In 2018, Rich and April Viles were searching for a new adventure. In Vista, CA they discovered six hilly acres with a one-bedroom farmhouse built in 1926. Realizing that they had found a place to pursue their dream, they rolled up their sleeves and began work on what would soon become Sand n’ Straw Community Farm.
After a decades-long career as an AT&T utility pole repairman, Rich Viles suffered a back injury that forced him into retirement. During his recovery, Viles unveiled an untapped passion for farming. He enrolled in a regenerative farming course taught at Wild Willow Farm in the Tijuana River Valley. Both he and April learned from permaculture design courses which ignited their desire to put that education into practice on their newfound property in Vista. They quickly began renovations on the farmhouse and converted a shed into a working office for April’s accounting career.
Rich and his two sons, Jonathan and Stephen, began by revitalizing the 50 fruit trees that were terraced downhill behind the farmhouse and interplanted 100 more fruit trees and a dozen grapevines into the loamy, sandy, and clay soil. He encircled the bases of the fruit trees with garlic to naturally ward away borer insects from damaging the infant trees, one of the many regenerative practices implemented on the farm. Over the past three and a half years of giving the farm a facelift, Rich has planted over 300 fruit and nut trees from 136 various species, further amplifying the biodiversity of the land.
Down the hill from the farmhouse, Rich planted six different cultivars of table grapes and three different species of raspberries. He focused on planting perennial crops to intentionally confuse pests, a practice that is known as integrated pest management to help avoid the use of pesticides on the farm. Rich’s innovation and natural curiosity for sustainable farming took root as he diversified the plant species on the property.
Rich studied the multiple microclimates that exist on the farm and researched which plants would perform best in each growing zone. His crown jewel has been dubbed “Rich’s Hill”, a steep slope of tiered fruit tree rows. Trees are planted based on their tolerance of frost, cherry trees that have a higher tolerance of frost are planted at the base of the hill while the frost-sensitive avocado and mango trees are found at the top of the hill with the most access to sunlight.
April and her daughter-in-law, Jenna, spearhead the educational programs on the farm. Young Pioneers was created to foster outdoor education for preschool to high school-aged children. Today, they welcome over 100 students each week who learn from fifteen teachers on topics such as kitchen and math, gardening and farm animal care, nature and exploration, finding and creating art in nature, and uncovering lessons from the indigenous Kumeyaay tribes that once called the area home. When school is out of session, Sand n’ Straw offers Summer Camps for children ages five to nine and weekly storytime for the youngest of explorers.
Lessons are often created by Mother Nature herself, at the foot of the hill runs a seasonal creek. “We teach about Native American Indians because this used to be a creek that ran all the way down to the ocean year-round before they put in the 78 [highway]. So we teach about how the Native Americans, specifically the Kumeyaay tribe, would have come through here”, April shares during a farm tour.
Sand n’ Straw farm encourages children to explore their outdoor classroom with hidden forts, farm animals, interactive gardens, an earthbag house, and even a bug hotel made by the Young Pioneers. In the midst of the pandemic, children found solace in partaking in activities on the farm, a welcomed break from hours of Zoom instruction. The Young Pioneers glean knowledge from Rich’s bountiful vegetable gardens where he plants upwards of 80 different crops throughout the year to bolster the farm’s CSA (community supported agriculture) program and its farm stand offerings. Farm animals such as ducks, Juliana pigs, goats, and chickens share the land and give joy to their visitors.
Adjacent to the farm entrance off Mar Vista Drive, visitors can stop by the Sand n’ Straw farm stand to purchase seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, pickled, preserved, and canned foods made from peak season produce, and curated local products such as honey, natural detergents, and fragrances. Visitors can also interact with the farm through their weekly CSA program and onsite farm-to-fork dinners. April commented about the efforts required to start the farm, “There’s really a lot that we’ve done. We haven’t slept. We work all day long and then research all night long and then start again in the day”. Today, April and Rich are able to spend more time enjoying the oasis they created.
April is a woman that embodies her name, she’s thoughtful and as vibrant as the month that bears her name. She radiates a true love of family and this beautiful homestead that her family has created over the past three and a half years. Her spirit brightens when she discusses the growth of the Young Pioneers educational program.
Rich is uniquely hard-working. He has a bounty of ideas that burst forth from the soil. His energy is palpable when speaking about what he has introduced to the property and his passion is palatable in the myriad of organic fruits and vegetables found on the farm.
As a duo, their work is inspirational and their impact extends far beyond those that they host at the farm. Their efforts will influence generations to come, as children who were inspired by their visits may find comfort in nature, planting food, and feeding others.
At the conclusion of the farm tour, Rich takes a moment of pause before he says, “I really think something like this should be in every community. That was my hope, to inspire people to do this in their community.”
Sand n’ Straw Community Farm is located at 629 Mar Vista Drive in Vista, CA. Their farm stand is open Tuesday and Fridays from 1–5pm and they welcome visitors to schedule a farm tour or enroll in their CSA. More information can be found at sandnstraw.com and on Instagram @sandnstraw.