Welcome Sage Mountain Farm!
December 05th, 2017
When Phil Nobel moved from City Heights to a farm in Hemet back in 2004, he never expected he’d actually become a farmer professionally.
“I worked for the property damage department of an insurance company,” Nobel says. “We just wanted to grow our own vegetables to save money and be sure what we were eating.”
Thirteen years later, Sage Mountain Farm is a thriving farm selling organic fruits and vegetables to restaurants, consumers and to WaveCrest Cafe, the Nutrition Services department of the Vista Unified School District.
Nobel wasn’t a complete beginner.
“My dad used to make me sell all the leftover vegetables from our garden — the tomatoes and cucumbers,” he says. “I tell parents, ‘Never underestimate what you do with your kids.’”
Nobel started farming full time in 2010 and has built the farm up to 80 acres, growing an assortment of fruits and vegetables, based on the season and the weather.
“We stick to what sells and what grows here — we’re at 4,000 feet,” he says. “It’s a radical environment. We had our last snow on May 10. Sometimes, we have to wait and wait and then hurry up and plant. But we can grow greens all year long.”
As of late November, Sage Mountain’s offerings include Fuyu persimmons, arugula, fingerling potatoes, Swiss chard and Valencia oranges.
Some foods like potatoes and spinach are always popular with customers. Others have gained in appreciation in recent years.
“Kale. Definitely kale. We can’t grow enough kale,” he says. “And certain heirloom vegetables are popular now.”
Being an organic farm, Sage Mountain doesn’t use synthetic fertilizer or pesticides.
“About 80 percent of the fertilizer comes from the farm,” Nobel says. “I grow vegetables and feed them to pigs who turn it into manure. That manure goes into the ground to grow more vegetables.”
As far as pest control, Nobel uses all sorts of natural methods including his Great Pyrenees dogs who roam the farm.
“They guard the watermelons from coyotes, foxes and bobcats,” he says. “They mostly sleep during the day, but they control the perimeter at night and keep the animals away from the watermelons.”
Thirty percent of the farm’s business is through community supported agriculture (CSA) and another 30 percent comes from sales at farmers markets. About a third of the produce goes to restaurants, and that percentage includes WaveCrest Cafe.
WaveCrest is currently serving the farm’s romaine lettuce in all district salad bars, and hopes to work with the farm to supply strawberries in the spring.
Nobel, who is raising a five-year-old boy and 10-month-old twin boys on the farm, is especially pleased to have his produce feeding school kids and, hopefully, giving them food for thought as well.
“I sent one teacher pictures of the romaine lettuce growing in the ground,” he says. “Kids want to see that, especially when they see my five-year-old pick it out of the ground.”
Nobel’s business depends on raising a generation of healthy eaters. So far, he likes what he is seeing through his involvement with WaveCrest Cafe.
“Vista’s roots are in agriculture,” he says. “I hope my involvement with WaveCrest Cafe gets more local farms to participate.”
Previous generations of school kids turned up their noses at vegetables, but Nobel believes that’s changing.
“Every school is getting salad bar grants, and that’s the easiest way to get kids to try new foods,” he says. “Some kids from another school camped here and they’d dig up the radish, wipe off the dirt and eat it right there.”
Not every child responds to vegetables, something Nobel knows firsthand.
“It breaks my heart to see my son struggle with food,” he says. “We’ve tried to give him vegetables by pureeing butternut squash and putting in pancakes or putting broccoli into the batter for chicken nuggets.”
For other people, he says the simplest preparations are the best.
“You can’t go wrong with olive oil, salt and pepper,” he says.
And for Vista Unified students, Sage Mountain’s fresh, organic romaine lettuce is a perfect base for WaveCrest’s home made low fat buttermilk ranch, Italian and caesar dressings, or an accompaniment for an all-beef burger, a chicken sandwich or other options.