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The benefits of micro-farming and growing locally



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Jessica Zichichi and her son, Joseph, stand with their electric car. Photos by Lisa Rose
October 15, 2013
On a warm September day, Jessica Zichichi rode her bike to the top of Palomar Mountain for her 39th birthday, a gift to herself, and a line crossed off her list of achievements for that day.

The word "achieve" is so embedded in her nature. She takes on each day with intention, list in hand.

The former vice president of a geospatial mapping company has been calling Valley Center home for nearly four years, and recently traded in her career for time with her two children, Sophie, 5, and Joseph, 3. She and her husband, Sal, have turned their two-acre property into a self-sustaining micro-farm with an extensive raised-bed vegetable garden, chickens and turkeys, along with their solar-powered home and electric car.

"Now I just need a goat or a Dexter cow to make my own dairy products," she said.

Every decision Zichichi makes is underscored by the question of sustainability and an attempt to reduce her carbon footprint.

"Sustainability is very important to me. Easy and cheap is usually not the best for the planet or for us. I'm always trying to be self-sufficient," she said. "If I could produce everything I consume, I would. But my goal is 50 percent production.

"I try not to buy too much stuff and I try to reuse everything," she added. "We're removed from seeing what goes into landfills but it's there and in the end, if I can reduce that, even if it's costing me more money and more of my energy, I feel like it's the better long-term choice. We use cloth napkins, cloth grocery bags and I even rinse and reuse most of my Ziploc bags," she said with a laugh.

Growing up in Vista, Zichichi felt drawn to experience other parts of the country. Upon receiving two bachelor's degrees from UC Santa Barbara in environmental studies and geography, she completed an internship at Yellowstone National Park. A job in Massachusetts took her to Cape Cod for 10 years where she worked for the US Geological Survey, completed her master's in computer science and met her Connecticut-born husband.

Her career path took a detour to Charleston, South Carolina for three years. It was there that Zichichi got to know her country neighbors who educated her in much of what she now knows about growing her own food. They grew an expansive garden, and she learned to catch shrimp and crab.

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The garden patch where Jessica grows seasonal crops.
Coming home to California and moving to Valley Center was serendipitous. She and her sister, Judy Manjur, bought homes within a few miles of each other. The timing was perfect to establish new roots and raise her family.

Today, her garden overflows with seasonal crops: tomatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers, beans, potatoes, greens, lettuce, squashes, melons, cabbage, beets and herbs. Her tomato harvest creates enough sauce to fill their freezer for a year. The two sisters swap vegetables and fruits.

Using their vegetables to create healthy meals is a priority. "I try to make something from the garden from scratch every day," she said. "I involve my kids as much as possible and we make our own pasta, soups and stews. They love it."

Spending time outdoors makes for better behaved kids, according to Zichichi. "I see a huge difference in their behavior when they're outside marveling over a ladybug or running around. It frees their mind," she said.

Zichichi's new roots extend to the community. She volunteers in her daughter's kindergarten class, and is a member of the Valley Center Democratic Club. She serves as the technology coordinator for the Valley Center Trails Committee, offering her GIS mapping skills. "It's something that is easy for me to do and it's my contribution to the committee," she said.

She also attends public events held by the Dos Valles Garden Club. "I get a lot of my seeds from their annual seed swap," she said. "I like to buy as much as I can locally and support the most wholesome effort. I try not to think of everything from purely the saving money lens because quite frankly, it's not really cheaper to grow a vegetable garden. But I like it better and it's rewarding."

An accomplished runner with many first place titles and marathon-finisher medals to her name, Zichichi still works in a five-mile run on most days. "There are days when it's cold or I'm tired and I start to make excuses. That's when I say to myself, just do it. Sort of like Nike. I apply that to almost everything in my life. Stop complaining and make it happen."

Do you know someone in town who is doing something interesting? Tell us about it. This will be an ongoing feature, highlighting people who live in our community. Send us an email at editor@valleycenter.com.

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    October 16, 2013 | 11:01 AM

    I really like this idea -- of highlighting the interesting, innovative and amazing folks who live right here in our community! Boy, I wish I were more like Jessica Zichichi.

    Laura Gordon
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