With Heart and Soil

USD alumnus and Coastal Roots Farm CEO Javier Guerrero


On this particular warm fall day, Javier Guerrero is the personification of the word “stoked.” He’s as excited about the taste of fennel pollen (think black licorice) as he is about urging a taste of a fallen pineapple guava (tart, tasty and “chock full of vitamin C”). He waxes poetic about the more than 150 chickens in residence at Coastal Roots Farm but is adamantly uninterested in a suggestion that he consider adding goats to the mix.

“Every animal you introduce is a whole ’nother deal,” he says. “We’ve got two flocks of chickens that are constantly moving, and that in itself is a lot of work.”

Guerrero — who came on board as president and CEO of the Encinitas farm in 2018 — is perhaps happiest when he’s getting his hands dirty or building things, with the possible exception of when he’s expounding on the benefits that these chickens bring to the land.

“Our process for farming in this regenerative manner is this,” he begins, as a preface to a private tour of the grounds. “We’ll finish a crop, and the chickens will come through. We move them around every couple of weeks and they just tear up whatever’s left. They eat the bugs, so that’s pest management. They fertilize the soil. They turn and aerate the soil. Once they’re finished, we’ll plant a cover crop like clover or barley, which will put nitrogen and nutrients into the soil.”

At the moment, the chickens are taking a break from their duties. Most are drowsing in the shade of their coop, which is on wheels so it can be easily moved from one part of the land to another.

Multicolored eggs in a basket at Coastal Roots Farm.“We’ll then cover the soil with an occultation tarp, which blocks out sunlight,” he continues. “That’ll cook down for several weeks, depending on the temperature. When you peel that back, it’s ready for direct seeding or planting, and you never had to till the soil. You never had to break up that microbial world that you want to keep rich and intact. And between plantings, you’re planting that cover crop because you want to keep the soil moist and rich to build up that microbial world.”

It may appear that the route along the freeway leading from USD to Coastal Roots Farm is not lined with many farms, but actually, San Diego has the largest number of small farms — more than 5,000 of them — than any other county in the United States. The Leichtag Foundation, which aims to advance self-sufficiency, vibrant Jewish life and social entrepreneurship, acquired the property in 2012.

“This was the last 67½ acres of Ecke Ranch, which was formerly 800 contiguous acres of what was described as the flower growing capital of the world,” explains Guerrero. “In 2014, 17 of those acres were set up to be Coastal Roots Farm as a program.”

He notes that while the foundation is Jewish — and the farm itself is dedicated to the tenets of following practices that are thousands of years old as a living Jewish farm — it is not itself a Jewish organization.

“This is a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds,” Guerrero says. “I use myself as the first example. I attend Mass at The Immaculata. My kids were both baptized there, and my father’s memorial service was there. While the nature of how we farm is through Jewish values and traditions, we welcome people to bring in their own traditions that are connected through agriculture.”

Since its founding, the farm has been dedicated to organic farming and to caring for the environment. “We’re balancing the idea of growing sustainable food with a commitment to food justice and making sure everybody has equitable access with dignity to fresh organic, nutrient-dense food.”

The pay-what-you-can farm stand at the entrance is just one example of that work. Two days a week, the stand is open to all and offers up fresh organic produce and herbs. On Sundays, fresh eggs are available. Shoppers can opt to receive $30 worth of food for free on each visit, checking out via an electronic tablet so they can privately pay what they can afford. 

“They can also use EBT and extend that even further,” he notes. “And it lets people shop locally. On average, food travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles before it comes to you, which is a huge carbon footprint. But if you’re shopping here today, your food is coming from the field to the barn to harvest to the farm stand.”

Like many traditions, Judaism is deeply rooted in agriculture. The notion of Pe’ah is one of the reasons the farm stand is not just about what is offered, but also where it’s located on the land itself.

“If you look back at those ancient traditions, the notion of Pe’ah in ancient times was that people would plant in the corners and edges of the fields, so that the sick, the weary, the elderly and the traveler would have access with dignity to food,” he says. “Here we have the farm stand on the corner and the edge of our property. It’s a modern interpretation of Pe’ah.”

The path that led Guerrero to his career might seem circuitous. But he sees his route as an own moral compass.

“As a values-driven person, I feel blessed to be able to be in a place that is truly guided by values,” he says.

Guerrero earned his undergraduate degree at USD in 1995, majoring in anthropology with a minor in art history. He had been accepted to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design and thought he might become a studio artist. But he opted to attend USD and chose his major as a first-year student after volunteering to help build exhibits at Balboa Park’s Museum of Man. 

A bit of a renaissance man, Guerrero is fluent in Spanish, English and Portuguese and is proficient in Italian. He spent a full semester in Florence and took side trips to France, Spain and Morocco, “hitting all the major museums.” After graduation, the dual citizen, who was born in Mexico City, was off and running. 

Detail of a row of plants at Coastal Roots Farm.

“I went back to Mexico for a year, living and working and spending time in rural and indigenous communities, and spent a second year in Central and South America,” he recalls. He also took classes at the 

National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. After a solo backpacking trip, which included stops in Brazil and Italy, he continued his studies in the U.S.  

He subsequently earned his master’s degree in cultural anthropology and international health development, got a job at what’s now known as the Museum of Us, and before long was approached to head the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum. During his eight-year stint as executive director, he expanded exhibits and oversaw a move to an indoor/outdoor location. He’s rightfully proud of what he accomplished: “We went from having 7,500 annual visitors to having 160,000,” he says. 

Guerrero was ready to take on the next challenge when he was approached by Coastal Roots Farm. Once offered the leadership position, it was a no-brainer. “I’m an outdoors person,” he says. “I’ve always gravitated to rural communities and farming environs, to experiential education and outdoor learning.”

He sees himself as a social entrepreneur. “I’m an artist at heart and this is a place where I could come and build upon a great foundation. To be honest, I was enamored of not just the mission and the impact, but of how much space there was to deliver on the impact — as well as the opportunity to grow both farming and educational programming. When I look at all the space we have here, it excites me and combines my passion and interest around health and wellness.”

Additionally, the Jewish community farming methods appeal to the anthropologist in him. “Having studied, lived and traveled around the world, spending time in different agricultural communities and cultures, this is a perfect fit,” he says. “We truly welcome people of all backgrounds, not just in terms of who we serve, but also with our staff. And in our culture, we can all relate to food and the notion of connecting the health and wellness of our body to food and the land.”

The Leichtag Commons, which Coastal Roots Farms is a part of, includes more than a dozen agricultural enterprises, which are home to a number of nonprofits and organizations that focus on “various elements of environmental education and community engagement and serving all different ages and life stages.” Besides Coastal Roots Farm, these include the Encinitas Union School District Farm Lab, the San Diego Botanic Garden and Seacrest Village Retirement Communities.

Before diving deeper into a tour, Guerrero explains the basic layout of the operation he heads. “We’ve got several areas,” he explains. “There are production fields, an 8.5-acre regenerative organic food forest — which is the largest in the region — and areas for environmental education. During COVID, we were right in the pocket of two critical sector needs: One was equitable access to food, and the other was the creation of an after-school on-the-farm program.” 

In the past two years, the farm’s positive impact has been impressive. “We grew our food production and distribution by 100% and donated about 75% of that to the community. In the last year alone, our educational programs went from over 3,000 to over 6,000 pre-k through 12th-grade youth coming through the farm. About half of them are on scholarships,” he says. “Much like we believe in equitable access to food, we want to ensure that everybody has access to hands-on experiential learning on a farm.”

A pair of volunteers work the "pay what you can" farm stand at Coastal Roots Farm.As part of their efforts, fresh produce is delivered to local Holocaust survivors, active-duty military and low-income seniors, in addition to assisting local tribal communities and tribal elders with both food donations and
assistance in building their own garden operations. 

Near the entrance to the farm’s space for public programs and events, an inviting area lined with a split rail fence is bordered by rows of crops like zucchini, squash and pumpkins alongside a grassy meadow. A barn adds to the pastoral feel of the place.

“This whole corridor here is dedicated to education and programs. The fields over there are where the kids participate in farming and gardening. This summer we had 11 weeks of camp with 600 campers. We call them ‘farmers in training.’”

A new nature play area focuses on early childhood development. “It’s facilitated by our educators. Guitars and music and story time take place on this stage, and they bring in supplies and materials for an outdoor art studio,” he says.

Guerrero firmly believes in the ethos of “balancing screen time with green time,” particularly when it comes to kids and teens. When asked if any of them ever push back, he answers like a shot. “I have literally never seen a kid on an electronic device while they’re at the farm.”

And there’s plenty of cool stuff for nascent farmers in training to explore. “During COVID, we did a ton of building. It’s very DIY. I like to design and build stuff,” he says. The results of those efforts are nothing less than remarkable. All of it — the fencing, an outdoor classroom, planter boxes, a climbing structure made of artfully stacked eucalyptus trunks, a stage, an outdoor kitchen — was built in the last few years by Guerrero, his staff and volunteers. 

Recently, the latter group has included folks from USD. In the fall of 2022, alumni and students of the School of Leadership and Education Sciences (SOLES) gathered at the farm for a Sundays in the Soil volunteer event. The small group was happy to get their hands dirty by weeding, mulching, prepping, planting and harvesting seasonal offerings.

“It was a great opportunity to be of service to the farm, and the community in general,” says Assistant Director of Alumni Relations Amanda Gonzales.

To truly explore the offerings of the various sprawling farm areas, a vehicle makes more sense than hoofing it. Guerrero selects one of the orange Kubota RTVs next to the property’s equipment barn, turns the key and expertly whips the vehicle around. A wise passenger had best hold tight to the grab bar as he peels around tight curves and up and down hills while pointing out the sights.

Close-up of two hands holding rich organic soil.“This is our agroforestry system or food forest,” he shouts. “This model is trying to work with the land. The trees are planted on a contour or key line that follows the landscape and creates berms. On the upside, there’s a swale to catch any water erosion downhill. There are a lot of elderberries planted here, which are quick-growing trees. They have a root system that establishes those berms, and our plan is to come in with more fruit-bearing trees.”

One of the reasons Guerrero is so comfortable on the farm is that it’s not unfamiliar to him. “I went to a school called Orca in Seattle when I was a kid,” he explains, “and our entire educational experience was outdoors. We had gardens at school and at home. We planted a ton of what we ate at home.”

He pauses the RTV, leans down and picks up a fallen pineapple guava, then deftly cuts it open and hands over a still-warm slice. While its unfamiliar deliciousness is notable, there’s no time to linger. The engine roars back to life and off we go, up hills and through unexpected pathways, but Guerrero never hesitates. He knows exactly where he’s going: leading the charge to take the farm to the next level. Much of Coastal Roots Farms’ activities are funded by grants, donations and corporate support. Everything from the trees he wants to plant in the food forest to irrigation and growing supplies is the result of community and volunteer support. 

“This is a place where I can build over a great foundation,” he says. When Guerrero parks on a hill overlooking the property, the silence is deafening. Just a mile away, the waves of the Pacific beckon like a multifaceted jewel. The vibe is relaxed. Even bucolic.

“To be honest, being outside is good for you. There’s something healing about just being in nature. And here we are, at a farm next to the ocean.” His smile is wide and genuine. “What could be more healing than that?”Julene Snyder

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