Rancho Santa Fe’s SMARTS Farm combines nature, education

Students chop up locally-grown veggies at the SMARTS Farm at the Orchard.
Students chop up locally-grown veggies at the SMARTS Farm at the Orchard.
(Karen Billing)

For a little over a year, the SMARTS Farm at The Orchard has been cultivating a love for nature and sprouting community connections in a somewhat secret garden at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe’s property.

Hidden down a little driveway off Stephen Royce Lane, the SMARTS Farm offers camps, classes and events, teaching the art of farming, promoting a healthy lifestyle and growing an appreciation for food and where it comes from.

“Both kids and adults benefit from what we’re doing here,” said farm founder Susan Madden Lankford. “And we’re also building community.”

Rancho Santa Fe’s Madden Lankford and daughter Polly Lankford Smith founded Humane SMARTS in 2012 as a way to “open hearts and enrich minds,” providing opportunities for creativity and self-sufficiency through activities around arts, nature and gardening. A photojournalist, author and filmmaker Madden Lankford had spent years raising awareness and highlighting problems such as homelessness, incarcerated women and juvenile hall—Humane SMARTS was a way to focus on creating solutions.

From 2013 through early 2019, they ran a flourishing garden downtown, “an urban oasis” that was first on the corner of 15th and F Streets in East Village before moving to a location on 13th and Broadway.

The urban farm, with a yellow brick road winding through it, served over 9,000 youngsters including students from downtown public charter school’s e3 Civic High’s agriculture and biology classes. The farm was also home to 170 community gardeners, who were given the opportunity to come down from their high-rises and grow something right in the middle of the city.

A group of visitors in the farm.

In 2018, plans were announced for an affordable housing project on the site and the farm would have to be uprooted.

“We had a blast and it was sad to leave downtown,” said Madden Lankford of how the downtown farm brought people of all ages together. “It was a total community- builder.”

Last year, Humane SMARTS approached The Inn about activating the space at the back of the property, a plot of land near the cottages that held a mostly abandoned citrus grove and some overgrown iceplant.

Lankford said she “just about fell over” from the generosity and support they received from The Inn’s General Manager Jerome Strack and Director of Operations Michelle Yanagi, who gave them the green light to go green.

The Inn provided the farm’s barn—the shed used for ice-skating rinks in the past which was given a paint job and a new roof. Humane SMARTS took on the rest of the work, building the raised beds in between the citrus trees and giving the garden life and character, such as its “funky” gourd arch, with its almost impossibly huge green gourds that grew this fall. Nearly every corner of the farm features some kind of child-created artwork with plant markers and even a marker for garden guests like Lucy the spider. Over the herbs, a sign reads: ‘At SMARTS Farm we are helpful, observant, kind and collaborative.”

“The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe has been a country retreat and center of the local community since 1923, so a collaboration with a non-profit that teaches children about nature and farming was an easy fit” said Strack. “SMARTS Farm does such meaningful work and we’re glad to contribute our orange orchard to the cause.”

The farm has built up their offerings for kids over the last year, hosting their first summer camp this year where kids designed their own garden beds, made zoodles (faux noodles made of spiraled zucchini), harvested cucumbers and made pickles.

In their six-to-eight-week classes, children have done everything from learn about monarch butterfly life cycles to making their own gelato. Science, math and art is sprinkled into most of their lessons and crafts.

Children are able to participate in all kinds of culinary experiences from their harvests with the farm’s kitchen and a pizza oven. After school on Nov. 7, kids were working with teacher Ms. Tiffany chopping and sautéing vegetables that were harvested at the orchard and at Jared’s Real Food Farms in Lakeside. The kids had even harvested and dried the garlic in preparation.

Animal appreciation is also huge as the farm sometimes has visits from goats, donkeys, a pony, chicken and Madden Lankford’s three sheep. She has purchased a spinning wheel and hopes to teach the kids about sheering wool, dying it with flowers grown in the garden and using the wheel to make their own clothing items.

The SMARTS Farm at the Orchard.
(Karen Billing)

As is Humane SMARTS’ hope, the children’s hands-on gardening experience has also awakened interest in their parents, inspiring some to try out raised beds in their own backyards or add a small herb garden in their kitchens.

From Dec. 2-5, the farm will host after-school fun and festive holiday activities from 3:15-4:30 p.m. Activities will include baking and decorating cookies, ornament making, homemade wrapping paper with veggie prints, making gingerbread houses and peppermint organic chapstick, designing holiday cards and decorating the farm’s holiday tree.

At their Toddler Time in the Farm morning class on Friday, Dec. 13, kids can explore learning how to grow flowers and plant veggies, getting their hands dirty by digging in the soil and planting seeds.

With the adult programs, Lankford Smith said they are building on their belief that “food is community.”

Lankford Smith said the adults loved their recent “Getting Funky with your Ferment” class with farmer, cheesemaker and fermenting expert Jack Ford—under the stars and garden lights, guests created their own kimchi and sauerkraut together.

The Inn has also collaborated with the farm on several feast events—an outdoor dining and education series held in the farm with 15 percent of proceeds benefiting the farm.

“The feasts have been unbelievable,” Lankford Smith said.

On Sunday, Nov. 17, The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe will host a Feast in the Field class and brunch with The Inn’s Chef Christopher Haas where guests will enjoy dishes with local and seasonal produce.

At a Taming the Feast event on Nov. 21, Chef Travis Swikard will demonstrate his art of preparing a whole turkey to cooking creative, healthy, and fun vegetable-forward sides, salads and dessert using the “bounty of the county.”

The Inn's Chef Haas at a past Feast in the Field event.

As a Rancho Santa Fe resident for 35 years, Madden Lankford said her wish has come true to have this farm in her own community. She said it is so rewarding to see the children exploring and learning at the farm—many of the older children who have gone through camps and classes have returned just wanting to help out in the garden.

“I love the kids’ enthusiasm. Here, they burst with happiness and it’s contagious,” Madden Lankford said.

“Like yesterday, eight little girls came into the garden and it turns from quiet to overwhelming amounts of joy,” agreed Lankford Smith.

“The real seed is planted when they want to return,” reflects Madden Lankford. “Something meaningful has happened with that child. And that’s lovely.”

To register for upcoming events, visit