Farm and Garden at Esalen Institute

Perched between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, rests one of the most prolific 4 acres of farmland in Big Sur, if not the entire California Coast.

by John D. Ivanko

The Esalen Institute Farm and Garden in California specializes in growing kale for the facility's kitchen. Photo by John Ivanko (
Photo by John Ivanko
The Esalen Institute Farm and Garden in California specializes in growing kale for the facility’s kitchen.

Perched between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, rests one of the most prolific 4 acres of farmland in Big Sur, if not the entire California Coast. Blessed with temperate weather, the Esalen Institute’s Farm and Garden has emerged as a leader in organic food production, nourishing the mind, spirit and bodies of the Esalen community and more than 13,000 people who pass through the Esalen kitchen every year. It provides a livelihood or an education for those who cultivate its row crops, which includes the super-nutritious, dark, leafy green kale.

“For over 40 years, the Esalen Farm and Garden has provided a holistic example of local food security, growing organic food that sustains, heals, and educates the community,” says Shirley Ward, who manages the program alongside Noel Vietor, Jessie Spain and Christopher La Rose. We enjoyed our chance to visit while traveling down the coast from San Francisco for our Farmstead Chef cookbook tour earlier this year.

Ward’s office looks out over lush flower and herb gardens as well as diverse rows of vegetables, and beyond them, the sparkle of the Pacific Ocean. The Esalen Institute, founded in 1962 as a nonprofit retreat center, serves as a place to explore human potential. As such, the Institute, in addition to managing the farm and garden, hosts workshops and programs as well as an opportunity for guests to enjoy the natural hot springs and beauty of the place.

Locally produced food is a priority for the institute—and a necessity, given its remote location—with most of the greens used by the kitchen to feed about 275 people each day.

“We specialize in gourmet salad mixes, specialty herbs and heirloom root crops, and grow about every variety of kale and lettuce we can find,” says Spain, farm supervisor, standing at the door with a snail she picked up from the garden stuck on her shoulder. “In the past few years our production has averaged around $90,000 in wholesale value to the Esalen kitchen.”

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The crops raised at Esalen may travel less than 400 feet onto the plates of the diners in the convivial lodge, where meals are served and seating is communal. About 10,800 bunches of kale harvested every year by the Esalen Farm and Garden gets transformed into the kitchen’s signature kale salad (recipe to come next week) or served up in numerous other ways. As we often share in our presentations nationally, a lot of kale grown in the U.S. unfortunately ends up lining the salad bar at Pizza Hut, but kale is being discovered by more of us for its nutritional, not decorative, value.

“I see this as a major part of our work as farmers and gardeners,” Ward explains. “Not just to grow the volume of amazing food that feeds the people, but to welcome active or passive participants into and through the space, to witness their food growing, to commune, if even briefly and unconsciously, with the community of plants, flowers, herbs.”

It’s this idea that may strike a familiar cord with many of us today, with our backyard kitchen gardens or crop fields.

Just in case you think Esalen is an agricultural paradise, think again.

“February, March, and April can bring torrential rains and 60 mph wind gusts,” Spain admits. “May through October the days are cool, damp and foggy. Warm, sunny days finally arrive in November and continue through January. Plus there are mudslides, road-closures, fires, yearly waterline breaks in the canyon. It’s a wild, remote place to live and farm.”
While their farm is quite different than our Inn Serendipity, it faces the same realities, as all farms do, with the uncertainties and challenges of nature.

Over the years, visionaries and sustainable-agriculture leaders have graced Esalen with the practicalities of farming without the need for vast amounts of fossil fuels or pesticides. Intensive month-long permaculture workshops have brought into focus the relationships between human settlements and food needs and those ecological systems on which we depend. Some of the results take the form of greenhouses, fruit orchards, beehives, and, of course, compost—black gold for a farm as isolated as it is along the rugged coastline.

“Across the board, we aim to facilitate meaningful, relational experiences that connect people to the land, food, themselves and each other,” says Vietor, educational coordinator for the farm and garden program.

Besides growing food, the farm and garden program is a catalyst for the transformation of people of all ages who volunteer in the gardens to help harvest for part of a day, participate in the Farm and Garden seasonal apprenticeship to hone their skills as farmers, or take the week or weekend-long “Experiencing the Esalen Farm and Garden” workshop.

“The Esalen Farm and Garden is not certified organic, not biodynamic, not permaculture, not bio-intensive, and not no-till,” Spain explains. “In any given year we may dabble in any or all of these practices to some extent. The Farm and Garden is like the Esalen Institute as a whole: WE wear our Dogmas lightly, we go with the flow, we are experimental, and we are constantly evolving our practices.”

Given the unprecedented changes today—in climate, politics and planet—perhaps Esalen’s approach is itself, transformative, serving as a descriptive, not prescriptive, guide for our farmstead and farmstead chef cuisine. After all, eating and growing foods connects us to all life.

Savoring the good life,

John and Lisa's Signatures

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