offers jams, hot sauces and pickles at the farm stand; a grain lab that produces masa for tortillas and tamales, polenta and sourdough pizzas and bread; a seed and soil lab with a focus on saving heirloom, drought resistant and indigenous varieties of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
There are community gatherings events such as the Milpa Music Festival, taco nights and film screenings.
PHOTO 1: Salads at the Campesino Café are made with farm-fresh ingredients. PHOTO 2: Tamales at the Campesino Café are made with San Juan Blue corn, grown on the farm. PHOTO 3: Guests attend a Founders Brunch at the Campesino Café. Photos courtesy of the Ecology Center
Along with the community programs there’s a bountiful harvest for foodies, including the Campesino Café, which opened in 2023 as a zero-waste restaurant showcasing the commercial viability of the Ecology Center's regenerative organic ethos. The breakfast-lunch menu is supervised by award-winning Chef Tim Byres and run by Chef Doug Settle. It combines freshly harvested organic ingredients grown on the farm with carefully curated premium products sourced from local and nearby vendors such as Steady State coffee from San Diego.
From the crispy, savory popcorn with “nooch” (nutritional yeast), a Marks family recipe, to the earthy tamales made with San Juan Blue corn grown on the farm, the cuisine is pristine and thought-provoking. Choices include a hearty spicy squash soup and a kale Caesar salad topped with sparky shreds of preserved lemon.
It’s down-to-earth goodness, a sensible answer to today’s trendy chaos menus. It’s also vegetarian, so it’s surprising that Marks has drawn in Byres, who is nationally known as one of the most influential chefs in the live-fire movement which often focuses on grilling, smoking and barbecuing meats. He lives in Dallas, Texas and spends a week each month in San Juan Capistrano. You might see him on property with his funny-faced dog Mikey by his side.
Byres has a long resume which includes Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, the U.S. Embassy in Brussels and traveling the world as a culinary ambassador during the Clinton administration.
He too sings the praises of the Ecology Center’s mission. “It’s really great to steer the next generation forward and work with younger cooks,” he said. “The learning part is the biggest joy. I also really love, as a chef, that you're set up to gather, share and connect with people.”
The idea behind Campesino Café isn’t to dazzle with culinary techniques but to bring diners a better understanding of how food gets to their table and why it tastes better when it’s grown closer to home by folks you know. “We're not trying to be this egotistical show-off place. We're trying to just do something cool and fun and meet people where they're at,” Byres says.
But the fine dining al fresco can’t be denied. Each year the center presents the Green Feast, an annual fundraiser and farm dinner which “celebrates the abundance of the region and dedication of the community.” At $400 per plate, the lavish meal is a gala showcasing fresh ingredients and celebrity chefs. Farm-to-table movement pioneer Alice Waters has attended as a guest of honor. Waters acts as an advisor to the center, so does Samin Nosrat, author of the James Beard Award-winning New York Times bestseller, “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat.”
PHOTO 1: Fresh produce from the farm is always highlighted at Community Table dinners at the Ecology Center. PHOTO 2: Rich Mead, left and Evan Marks, right, speak to guests at a dinner event at the Ecology Center. PHOTO 3: Diners enjoy a multicourse dinner at a Community Table event, a dinner series highlighting a guest chef and produce from the farm. Photos courtesy of the Ecology Center
At the less formal Community Table series, the center pairs accomplished chefs with a local farmer, dazzling guests with ingredients sourced directly from the fields, just 250 feet away. A typical price per person is $175 and includes tax and tip for a multicourse meal with beverages such as a mezcal cocktail and wine pairings. The series starts again in March.
But whether you decide to have an elegant night out, bring your kids for a fun activity or simply shop at the farm stand and take a coffee break, get ready to change the way you think about food in your own backyard.
“We're mostly known for cul-de-sacs and consumerism in Orange County,” Marks said. “So, we're really trying to bring a resurgence to an agrarian mindset that had been lost over just a couple generations. The Ecology Center is really about putting the culture back in agriculture and then simultaneously the agriculture back in the culture.”
Upcoming Community Table dinners
Chef Marcelo Hisaki of Restaurante Amores, Tecate, Baja California
Chef Marcelo will tap into his dual Japanese and Mexican culinary heritage to present a feast using the farm’s ingredients. Tickets: $160–$175
Chefs Logan and Gary of Cellar Door, San Diego
Chef Logan Mitchell along with her husband Gary, bring the special dining experience of their Cellar Door Supper Club to the farm. Tickets: $175
Chef Moira Hill of Lilian’s, The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe
San Diego native Hill became an executive chef before the age of 30. She has a passion for scratch kitchens and house made pasta. Tickets: $175
Chefs Debra Scott and Gabby Lopez of Casa Gabriela, La Mesa
Since learning the art of making tortillas and rice in her grandmother's Tijuana kitchen at the age of 8, Lopez has nurtured a lifelong passion for cooking.
Chefs Colin Whitbread and Cody Requejo of Fiish Culver City
Chefs Whitbread and Requejo are experts in creating dining experiences using sustainably caught seafood. Tickets: $160–$175