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Pacific College Faculty Member Helps Launch Wild Willow Farm

Located adjacent to a wildlife refuge in San Diego, Wild Willow Farm is non-profit project for San Diegans of all ages to pick their own fresh produce, connect with other farmers, meet local foodies, and learn how to garden. Wild Willow is part of a larger non-profit organization called San Diego Roots Sustainable Food Project. Pacific College San Diego’s very own alumna and faculty member, Miles Thomas, was lucky enough to be on the Permaculture Design team of the Wild Willow Sustainable Farm.

Thomas owns his own practice, South Park Community Acupuncture, and first heard about San Diego Roots through patients who helped run the organization.  Always encouraging students and patients to learn cooking and gardening skills, he set up an educational "garden build" at his South Park home with "Victory Gardens”, another wing of San Diego Roots that focuses on home and urban based edible gardens. Several months later, Thomas decided to do some more intensive Permaculture Training in Orange County for his personal project in Mexico, a 16 acre organic farm called "Jardin Lumbini Communidad Permacultura".  

Permaculture can be understood as a branch of ecology that focuses on self-maintained and sustainable agricultural design.  A cross between the words 'permanent' and 'culture', 'permaculture design' methods are used to create gardens, farms, homes, and even businesses that are regenerative by nature.  

Thomas explains, “I often think of Permaculture as ‘Practical Daoism’, in that a well thought out design should yield a result that becomes more and more effortless. Similarly, I think of the community acupuncture model as permaculturally based business in that if designed well from the start, it should grow and function relatively easily in a natural sort of way without a lot of struggle.”

Serendipitously, several friends from San Diego Roots were also in Thomas’ permaculture class to take the next steps in their multitude of projects. At that point the final details of the land agreement for what would become Wild Willow Farm were finalized. The group decided to do the permaculture design for this small farm as their class project. Little did they know that it would manifest so beautifully. 

“It’s sort of a learning farm, if you will,” Thomas explains. “Every member of our group focused on a particular part of the farm design, from its layout and energy consumption, to general funding and the way we might be able to work with the community at large. We covered nearly every aspect that could be covered. My particular focus was on what is known as ‘Food Forest Gardening’, and, of course, the Wild Willows Medicinal Plant Project.”

Wild Willow Farm officially opened on the Summer Solstice of 2010. Everything grown on the premises is grown organically. Much like other projects of the San Diego Roots organization, the primary goal of this farm is to educate.

“There are ongoing classes about regenerative farming, organic gardening, beekeeping, mycology, herbal medicine, and permaculture, etc. It’s extremely experiential in every way. It’s a truly fantastic place,” says Thomas. Wild Willow Farms is a united effort to encourage and educate San Diegans about living sustainably within their community.

Thomas has a history of farming. He grew up in rural Kentucky on a traditional farm that his family worked. This farm fed three generations of family members. Combine this with his background in Chinese medicine, and Thomas brings a unique perspective to Wild Willow Farm. A licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, Thomas has been a student of Chinese medicine, meditation, and martial arts for over twenty years. He earned his Master of Science degree from Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in 2001. He now teaches Tui Na and Qi Gong techniques and serves as the Clinical Supervisor in the Bodywork Department at the San Diego campus.

As a practitioner, Thomas has an eye for herbs and has helped choose which herbs Wild Willow will begin trying to produce. Thomas says, “When our Permaculture Design group sat down to talk about the farm, there was a lot of interest in this topic from the beginning. When I began to see what was happening in our field of medicine, it seemed silly, if not irresponsible, not to find some way to help.”

Thomas was eager to join the Wild Willow project because of his personal background in farming, but he felt called to focus on medicinal plants due to his experience with Chinese herbology and the changes he’s noted in the field.

“Clearly we are reaching a point in the global herbal medicine market where demand is stretching the limits of the system. The cost of herbal medicine is rising. Part of this cost, I believe, is based on improvements in herbal delivery methods and processing. Part of the rise in cost is also just a lack of raw product. We know that it's time to begin to look at the possibility of growing these plants here, but there are many questions that have to be asked: Will they grow here? If they do, will they still have the same therapeutic benefit? Are they commercially viable? What is the most sustainable way to take on a project like this? Being a professional in the field of Chinese medicine, naturally I have a vested interest in this project,” Thomas says.

With much passion behind it, the Medicinal Plant Project at Wild Willow Farm is now in its infancy. It officially broke ground in Spring, 2012. The farmers ordered seeds for just under twenty medicinal herb varieties from both China and India. Some of the herbs they chose to experiment with include Che Qian Zi, Ashwaghanda, and Gou Qi Zi (or “goji berries”), and She Gan.

Pacific College Academic Dean, Bob Damone, MS, LAc, DAOM (Cand.) explains, "She Gan is a very important herb for clearing heat and resolving toxin, especially when the throat is the main affected site. Additionally, it helps resolve wheezing by transforming phlegm."

Ashwaghanda is one of the most popular Ayurvedic herbs now grown in the West. “Ashwaghanda” translates to “smell of a horse”, and this refers both to the scent of the plant as well as an inference to the virility of a horse. This herb can be used for a range of ailments, from stress relief to supporting a healthy male reproductive system.

Che Qian Zi is what we call a “drain damp herb, and it promotes urination,” says Dr. Greg Sperber, BMBS, DAOM, MBA, LAc, and Director of Clinical Services and Clinical Chair at Pacific College San Diego. Che Qian Zi is also known to treat liver and kidney deficiency (dry eyes or cataracts), or heat in the liver channel.

The goji plant, known as Gou Qi Zi, “…can nourish blood and yin and is good for the eyes. It’s most effective if used in a formula or by itself, and it should be used as a tea. Hot water can be added throughout the day. It’s commonly imbibed by the elderly in China,” explains Sperber.

Gou Qi Zi is also commonly used to nourish the liver, kidneys, and lungs. “Another benefit of Gou Qi Zi is that along with the medicinal value, the berries are delicious to eat and make a healthy snack.” Says current Dean of Students/ Assistant Campus Director at the San Diego campus, Jaime Kornsweig, LAc.

And the goji berries may also be the most interesting to see grow, “Our most recent project involved planting two rows of about twenty goji plants that we'll attempt to trellis up the sides of a 100 foot long hoop house. Very fun!” Thomas says.

As far as the process for growing the herbs goes, Thomas says the farmers’ plan was to plant herbs that could be harvested in the first season. “We needed to be sure we could harvest the first round in a fairly quick turn-around, to give us something to play with. I can’t wait to see what we wind up with,” Thomas explains. When he started the Medicinal Plant Project, there were six volunteers: the members of the Permaculture Group. Since the official kickoff in Spring, 2012, there are now 25 people who have come out and volunteered.

Every Saturday, the farm has “Pick Your Own Produce” hours. The timing changes every week depending on the harvest, but is usually during a Saturday afternoon. Volunteer days are on Saturdays from 1pm to 5pm. Additionally, the farm holds a Community Potluck once a month, complete with tours, music, and homemade pizza from their very own wood fire pizza oven on site. 

The classes and workshops on the farm are run by a variety of people, and they’re on the lookout for talented experts who need a venue to teach gardening subjects, farming techniques, and other tips of this nature. Currently there are scheduled workshops for beehive making, mead making, natural building, and oyster mushroom cultivation. You can find out for information about all of these and more on the San Diego Roots website:  www.sandiegoroots.org 

In the coming months, the farm is excited to begin some transplanting, renovating seed propagation, and possibly getting a few more goji plants in the ground. Stop by and watch the progress for yourself! And get access to the freshest, tastiest vegetables home grown in San Diego. If you would like more information about volunteering at the Wild Willow Medicinal Plant Project, feel free to contact Miles Thomas at ">.  

Check out our video interview with Miles Thomas at Wild Willow Farm here!

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