Seven volunteers work damp farm ground just south of three bustling soccer fields at Rancho Capistrano on a cloudy Saturday morning.
One man sprays the plants with organic pesticides, others tie vines to keep the produce from touching the ground, and still others harvest tomatoes and zucchini.
While growing up, Gene Archibek III hated farming.
But decades later, the 40-year-old Lake Forest resident heads the Saddleback Organic Farm, a Saddleback Church ministry in San Juan Capistrano that has grown thousands of pounds of food for the poor since its creation in December.
His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were farmers, and he grew up working on their Southern California farms.
"I hated farming. I left when I was a kid for school. Couldn’t stand it," he said. But God "put it in my heart, and I said, 'All right, I’m going to try this.' So I wrote the grant, and when 800 seeds came … I said, 'All right, Lord.' I got the hint."
According to Archibek, who also volunteers as an usher at Saddleback Church, anywhere from five to 50 people show up every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon to help out.
The volunteers have to defend the crops against pests. In the past months, deer, crows and rabbits have all visited to feast on the organic smorgasbord.
Taking a break from work, Caleb Gonzalez, 6, examined another, smaller pest—a caterpillar that someone found eating the crops. After watching the caterpillar munching on a leaf—with the insect now safely separated from the crops—Caleb said he likes working on the farm.
His favorite vegetable to harvest? Carrots.
“Because," he said, while the caterpillar still ate nearby, "you can just pull them out of the ground. “
Matthew Gonzalez, Caleb’s father, said he also enjoys the work.
Gonzalez, an IT manager for a structural engineering firm, originally started volunteering about six months ago to learn more about organic gardening, but over time, he said, it became more than just an educational experience.
“I love it. It’s very, very cool. I love … that this is all going to help other people,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said that even though it was his birthday—he turned 38 Sept 10—he still showed up.
“I have a lot of trouble getting up for work, [but] I get up and come here every Saturday, no problem,” Gonzales said.
Archibek, who has attended Saddleback Church for about four years, said he got the idea for the farm while doing volunteer work on the Rancho Capistrano grounds around May or April 2010.
He saw an old run-down tractor on the property and, he said, he felt God "put into his heart" a project in which people spend time together, learn about farming and provide food for the less fortunate.
So he applied to a federal grant program that provides seeds to nonprofits.
When he received about 800 packages of different types of seeds, Archibek said, he felt that God was blessing the ministry, and Archibek kept going with it.
Since breaking ground around December 2010, the farm has brought in 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of food for the pantry, according to Archibek.
On Sept. 5, the group brought in 560 pounds of tomatoes.
And, Archibek said, that’s not the only way God has provided for the ministry.
According to Archibek, people have called up out of the blue and offered the ministry things for free, or for a bargain price, things such as irrigation systems, tools and stakes.
Archibek hopes to eventually expand the farm. That same Saturday morning he was cutting up the weeds on a plot of land he hopes to use. He did so while driving the same broken tractor—now fixed—that inspired him to start the project.
As for his former hatred of farming? Archibek now calls the farm one of the most “rewarding experiences of his life.”
It has even changed his diet.
For 20 years Archibek, an executive at a construction firm and now, once again, a fourth-generation farmer, avoided eating raw tomatoes because he “couldn’t stand ‘em.”
Now, he said, "I eat them every day.”