The Tijuana River Valley was once filled with farms, but the dairy industry collapsed in the 1980’s and most farmers left. Today, what marks the TRV most prominently is Suzie’s Farm, covering 140 acres of land.
The largest farm in the city of San Diego, Suzie’s is named after a beloved dog.
Who Is Suzie?
Each Saturday, Suzie’s Farm gives a tour of their property to the public. One of their interpretive plaques explains: “Before you go on your way, a little about Suzie. She was a dog, a purebred Norwegian Elkhound, abandoned in the Tijuana River Valley. We found her near the property that became Suzie’s Farm. She found her way into our hearts and eventually our name. We remain inspired by her intelligence, grace, bravery and resourcefulness. Though she passed on, Suzie’s spirit guides us — and will certainly be with you today.”
History of the Farm
The land was originally owned by Robert Egger, a Swiss immigrant who came here during the 1930’s and first worked for Schnell’s Dairy. This was an era when dairy farmers and truck farmers flourished in the river bottom. Although often subject to flooding since the area sits on a flood plain, the soil was also perfect for growing food thanks to the river, the underground springs and the mild year-round weather.
Over time, urban sprawl took over. When you take the farm tour now, you’ll notice crops that jut up against suburban homes and Tijuana in the horizon.
Egger was often forced to pay residential property taxes for his farmland, which became exorbitant, so he started selling off some of his property. Then a helicopter crash during the 1960’s made the Navy insist that Egger sell his property to them. Liability issues were at stake and Egger had no choice, but he did lease the property back and continued to farm it. The grandson of Robert, David Egger, inherited the fields. He farmed the area for many years, even discovering Native American artifacts underneath the ground he plowed. In 2009 David subleased the property to Robin and Lucila.
Because the Navy is the primary owner, the land — by law — can only be farmed organically. The reason: fertilizers are combustible and the farm lies along a military flight path where many helicopter pilots train.
A Little About Growing
Many employees who work at Suzie’s think of 2009 as the year when the farm became functional, with a CSA and selling their produce throughout the county. Before that, the owners were growing organic sprouts, which is what Robin Taylor inherited from his father. Robin has been farming his whole life. The name of their sprout farm today is called Sungrown Organics. They are one of the very few organic sprout farms in the county.
Sprouts, by the way, are very nutritious when eaten raw. They are high in protein and usually sprinkled over salads.
Suzie’s grow over 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Because the farm is located very close to the ocean, mild cool weather allows Suzie’s to grow fruits and vegetables all year long. Also, because they are located in a flood plain, the soil is very high in minerals and has a fine silty consistency.
Alongside their greenhouses where they grow the sprouts, Suzie’s also has two large fields. One is used for the summer and the other for winter. The winter field is in slightly higher ground, so in theory, if there is a flood, the winter harvests are less likely to be destroyed.
Most of their crops are not sweet fruits, with the exception of strawberries and melons. At the moment they have no fruit orchards, preferring to use the land for mostly vegetables.
September & October is the “shoulder season” between the summer and winter harvests. Their crops at this time of year include are blue scotch kale, Armenian cucumbers and squash. They grow root vegetables in the winter: carrots, fennel, kohlrabi, beets. They also grow edible marigolds and my favorite: nettle. Nettle has been popular since medieval times for its medicinal qualities. You have to watch out because the leaves will sting you when you pick them, but it’s an antihistamine and a natural anti-inflammatory. You can pour hot water and drink it as a tea or you can fry it up before eating, which heats and kills the stinger.
To keep the farm organic, Suzie’s also has a falconer come with her hawks. The hawks then eat rodents.
Suzie’s saves water by using a black plastic line that runs down the center of each row. It’s called drip line irrigation, where water drips out of little holes. This allows Suzie’s to water as close to the root as possible. It also waters the plants very slowly.
Interestingly, one field gets watered with city water (where they pay the city’s residential prices) and the other one gets watered with a fresh spring well built many decades ago by Robert Egger.
Pasture Raised Chickens
Suzie’s farm is always transforming. Two years ago, for example, they had bees, but now they don’t. In 2011 they started raising chickens. Right now they have over 400 chickens and about 30 different varieties. The types include: White Faced Black Spanish, Leghorn, Red Star, Dominique, New Hampshire, Amercaucana, Cuckoo Maran, Rhode Island Red, Buff Orphington, Black Star, Barred Rock, Black Australorp.
The tour guide said, “With most things in nature, diversity is good, but with chickens, not so much.”
Chickens tend to pick on each other, so Suzie’s is starting to decrease the number of varieties. The reason behind having so many different chicken breeds is that they lay different colored eggs.
During the summer, the chickens can lay eggs once every day. By winter, they hibernate based on the fact that there is less sunlight. Most people don’t know that eggs are a seasonal food.
Suzie’s chickens are deliberately not cage free, but pasteur chickens. Living on soil, they get to forage the way they would naturally and they get to take dust baths. They dig holes and throw dirt on themselves, which helps keep parasites and mites from getting into their feathers so they won’t get sick. By letting their chickens roam in a pasture, Suzie’s doesn’t need to treat them with antibiotics.
Meanwhile, even free range eggs, if you get them in the winter, have chickens that are likely still being kept inside under unnatural light. That way they will continue to lay eggs.
Mostly what these chickens eat are our old compost. Suzie’s dedicates two acres to composting produce that doesn’t get sold. Some of this compost is fed to the chickens. Chicken eggs change the color of their yolk based on what they eat. When chickens eat tomatoes or peppers, their yolks become red. Their yolks turn orange when they eat squash and yellow when they eat winter greens. Suzie’s also feeds them onions and garlic, which gets translated into the flavor of the eggs too.
The herbs they grow are most plentiful. If you join one of their weekly tours (Saturday at 10am or 12:30pm are the best times to go), you pay $20 for an “all you can pick” fest of whatever is in season. Squash, melons, sugar snap peas and cucumbers are some of the selections, but the herb garden is an absolute highlight. You can pick nettle, rosemary, tarragon, chives, parsley, cilantro and many others.
I can’t say enough good things about this farm, its employees and the owners, Robin Taylor and Lucila De Alejandro who both started out as theater majors. They are visionaries par excellence. They love what they do and believe in sharing both good food and events with the surrounding community. On Friday I review their annual Autumnal Equinox Dinner. The farm also offers cooking classes, farm classes for kids, a Dios de los Muertos festival, a pumpkin patch for kids and, of course, their weekly tours. Check their website to sign up for their weekly CSA box or to participate in their lovely events.
Address: 2570 Sunset Ave, San Diego, CA 92154