On ground where a revivalist tent once stood, Orange County’s agricultural heritage is being resurrected in the form of an emerging community farm that grows over 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables from chocolate cherry heirloom tomatoes and chard to kale and strawberries.
The farm, situated on the property of the Heritage Museum of Orange County, goes by the name, Gospel Swamp Farm. The name pays homage to not only the land’s tent revivalist roots, but also to the fact that it is situated amidst a rare remnant Orange County swamp land that is aptly called Gospel Swamp.
Today, most of Orange County is developed and many residents don’t even have a sense of the region’s agricultural history, much less what the land looked like prior to the planting of thousands of citrus trees.
Wanting to teach Heritage Museum visitors about Orange County’s agricultural history, former director of agricultural programs Patrick Mitchell worked to make the farm a centerpiece of the museum’s offerings. Mitchell has moved on, and director of volunteer programs Jose Mendoza now manages the operation.
One of Gospel Swamp Farm’s main purposes, according to Mendoza, is education. Learning opportunities for students of all ages focus on sustainable agriculture, ecology, habitat restoration, and more. He says the farm’s urban setting and the fact that it’s located at a museum boosts its educational offerings to many visitors. A key objective is reestablishing a connection between people and what they eat.
“We want people to understand where their food comes from,” says Mendoza.
The farm values education for people of all ages, including children.
“There’s a children’s garden onsite—we want to grow things that kids can see, touch, smell, feel and taste,” Mendoza says.
Students from Santa Ana College and Irvine Valley College also help with and learn about composting. College students, high school students and an array of other volunteers gain knowledge of and utilize organic farming techniques as they produce more than 40 kinds of fruits, vegetables and herbs. After harvest, produce is sold at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market.
The types of fruits and vegetables grown at Gospel Swamp Farm vary each year. Last year the farm produced several types of cherry tomatoes, including the Chocolate Cherry heirloom varietal. This year, crops comprise strawberries, carrots, corn, potatoes, kale, and various herbs. All produce is grown as organically as possible.
“We have an organic philosophy but we’re not certified-organic,” Mendoza says.
Gospel Swamp Farm depends on the help it gets from volunteers, who supply seeds and take over certain projects. And among the advantages of volunteering at Gospel Swamp Farm is the privilege of eating fruits and vegetables grown there.
“Volunteers benefit from the perk of taking stuff home,” says Mendoza. “This is encouraged.”
While Mendoza does not feel that Gospel Swamp Farm directly impacts the local food system in Orange County, he sees the possibility for wider influence in the future.
“We see potential for a role in the local food system with groups we are affiliated with. The key could be serving as a hub for community gardens in Santa Ana and Orange County,” he says. “We’re doing our own things at the moment—we’re doing our best to make it a place for people to visit.”
Looking ahead, Mendoza would like the farm to showcase fruits and vegetables that are representative of Orange County’s many cultures.
“I had the idea of separate raised beds for different regions in Mexico and the world to reflect Orange County’s diversity,” Mendoza says. “That way people could grow what they would grow in their home countries.”
Mendoza would also like to expand the farm’s educational outreach.
Gospel Swamp Farm is supported by people who donate money and equipment, and the money it makes from selling at the Downtown Santa Ana Farmers’ Market is spent on farm-related expenses.