Sitting on just under two acres of land within the Orange County Great Park, the Farm + Food Lab is a non-profit farm which is operated by city of Irvine and the Solutions for Urban Agriculture. The Farm + Food Lab is a zero-waste, carbon-free micro-farm, pioneering innovative urban farming practices in Orange County.

In addition to growing crops for the Second Harvest Food Bank, the Farm + Food Lab provides hands-on micro-farming education for the public and uses a concept known as regenerative organic farming to produce all different types of agriculture.

The Farm + Food Lab complex is divided into two sides, the Alegria Farms component, which maintains a half-acre of space next to the full-acre Farm + Food Lab component.

Erik Cutter, a board member for Solutions for Urban Agriculture, and the Managing Director of Alegria Fresh [Alegria Farms] said he joined the Farm + Food Lab in 2019 specifically to help develop new techniques for urban agriculture.

For Cutter, the most important aspect of the Farm + Food Lab is the ability to produce the freshest food possible, something that he referred to as, “ultra-fresh food.”

Cutter spends his days watering, harvesting and helping maintain the grounds upon which dozens of high-quality fruits and vegetables are grown all year round.

Cutter’s work in the urban agriculture space has led to the creation of an innovative grow box, known as the SoxxBoxx, which has been incorporated as the primary growing technique at the Irvine-based Farm+ Food Lab. At its core, the SoxxBoxx is a rectangular-shaped cloth-like pot, which is filled with soil and incorporates hydroponic growing techniques. Specifically, Cutter’s design allows for more oxygen to flow through the soil, allowing roots to process nutrients faster.

But for Cutter, growing location is key.

“I can grow the finest, highest-quality food over cement – which is the only way we’re going to grow food in the cities,” Cutter explained. “People are starting to understand how important it is to eat fresh food.”

During an on-site interview with Irvine Weekly, Cutter gave an informal taste-test tour of rare varieties of vegetables found within his garden at the Farm + Food Lab.

From tasty herbs like purple Reuben and Cardinal basil, to purple mustard and Romaine lettuce, Cutter estimated that there are nearly 80,000 different plants being cared for daily.

“Everything here is regenerative organic, which means it’s above organic. Regenerative is basically soil-first,” Cutter explained. “Soil first is mimicking nature – we’ve forgotten about how important soil is to us.”

With this concept, Cutter added there are three core principles within regenerative organic agriculture.

“The idea was to bring back the concept of regenerative organic – which there is none of that going on in this county – one is soil first. Everything is about the soil,” he said while watering beds of leafy greens on a warm morning in May. “We feed soil, we don’t feed plants. Also, it’s about farmers’ rights, equitable food justice for farmers and animal welfare. [Those] are the three main tenets of regenerative organic agriculture.”

With these techniques and a unique climate in Irvine, Cutter says the Farm + Food Lab is able to produce both domestic and exotic varieties of fruits and vegetables all year long, without any issues.

“This is probably one of the most important one-and-a-half acres you can imagine, especially around all this development,” Cutter said. “This little farm represents zero-waste, regenerative organic, carbon negative, because we’re pulling down so much carbon in here, and putting it into the soil.”

While the primary focus of the Farm + Food Lab is producing agriculture for the Second Harvest Food Bank in Irvine, Cutter explained that the produce grown there cannot be sold to the public.

Photo by Evan J. Lancaster

However, he hopes to soon pioneer a new farmers market concept where shoppers would point and pick their own fruits and vegetables, directly from the ground or vine.

Nathan Gipple, Senior Director of Solutions for Urban Agriculture, is part of Cutter’s eight-man team that is working to ensure the Farm + Food Lab continues to thrive.

Despite the success, Cutter admits his biggest fear is losing the Farm + Food Lab to construction. Cutter added that the city of Irvine has introduced plans that would place a USA Water Polo Facility on the land that the Farm + Food Lab currently occupies.

Irvine City Manager Marianna Marysheva did not deny the existence of such plans, adding that the city is not aware of any updates regarding the timeline of the project.

Yet, regardless of any official plans, Gipple said that is just the reality of the situation in Irvine – and beyond.

“It’s just the reality of farming in Orange County. That’s been the case since land becomes more valuable than houses and farmland,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to do for-profit farming. Most of the farms that are still around are non-profit or Agro-tourism, and that’s just the nature of the industry.”

Gipple said he is striving to make sure the community can have a place to learn, volunteer and understand why these aspects are so important to community health.

“It’s full circle learning, it’s not just seed to mature plant to harvest, back to seed,” he said. “We are optimistic that places like this can serve as a regeneration of farming at a smaller scale, food gardening for everyone in the community.”

Photo by Evan J. Lancaster