The Battle of the Sunflower Maze

Sunflowers at Suzie's Farm
  • Sunflowers at Suzie's Farm

It was an organic farm in the Tijuana River Valley pitted against the United States Navy. They weren’t fighting over pesticides or aircraft noise pollution. Instead, what got Congressman Bob Filner involved was a fight over a high-end gourmet dinner set inside a sunflower maze.

Suzie’s Farm hosted another autumnal equinox dinner this year to celebrate the apex of the harvest season. Months before, farmers planted and trimmed a large sunflower maze replete with six decorated rooms. The owners, Robin Taylor and Lucila De Alejandro, also sought out the best chefs in Southern California and Tijuana to serve just about any group of organic produce enthusiasts who would come off the San Diego streets, like me, and were willing to pay $150.00 per ticket. (Ouch, yes, but much of the proceeds were donated to numerous good causes.)

The farm is named after a dog, Suzie, a Norwegian Elkhound who was abandoned here. The farm itself was a vionary project started by Robin and Lucila who have operated Sun Grown Organic Distributors for 25 years, a sprout and wheatgrass farm that services restaurants and grocery stores throughout San Diego county. The plot of land called Suzie’s Farm is located near the U.S.-Mexican border and since July 2009, Suzie’s has leased the land from the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy’s deed of ownership forbids urban sprawl as well as regular farming. Their regulations maintain that only organic farming is allowed. So aaah, when Robin and Lucila leased the land, it looked like a marriage made in heaven.

Since then Suzie’s Farm has delivered their organic produce to farmers markets throughout the county as well as in boxes to individuals. They have also teamed up with my children’s elementary school where boxes are sent weekly so that our PTA can receive some of the profits for our own school programs.

If you weren’t convinced that all this organic farming was a good thing, Suzie’s offered tours twice a month on Saturdays to the public. There, my children and I learned how they grow over one hundred varieties of fruits and vegetables all year long thanks to the mild coastal weather, how most of their produce is heirloom and how they use dripline irrigation to save water. Farmers weed and harvest produce by hand six days a week. They also use only natural pesticides, including a professional ‘hawk lady’ who brings her trained birds to the fields to eat the mice. I was especially thankful to Suzie’s and the U.S. Navy for letting me pick fresh chard and many other vegetables during these tours.

But the relationship between Suzie’s Farm and the U.S. Navy has taken a rocky turn. The Navy told Suzie’s that they had to stop giving their tours to the public. Then, ten days before the autumnal equinox dinner—an event publicized and planned for eight months in advance—the Navy sent Suzie’s a letter saying the harvest festival had to be cancelled. The reason remained obscure. Nothing in the lease said anything about gatherings on the property, let alone forbidding gourmet dinners.

Robin and Lucila called Congressman Bob Filner and at the eleventh hour a compromise was struck: appetizers could be served at the sunflower maze, but no alcohol was allowed. Because alcohol pairings were important for this dinner (particularly since San Diego is considered the beer capital of the country and beer makers were invited to present their beverages), Suzie’s had to hold the rest of their dinner one mile away at their Sun Grown property.

It was a night to remember… perhaps because it posed such an obvious national security threat. Two long tables were filled with good cheer and sealed envelopes that had sunflower seeds inside. Chef Joe Magnanelli from Cucina Urbana grilled gem lettuce—yes, grilled—and then added a soft boiled hen egg for the first course. Ballast Point Brewing provided a dangerously renegade beer that had a basil infused flavor. The second course included handmade Japanese—yes, I said Japanese—eggplant noodles by Chef Max Bonacci. Then, Chef Javier Plascencia from Mision 19 across the border in Tijuana (who also has been written up by NPR, The New Yorker and The New York Times) served roasted goat while Lucila introduced the man who had raised and slaughtered the goat for the meal. The slaughterer, thankfully, had a meat CSA.

Lucila may have lifted her voice just a little, perhaps even defensively, knowing that there were some vegans at the table, when she said the cycle of life and death on a farm meant we have the privilege of seeing this Nubian goat (with some boar ancestry) born and raised right here in San Diego. Lucila explained that the goat gave its life for us and so we respect it by eating everything on our plate.

All this feasting carried on for several hours under soft lighting and out in the open. Chef Karen Krasne of Extraordinary Desserts finished the meal with a chocolate croissant bread pudding that paired with a smoky porter beer from Stone Brewing Company. Lucila greeted guests individually and made sure to give thanks to the farmers who had tilled the soil for another successful season, bringing fresh and safe food to the tables of many of us throughout the year.

For this, the United States Navy took the time to send a decree forbidding the event. Suzie’s tours to the public remain closed as well.

Interestingly enough, I’m a former navy wife of fiteen years who initially was so proud that the U.S. Navy and an organic farming community could team up so effectively. Now, I must ask: why would the U.S. Navy take the time to engage in a local conflict with a tenant who serves their community so well?

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