From the front of the historic Wallace Dickinson House in National City, you’d have no idea what’s growing out back.
“This was never in the works,” said Stepheni Norton, talking about the garden that now occupies a large portion of this quarter-acre lot on 24th Street.
Norton and her husband bought the home in 2012. She was in the U.S. Coast Guard and they were planning out their future. She said they loved the property’s big backyard, perfect for parties and family gatherings.
“We’re a military family, and we decided this is where we wanted to settle,” she recalled.
Little did she know at the time, but all of those plans would change because of a bug bite.
“I got bit by a tick,” remembers Norton.
The bite happened in 2012 while Norton was training on San Clemente Island for an upcoming deployment. She went on that deployment feeling sick, but with no diagnosis.
"There were days I couldn’t walk. My joints would swell. I had a facial tick. The left side of my body would go numb," she said. "So, It was pretty intense."
This would go on for more than two years without any answers before doctors finally diagnosed her with Lyme Disease.
What’s frustrating for Norton is it could have been diagnosed two years earlier with a simple blood test and treated. Instead, it would now be a lifelong disease without a cure.
Doctors told Norton eating healthy could improve the effectiveness of her medication.
“We had a meal prep service that was supposedly 100% organic, and clean, and I was still having weird reactions,” she said.
She even started a small garden to grow her own vegetables, but the reactions continued.
While sitting through hours of treatment, Norton did a lot of reading about food and started learning more about heirloom vegetables.
“A lot of people thing heirloom is only tomatoes. It’s not,” she said. “It means the start of the seed as we know it.”
Basically, heirloom seeds are the ones that have not been genetically modified or combined with any other seed.
Norton said she decided to try heirloom sweet corn in her garden, and it worked.
“I didn’t have a reaction, and I was like, this is crazy,” she remembers.
Norton proceeded to rip out everything in her garden and plant all heirloom produce. It changed everything.
"My medicine was working better; almost textbook. My doctor could actually track that all of my inflammation was going down, that the activity levels of the bacteria were going down. So, it made a big difference," Norton added.
And Norton did not stop there. The garden has grown from a few raised beds the entire backyard, plus another two-acre property.
And, that’s how Dickinson Farm was born. She now has a farm stand for people to pick up produce, and a program to deliver heirloom produce to people who may be too sick to pick it up on their own.
Her goodwill doesn’t end there.
Wading through the permitting process to start and operate a small farm in California, Norton learned a lot. So, she wrote a curriculum for a college course on small business farming. It’s being used at Southwestern College, and she says she’s had interest to adapt it for use around the rest of the state.
This is not the life Norton planned when buying her home seven years ago.
Instead, it has grown into something so much better.
“This is not the life I expected, but honestly, I could not imagine being anywhere else,” she said.