“I encourage people to keep asking about their food. Wherever they go, ask. Where is it from? Is it in season? Are the people growing it earning a living wage? We need to increase understanding and empathy around the source of our daily nourishment.”
– Jered Lawson
Recently, I met Jered Lawson, whose work I’ve admired for many years. Jered is the co-founder of Pie Ranch, a non-profit organization and organic production farm committed to achieving a “healthy and just food system from seed to table.” (Learn more about Pie Ranch’s vision here).
Located in Pescadero, California, on the San Mateo County coast, Pie Ranch does essential work in the areas of food education (including partnerships with schools), an emerging farmer training program and a range of regional partnerships/collaborations (including involvement in a county-wide food alliance).
It’s important to note that Pie Ranch is not only an educational farm, but a working production farm with row crops, grains, tree crops and animals. They operate a farm stand, CSA and host events at their site. The organization’s name derives from the configuration of the property (it’s a triangular shape). But the founders also chose the name for other reasons, including the notion of fostering “pie in the sky” thinking to encourage social change. (Read more about the wonderful name here.)
Jered grew up in Southern California. He realized at an early age the restorative power of outdoor places. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, he co-founded Pie Ranch in 2003.
In our conversation, he shared what influenced his journey, why this work is so important, how Pie Ranch is integrating more livestock into their operations, and the challenges they face as they scale up their commercial production.
Can Pie Ranch be a model for others? We think so.
Q: Pie Ranch is a leader in food education, farmer training and developing regional partnerships to increase food access. How did you get into this work?
Jered: (Laughs). It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you a short version of the long story. I do feel like it’s important for people to come into farming, especially today, when the average age of farmers is increasing and we’re not finding a way to foster the logical passing of the farm to the next generation. Overall, there is not a whole lot of enthusiasm to start farming.
How does a city kid from Los Angeles get interested in farming? By hiking trails in beautiful places. By leaving Los Angeles and hiking with my family in Yosemite and participating in YMCA camp in a beautiful place.
I learned something important about myself at a young age. I felt so much better being in places that weren’t harmed by pollution … that weren’t noisy or ridden with angst from the stress of urban life and the social and environmental challenges that we face every day in cities.
I went to college at UC Santa Cruz. One of the reasons I liked it is because it’s tucked into a beautiful redwood forest along the coast. It was an incredible opportunity to hike to class. I started out with environmental psychology as a focus, because I wanted to understand how the environments we’re in affect our well-being. The summer between freshman and sophomore year I visited a farm in Northern California, where someone I knew was an apprentice at Live Power Community Farm. I spent a week there.
As a 19 year old, this was reminiscent of the life-transforming week I spent at summer camp, with the addition of living a productive life. A huge light bulb went off for me. And I didn’t want to leave a place where I’d had a restorative experience, and then go back into what didn’t provide well-being. No one should. Instead, I learned that I could reside in a place that provides economic value and meaningful food…and could also be providing that space for others.
It became a symbol of answering those questions a young adult often has about how to make the world a better place. For me, food and farms became a clear way of achieving that.
Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” was one of the books I read while studying at UC Santa Cruz. That was right at the moment when I was asking those questions. I was considering the deeper values of stewardship and connection to each other through food and farming. And it seemed very clear that was a way to focus my energy on really the sort of restoration of relationships to ourselves and each other and the environment that we all depend on.
I was a community studies major. I interned at a homeless garden project. The first CSA [community supported agriculture] farm in California was the program at Live Power Farm (1988-89), where I had visited. That farm experience planted a seed in me. A year later, I was one of a group of students developing a 2.5-acre urban farm. And we were considering the best way to sell the food, while accomplishing the social mission and building community. So we started a CSA in 1991 for the 1992 farm season. I was a senior in college and I wrote my thesis on community-supported agriculture.
Q: What are the challenges facing you on the farming side as you move into commercial scale and broaden your mission?
There are challenges to scaling up. We’re a small, diversified farm. We haven’t needed to have the same sort of grade and pack standards of wholesalers that exist in the conventional wholesale market, as well as the production to meet larger volumes. We’ve jumped by a factor of 10 in scale. The rapid shift in the production system is challenging.
As an example, we grow potatoes. We’ve been harvesting by hand and haven’t needed to grade by size; we simply put potatoes by the pound in the CSA box or out at farm stand for customers to pick their own. It’s easier to put in one box than to go through and establish a system of grading and packing. So we had to invest in a potato washer and a grading table, things like that. Improved infrastructure is necessary for scaling.
We’re facing additional challenges of scaling, because we’re also trying to scale our production practices and our marketing distribution model and it isn’t necessarily conventional, even for organic farms.
Q: Can you tell us more about what you’re doing with infrastructure and production systems as you scale up?
As a non-profit education farm, we developed a production system that was not dependent on commercial viability. It was set up to foster an educational experience for people to learn more about the different foods we eat on a daily basis. We’re growing everything we can in our zone so that we can share information about food in our seed to table progression. We also wanted to include animals to enable people to connect to animals in a way we’ve taken for granted in our anonymous marketplace.
As a country that’s struggling with Type 2 diabetes, we need a more conscious consumption of meats and proteins; that would do much to address those health concerns. We’ve put in a pasture system for raising animals not unlike that promoted by Joel Salatin, but we’re doing so in a way that transitions to row crop area after four years.
We have the equivalent amount of land in pasture as in row crops; it rotates every four years. We’ve been doing it for twelve years on a small scale. It has radically increased the organic matter in our soil and hence, there’s more carbon. This has decreased our need for off-farm inputs.
It really makes it a lot easier when growing row crops. There are very few weeds and little need for amendments and other inputs. We wanted to see if that works on the larger scale. Can we take what were a few acres of irrigated of pasture and put it into 30 acres of irrigated pasture and move animals through that?
The ‘movable’ fencing systems we use for our laying hens on pasture aren’t that easy to move during the dry season. The electric fencing system developed in New Zealand, which many are using for pastured poultry, is actually difficult to move on a larger scale and especially when the soil is dry. Those fencing systems are bulky, heavy and depend on posts to hold them up. It is labor intensive to move them rapidly if you’re trying to keep animals regularly moving through pasture. We’re working to design a system that would help with that. Instead of a fencing system that requires posts, we are looking at a rolling, curtain type system to move poultry through pasture with cattle and sheep.
Q: What about the market side?
On the market side, one challenge is trying to take the values that are inherent in a longstanding, wonderful small scale farm with a CSA working directly with households, and have that work with institutions.
Institutions have larger procurement potential and we want to scale to that. The challenges there relate to how institutional food programs do their planning. Most aren’t developing menus based upon crop availability and crop planning with farmer networks. There is a lot of progress with farm-to-school and trying to push that model further.
Pie Ranch is now twelve years old; we have grown our team in a way that enables me to work on this and other special projects. We are a relatively small operation, but are trying to think about big ideas that could be replicated and scaled in a way that has a positive ripple effect in our region and beyond.
I graduated in 1992 from the Community Studies program and was an apprentice on the UC Santa Cruz campus Farm & Garden in 1994. A lot of how we utilize the farm for instructional purposes comes from our experience with the UCSC Farm.. We’re working with high school age youth, and have accommodated some students from UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, Stanford and adult apprentices. We’re also working with the Google Food Lab and connecting to Stanford through its dining program. We’re now talking to UC Berkeley and hope to build a relationship with UC Santa Cruz. We’re also looking at planning something that might capitalize on the meal kit phenomenon.
Q: What’s exciting you the most?
I am continually amazed at how interested people are in having the question about ‘where their food comes from’ answered. More and more people are asking that question. I think that’s leading to a real push for transparency. That word itself – transparency – can do so much to advance us further toward a food system we’d like to create together. Only when we know what exists, can we make changes. If we’re ignorant of things, it’s impossible to effect change. Transparency pushes us to ask those other questions that arise when you see what is happening. Then you can address those challenges and problems.
Dysfunctional aspects of our existing food system have prevailed, in part, because the system – in many ways – perpetuates anonymity and obfuscates the social and ecological harm that results from having a system designed more for industrial production and profit.
I encourage people to keep asking about their food. Wherever they go, ask. Where is it from? Is it in season? Are the people growing it earning a living wage? We need to increase understanding and empathy around the source of our daily nourishment.
Q: What’s exciting you?
I’m really excited to integrate livestock crop operations and research…we’re going into the ecosystems services approach. We’re getting the science behind what we’re doing, so that other people can see for themselves, through the numbers, the results of this approach.