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By Fred Swegles

What if you could grow organic fruits and vegetables at home, in a compact space without even having to mess with soil? And use very little water?

San Clemente residents Greg and Lori Licht have taken the concept from their backyard into a charity endeavor—a nonprofit that supports food banks and encourages local residents to grow their own food.

We interviewed Greg Licht of San Clemente Urban Farms:

What inspired you and Lori?

We originally bought a Tower Garden six years ago and placed it in our backyard. I grew up spending summers on my grandfather’s farm and loved growing things from an early age. When I learned about Tower Garden, I was amazed at how easy and quick it was to grow at home. I haven’t planted anything in the ground since.

How did that morph into San Clemente Urban Farms?

We were growing so much food on our one tower at home that we started giving it away to family and friends. About four years ago, Lori and I and a small group of friends were looking for a community service project. We knew about Family Assistance Ministries and their need for food donations. We realized that we could grow high-quality food quickly and in great quantities. So we added a couple towers and started growing more and donating.

Mel Pasquale, a board member with San Clemente Urban Farms, harvests from the farm’s towers at Bella Collina San Clemente golf club. Photo: Fred Swegles

How do Tower Gardens work?

It’s an aeroponic growing system that runs a small pump to circulate a nutrient solution over the roots on a timer. We don’t use soil, pesticides or fertilizers. Our system uses 90% less water and 90% less space than normal in-ground growing. We grow non-GMO, beyond-organic, nutrient-dense, clean food. We are truly hyper-local. You can’t get fresher produce anywhere.

Who are your beneficiaries?

Our mission statement is “to help feed those in need and educate people about the benefits of growing their own food and living a healthy lifestyle.” We are currently supplying three food banks: FAM, Laguna Food Pantry and Southern California Indian Center. We are feeding people in need the very best.

Where do you grow the produce?

We are blessed to have been given space by Mark Zane, owner of Bella Collina (San Clemente) golf club. We originally pitched the idea to Jay Pesicka, general manager of Bella Collina. Before we could finish all the reasons why this was a good idea for the community, Jay said, “OK, done,” and took it to Mark. We moved in about a month after first talking to Jay.

What are your challenges and opportunities to do good in the coronavirus pandemic?

The food banks are in need now, more than ever. We just donated about 160 heads of lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, etc., and Laguna Food Pantry told us more people are coming in for food than before. We are working every day and not slowing. We are following all federal and state recommendations and directives from Bella Collina.

Who supports you?

We want our local community to get involved and help. You can go to our website and see ways you can support the cause. We have a great group of board members and family that help out on the farm. We also have two employees. Hopefully, we will get volunteers to help.

Who are your board members?

Myself and Lori, Mel Pasquale, Marco Gonzalez and Jeff Jonas. Ally Morris of The Happy Hour Agency is helping. Joe and Tiana Bard of Banzai Bowls are supporters. A disabled veteran-owned company, AVCS from Arizona, donated enough money for us to buy 10 towers.

You offer seedlings and growing systems to the public. How does that support the nonprofit?

Our nonprofit is a Tower Garden distributor, so we make a little money each time we sell one. We are also planning Farm Stand sales. We offer seedlings for sale and plan to have classes and socials at the farm.

Greg and Lori Licht, founders of San Clemente Urban Farms. Photo: Courtesy of Lichts

How can seedlings and systems benefit local residents?

There is no better way to feed your family nutrient-dense clean food than from right off your own tower. We are here to help the community and want people to join our Community Collective, where everyone can contribute to our food donations. We want to build a community of equipped and educated growers who take care of their families and help others.

What does tower growing cost?

The cost of a tower can be financed for zero interest over 12 months, at $51 per month, on our website, but then you are set up to grow for decades. The cost to operate a tower is very low. Our farm uses less electricity in one day than a home oven running for an hour. We have 26 towers. The only other costs would be seeds, growing media like coco coir and nutrients. Seriously, pennies. 

What do you see as the farm’s future?

Food insecurity is real. Food problems like e-coli contamination are real. We believe in “better for all.” It’s not that hard to do. We want to supply more food banks and help people. We will need to grow our farm to do that. We have 26 towers in service. Each tower has 44 growing spaces, so we are producing 1,144 plants that harvest every four to six weeks. Our goal is to get to 52 towers—2,288 plants.

Can you handle that?

We have the space and have made the investment into electrical and plumbing to handle that many towers. Let’s just see what happens.

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