Seeds of Abundance

At an organic farm inside the urban sprawl of Orange County, Evan Marks sees farming as surfing—and as a path toward ecological balance.

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On a clear spring morning, I crouch alongside Evan Marks in the dirt. “It all starts with a seed,” he says. “And seed is sovereignty.” He pulls from the ground the most vibrant carrot I’ve ever seen. And when he offers it to me, it’s the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. The Kyoto Red’s sweet, tender crunch mixes with bits of soil. 

It’s jarring to comprehend that we’re eating this level of organic food sourced in the middle of so much urban sprawl. This is South Orange County, after all—not some unencumbered plot in the middle of the heartland. The nearby I-5 freeway buzzes with unending Friday traffic and it’s not even noon. The suburban hills are pale yellow, parched by drought. Lennar—the second-largest home-construction company in the US—has put the finishing touches on another master-planned gated community, opportunistically dubbed “The Farm,” right down the road from a real one. Homes start at $1.5 million. The veneer of it all can feel unmooring. And yet it’s precisely why Marks decided, almost 15 years ago, to make this the site for his vision in ecological design and sustainability.

Real food daily: Marks, checking on the babies. Photo by Kevin Voegtlin.

For decades a city-owned, unused 1-acre dirt lot featuring a 140-year-old farmhouse—part of the City of San Juan Capistrano’s multimillion-dollar, property-tax-driven purchase of Kinoshita Farm in 1990 to preserve portions of the area’s agricultural history—the plot has experienced a phoenix-like transformation under his hand and his lease of the land. As executive director of The Ecology Center, Marks, 41, has steered its more humble beginnings toward major expansion and the 28-acre regenerative organic farm that it is today. The curve, he says, has been steep: with quick outward growth happening three years earlier than planned, Marks has been driven to help solve local-level problems of fragility inherent in the food system—a reality fully unveiled by the COVID pandemic, gutted grocery store shelves tugging at the psyche.

A native of Newport Beach, Marks came of age in the late 80s and 90s, surfing its beachbreaks. Punk music was the soundtrack. On the flip, he also enjoyed gardening with his mother. At 16, it all came together and his worldview shifted. Marks had a calling. He realized he had to dream big. He had to understand the machinations of those growing passions in surf and biodiversity that seemed at odds with each other.

“I could see the world outside of what was just in front of me,” Marks says. “Picking up trash and seeing beach closures at the end of a rain, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, humans. What’s going on here?’ As a teenager, you’re pushing boundaries, and [the environment] was a boundary I was going to push on. It was this understanding of how we have this negative impact on it, and what that means. ‘Oh, agriculture’s the number-one impact on our oceans? I didn’t know that.’” 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land. Large tracts are plowed. Exposed soil erodes during rainstorms. And the runoff eventually flows out to the sea, carrying with it fertilizers, pesticides, and other toxic farm chemicals that can trigger sudden and disruptive explosions of marine algae, and even produce dead zones. The cycle poisons not only ocean ecosystems, but air, soil, and freshwater.

This stark reality encouraged Marks to follow the compass true north and away from home after high school, earning a degree in agroecology from the University of California, Santa Cruz—the preeminent institution in organic farming since 1967, when Englishman, innovator, and master gardener Alan Chadwick brought the organic farming techniques he’d learned under the tutelage of Rudolf Steiner to the school, ultimately shaping what has become an intensive organic farming and gardening training program. It’s where Marks cultivated a particular thesis and unwavering theory he continues to put into practice every day: that we can, in fact, design ecosystems in harmony with nature that support the ecosystems of the ocean—in parallel with our passions and recreations. That we can eat well and live better—everywhere. It’s a path of building a culture of true health for local communities, and what he someday hopes connects with the entire world.

“Farming is surfing,” Marks says. “No two days are the same.”

Marks’ endeavors at The Ecology Center were forged abroad as he leaned into the importance of learning organic farming techniques from other people and their respective places. For eight years after his undergrad, his work led him to Hawaii, Costa Rica, Peru, Mexico, Ghana, and Nigeria. While working with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) at the latter locale, the lightbulb went off. He’d developed context to see what was possible.

“I thought, ‘I need to go do this where I came from,’” Marks says. ‘I mean, I could be in Africa for the rest of my life or be authentic to what the idea of change means to me [at home], instead of telling other people how they need to change where they live by expanding the scale of what’s already been working there for 2,000 years.’ That just didn’t feel right. I decided to take that and everything that I learned from those communities and run with it. Which led me to [building] what’s really the only organic farm in the country.”

And so he trotted out the traditional dog and pony show to earn the capital that would inspire the project to action. He had the shared minds in his sphere of influence: business-savvy, renowned creatives and marketers. He knew how to deliver the slick package—what it would take to open major purse strings—a skill that can come naturally when growing up in Orange County. Philanthropic support initially poured in from world-class nonprofits, including the Laguna Beach–based Marisla Foundation, with thousands of generous donors and public agencies following suit. 

Today the center feels less a place and more an example of dharmic right action—a village, even, which is surreal, all things considered. Upon arrival, its “Grow. Eat. Make.” mission is unmistakable. The farmstand bustles with patrons—a small sample of the thousands that will show up over the weekend—picking from a seasonal harvest: beautiful brassicas and greens tinged with violet edges, plump berries showcasing the perfect balance of sweet and tart, robust winter squash, rows of sprightly herbs and other aromatics that become artisan ingredients. 

Old ladies assemble at an outdoor food-prep stand, volunteering to chop cauliflower and cabbage for what eventually simmers to a delicious community stew. Mothers escort children on a field trip through shaded, native-plant-rich walkways and past a maypole, its ribbons dancing on the light breeze. Youngsters eventually settle into learning and craft stations to connect firsthand with how it all happens here. Curricula is offered for children in first through sixth grades in ten-week sessions throughout the year, three days a week, as part of the center’s Farm Raised program. In addition, the center offers an Eco-Tots program for hands-on sensory learning. Marks mentions several times the importance of recalibrating children to the seasons—how there’s a natural time and rhythm to the food we eat and when we eat it. 

Getting the dirt out from under his nails. Photos by Grant Ellis.

The staff, which has multiplied to 80 employees, glows with a youthful yet tempered verve that seems to come from working hard with practical tools under the sun. Soiling. Cover cropping. Tilling. Seeding. Sprouting. Growing. Composting. It’s a sum of many parts in concert and clockwork that equates to year-round yield. Demand is fervent; the center closes only three days a year.

Friday nights turn into a sold-out celebration via the Community Table event, where an edible conversation between the farm, a renowned chef—their selections spanning LA to San Diego—and the community occurs. It’s like a milpa pilgrimage for culinary experts and an opportunity, defined on the center’s website, to “connect with new ingredients, find fresh inspiration in the bioregion’s historic foodways, and discover the rewards of relationship with the land.” More than 100 of these dinner events have taken place.

“At any one time, we grow about 60 different ingredients, and [the chefs] are like, ‘Woah, I get to experiment with this?’” Marks says. “As a chef, you mostly order from a piece of paper, and now they get to walk the fields and help harvest and see this cornucopia and enjoy themselves. And for the guests, it’s like, ‘Where am I? I didn’t know that this exists! These are rad people. This is delicious food. I want to be a part of this.’” 

Marks plans to open an on-site breakfast and lunch café to serve the tastes of the farm every day. He also has plans to expand beyond this mothership and its nearby satellite operation in Encinitas to create a hub and the spokes of a larger wheel. Anaheim is on the horizon. He envisions incubating two dozen farms over the next 15 years, likely smaller in scale, to help directly serve those communities. The larger aim is to continue to educate people on our connection to the land, train and inspire a new generation of organic farmers and entrepreneurs to keep building this movement outward, and weave back together a culture of equality, economy, and equity—industry facets that have been ripped from Southern Californian agriculture and its relationship to the families and businesses it nourished for so long.

“He’s very observant, mindful, and has used all of that experience from travel to make this real,” says Chris Malloy, the multi-hyphenate surfing agrarian and auteur, from his ranch in Los Alamos near California’s Central Coast. Malloy, the eldest of the three brothers who’ve offered litmus to eco-living and surfing’s complex relationship to it, considers Marks a brother in arms—a friend in the trenches who’s living by example for a cause larger than a fly-by-night trend for a coterie of coastal elites. When speaking of Marks’ ecological work, Malloy casts him in a similar light as luminary conservationists such as Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and Kris Tompkins. He also emphasizes how there was always something special about the small tract in San Juan Capistrano and its possibilities. 

“As a kid,” he says, “when I’d be driving down [from Ojai] to surf Lowers and watching the whole region start to change back then, I remember passing by that old plot of land and that old house. And I always thought that the next time I came down here it’s going to be an apartment building or, you know, a big-box store. And somehow it survived. And then, to have somebody like Evan have the vision to keep it alive and keep that soil healthy, and to make it a place where kids can come for the first time in their lives and go harvest and go into a nice farmer’s market…I’m just so proud of him.”

In the land of the Acjachemen/Juaneños, the Yorba clan, and Whitey Harrison, The Ecology Center is something of a lung for the San Juan Creek watershed. Note: That’s Doheny at the flood control’s terminus. Photo by Kevin Voegtlin.

A whimsical rainbow installation arches over a key walkway in the center’s distance—a symbol whose five colors serve as reminder of its five core values: Learn by doing. Be part of the solution. Collaborate for change. Give more than we take. Be here now! It is inspiring given the unending tumult of these times—a foundation for giving back, especially through the center’s various initiatives, including the donation-driven Nourishing Neighbors program that ensures local food-insecure families have access to all the good that’s growing. 

None of this comes without key guideposts, says Marks. Among his well-studied list of important influences, he credits friend and mentor Alice Waters—a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement that’s become ubiquitous in the Bay Area—and her 50-plus-year-old restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley as a beacon and touchstone in designing produce for taste, not transport. The feeling is mutual for Waters.

“He’s thinking about the beauty of it all, and created an atmosphere that is alluring while always looking for ideas to make it more valuable and bring the people together who live there,” says Waters. “It’s not just about food, but the big picture of everything needing to be the real thing. Can you believe we’ve only been eating out of season for 60 years? [Before World War II] it was never about food coming from other countries out of season, except for spices, tea, and coffee. We absolutely need to teach this to the next generation of children, and I know how much he values that. Think: If our public schools focused on local, organic, and regenerative, our entire food system would change overnight.”

Given all that’s transpired and all the work that remains, surfing is what restores Marks—who lives beachside in an adobe compound in Oceanside with his wife and two young children—and connects him to the work on the farm. Tucked near the back of The Ecology Center are two large shipping containers that double as a shaping bay and glassing station. Marks lists members of the new gen who’ve popped by to experiment with homemade craft as part of a recent Vissla retreat he hosted: Derrick Disney, Donald Brink, Thomas Campbell, Alex Lopez, Cliff Kapono.   

Off hours at Marks’ local setup in Oceanside. Photo by Grant Ellis.

“Farming is surfing,” Marks says. “No two days are the same. If I’m surfing, that means the farm is surfing. It’s my replenishment. My rejuvenation. My joy. And it’s a direct relationship upstream to the watershed. There’s a connection, but it’s the indirect that’s probably the most powerful—being that much more charged to take on the mission ahead.”

I look around and am jettisoned for a moment back to my youth, growing up about five minutes away as the crow flies. I survey the natural beauty around us and its juxtaposition against the overall indifference created by our on-demand culture—the sense of cull it creates, the disassociation and disconnect, the false sense of security we experience in this age of add-to-cart and instant delivery, an anxiety-ridden race to the bottom championed by corporate shades of convenience. 

Surely the world and its problems are far too big and unwieldy for something like this small oasis to take root and change whole codes of living. But Marks sees it another way. “If we can change our own life, that’s cool,” he says. “That’s power, because we don’t all know that. We’re all interconnected. We’re all interdependent. We’re the driver of our destiny. And we can show that to our family. We can show that to our friends and neighbors. And then, all of a sudden, you can see that we don’t need to change the world. We just need to change ourselves and be the solution that we want to be in the world. And see what happens.”

[Feature Photo: Prime bottomland in the heart of San Juan Capistrano. Photo by Kevin Voegtlin.]

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