Science and Strawberries at SMARTS Farm


The corner of 13th Street and Broadway is a busy intersection in downtown San Diego. But if you walk through the gate into SMARTS Farm all the commotion of city life fades away. The gate opens to a yellow brick road which winds around wooden planters containing everything from rainbow chard to papaya. Some of the plants are garden staples such as tomatoes and radishes, but there are also many unusual features. In one box there is a cotton plant, a rarity on such a small piece of land, with a dozen or so white tufts. Another box holds a plant which, when rubbed, smells like buttered popcorn. And right in the middle of the farm are three remarkably communicative chickens. In short, SMARTS farm is a sensory wonderland, a perfect place to provide hands on educational opportunities for students of all ages in San Diego.

Six year ago Poly and Suzy founded Humane Smarts, a nonprofit dedicated to creating solutions based programs for kids living in underserved areas. They found a 10,000 square foot lot filled with broken down Winnegabos which was going to be developed in four or five years. They started an educational farm there which is taken care of day to day by Farmer Jim. The farm is dedicated to garden based learning opportunities for students of all ages and school classes visit the farm to learn about everything from biology to environmental sciences to nutrition. The cotton plants spark conversation on where clothing comes from. In one planter, the Urban Discovery Academy, located one block from the farm, is running an experiment to compare the growth of GMO and non GMO sweet peas (meant to imitate the original Mendel experiment with peas). Crops are watered with Oyas, or traditional Mexican clay water jugs, and provide a great opportunity to teach about water conservation. Since they are not growing in the ground at SMARTS Farm, if the planters are overwatered, the water seeps through really quickly. Oyas can hold about 2 gallons of water which seeps out slowly so the soil is kept moist and more water is retained. 

Even though there is an increasing number of urban agriculture projects in San Diego, there are still many obstacles to starting new urban agriculture operations. SMARTS farm is currently in its fifth year and moved to a new lot a year ago. When Polly and Suzy started the farm on this plot there were no sewers, water, or electricity and the fencing has to be redone. Also, the land is on lease from the city and the lease expires in April 2019 after which the farm will have to be moved again. Urban agriculture can also be a tough sell, and is usually not prioritized by policy makers and investors. Even though the benefits of urban agriculture are clear to the SMARTS Farms team it can be hard to convince others who have not spent time in urban farms and witnessed the education opportunities they afford, that it is a worthwhile venture.

Despite these challenges, SMARTS farms has had an incredible impact on garden based education in San Diego. To this day they have worked with over 55 hundred kids, both from local neighborhoods and areas as far as La Jolla and Saint Marcos. They have 30 planters they rent out to community gardeners and they have noticed promising changes in the surrounding area. Residents who previously felt uncomfortable walking the streets are coming out of their apartments and spending time outside and there has been an increase in community interaction and participation. SMARTS Farms is living proof of the educational and community building potential of urban agriculture. It is projects like SMARTS farms that will encourage more supportive policies and necessary investments in urban agriculture.