The Ecology Center, a 28-acre regenerative agricultural farm in Orange County, California, replenishes the Earth and the local community through sustainable growth that cultivates a collective ecological and cultural consciousness. Since 2008, the center has engaged over 150,000 individuals of all ages to reconstruct the relationship between food and agriculture. As a part of that mission, its newest series, HEARTH, invites guests into an immersive experience that features thoughtful conversation, interactive activities, cultural celebration, farm excursions and culinary courses derived from traditional live-fire community cooking.
In July 2021, The Ecology Center welcomed its first chef resident, Tim Byres, for a four-month exploration into new and unique ways of preparing food in the Californian native bioregion. Coming from Dallas, Texas, Chef Byres is equipped with specialized expertise in live-fire cooking over an open hearth, the oldest and most traditional form of cooking.
The HEARTH program serves as an avenue to increase educational outreach and create meaningful connections within the community through a celebratory gathering that catalyzes spiritual and behavioral transformation. Evan Marks, founder and executive director of The Ecology Center, hopes to “re-create a creative space for critical thinking and problem-solving such that we can all live on this planet in a beautiful way, for the generations ahead of us,” he says. “It’s about giving more than we take, it’s really about celebrating all the beautiful resources and culture, past, present, and future.”
HEARTH’s twice-weekly communal dinners present an opportunity for interactive engagement unlike any other. The evening is attentively designed to be a four-hour experience that emphasizes the symbolic elements that constitute HEARTH: Art, Earth and Heart. Four stations are available for guests to reflect and facilitate conversations around each element, beginning with art.
The first site features a traditional indigenous weaver, accompanied by ceramic and textile artists who exhibit an artistic appreciation for the culture of HEARTH. Following this, the second station takes guests on an excursion across the farmland to explore the Earth’s connection to HEARTH through sustainable stewardship, while the third site aims to connect with attendees by sharing gratitude for the past, present and future with a ceremony led by indigenous elders of the land. Lastly, the fourth station demonstrates the hearth, where guests gather for a 15-course meal that combines exquisite ingredient palettes with an ecological framework.
Although HEARTH creates new opportunities for connection and collaboration, The Ecology Center has been no stranger to communal outreach initiatives in the past. With a preliminary mission to educate, empower and engage, the farm sets an example for the next generation of leaders by serving as a living system, classroom and laboratory.
“The culture shift is really where we start to build the consciousness around our consumption,” Marks says. “But it’s not just food, it’s really in all of our consumption patterns, it’s really about how we think in all of our actions.”
Affirming individualized power within a collective consciousness, Marks continues, “I think it’s just, how do we open up the concept that we’re all conduits for change, each one of us? And if we don’t think that way, then nothing’s going to happen.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, The Ecology Center launched the Nourishing Neighbors Initiative, which gives 20% of what is grown on their farmland to local food-insecure community members, with the objective to feed 750 families per week. Additionally, public donations and ticket sales for the HEARTH dinner series support the initiative to give back.
“We donated about 75,000 pounds of organic produce last year; and this year alone, we changed the model to be a little bit deeper rather than wider distribution, and so we’ve nourished a hundred families a week with these very comprehensive boxes of provisions and produce from tortillas and dairy to grains and vegetables and fruit, so it’s been really rewarding for us,” Marks says.
In a little over a decade, The Ecology Center has developed from a single-acre plot into a 28-acre farm that cultivates purposeful relationships between the community and ecological stewardship.
“Our directive is to model an ecological framework, do that sustainably, financially in a business model that can self perpetuate itself, but also to build equity along the way,” says Marks.