When Stone Brewing decided to take over the lease for the Escondido farm formerly operated as La Milpa Organica in March of 2011, its officers were open about the fact they had zero idea of how to run such a property. All they knew was that they wanted to preserve a local resource for wholesome, organic produce. While surprising, the acquisition fit perfectly with the company’s vocal devotion to the Slow Food movement and its Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens eatery’s commitment to sustainable food production. So, they took on the 19-acre agricultural project—only five acres of which are tillable—dubbed it Stone Farms and did everything in their power to make it a success.
Stone Farms’ fruits, vegetables, herbs and other edibles accounted for 26% of the product utilized at Stone’s various San Diego County restaurants (Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Escondido and San Diego International Airport, plus the East Village’s Stone Brewing Tap Room). The fields’ yields could be customized based on seasonality and the needs of those venues. Still, turning a profit proved impossible for the operation. Thus, after half-a-decade in the red, Stone has made the painful but necessary decision to close the farm permanently come March.
Having been one of the Stone employees who worked hard to market the venue, I can personally attest to the effort that went into turning Stone Farms into a viable profit center. Many were the dedicated individuals who went outside the box to offer amenities and programs that would appeal to locals and make a destination out of Stone’s small but rather cool patch of fruitful soil. Over the years, live music performances, movie nights, farm tours, a CSA program, various workshops and other public events as well as private events, large and small, helped keep the place going.
To be fair, it worked surprisingly well—about as well as anything could when located on the furthest northern outskirts of San Diego County with no other big draws around it to piggy-back off of. Despite being only several hundred yards from Interstate 15, it was completely hidden from view and getting to the farm meant taking a marked, but decrepit road barely wide enough to accommodate traffic headed in opposing directions. But once there, it really was impressive. Not only did it have its very own tasting room stocked with interesting Stone beers (the newest brews plus vintage ales and rarities), but over the years Stone installed a music stage with plentiful seating, pizza-oven, waterfall, enhanced lighting, horseshoe pits, a patio amongst over-arching passion fruit vines, a bocce ball area and increased parking. Visitors were allowed to stroll about at-will to discover what was being grown and check out various livestock from quails, chickens to peacocks, goats and more.
When compiling independent scores from local beer enthusiasts and brewing industry professionals for the 2014 and 2015 editions of my Complete Guide to San Diego Breweries, I was never surprised to see Stone Farms rank as high as it did. In last year’s edition, Stone Farms came in as the fourth-best out of more than 130 brewery-owned venues in the county to have a beer on the back of being ranked as number-one for best service and number-two for best setting (behind Karl Strauss Brewing Company’s Sorrento Mesa Brewery Gardens restaurant). It was a unique and glorious place that I will personally miss—and there’s nothing like it to take its place. But business is business, and unfortunately, not enough business got done during Stone Farms’ five-year run.
That said, roughly 100,000 fans visited Stone Farms since it opened to the public in June of 2013. That’s impressive, but it simply wasn’t enough. Throw in the fact the farm closed during the winter and it simply wasn’t sustainable for a company like Stone to continue running it. Truth be told, many small farms are struggling these days. Says Stone director of hospitality Steve Robbins, rising labor and water prices made for an uphill battle, especially as larger farms that are able to charge less money based on sales volume crowd the market. Producing as little as it did on an annual basis off just five acres of farmland made it impossible to be as competitive as was necessary.
Stone is currently working with the land owner to find a suitable tenant to take over the lease and maintain the property. Back at its restaurants, Stone will continue to source produce from smaller, local, organic farmers—perhaps even the purveyor that rises from the ashes of the heartfelt and hard-fought but ultimately unviable passion-project that was Stone Farms.