Through the Pandemic and Fire, Pie Ranch Focuses on Food Justice

Pacific Coast Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and San Francisco is a beautiful stretch of road. On the coast side, steep eroding bluffs drop to flat sandy beaches pounded by rough surf and high waves. Along the highway there is amazing windsurfing at Waddell Creek and world class surfing at Mavericks. Año Nuevo State Park is one of the largest mainland breeding colonies of northern elephant seals. On the inland side of the highway, the coastal prairie is bordered by the steep canyons and mixed redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The region is also home to a long-standing farming community growing Brussel sprouts, organic strawberries, Halloween pumpkins and assorted other crops. South of the town of Pescadero, you can’t miss the “Slow for Pie” signs signaling the approach of Pie Ranch. The coffee shop, located in a historic barn, is known for its fresh apple and berry pies and organic produce.

I visited Pie Ranch in August prior to the CZU Lightning fire that burned over 86,000 acres and destroyed about 1000 homes. Pie Ranch did not escape the fire unscathed, but on the day that I visited, the main topic was adjusting to the pandemic that has restricted so much of normal life. I was met in the parking lot by Jered Lawson. Jered and his wife Nancy Vail co-founded Pie Ranch in 2004 with a commitment to use the ranch in ways that advance social justice.

In a 2015 interview at a Stone Barns Center conference, Jered said, “Remember every inch of soil in this country was stolen from Indigenous communities, and people were stolen from Africa to make the USA what it is today. Racial justice and food and farming are inextricably connected; the act of farming has the potential to heal these wounds that affect all of us.”

With that in mind, Pie Ranch has developed a relationship with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, giving them access to the land for ceremony, to teach native land stewardship, and to establish a native plant garden.

 In that same Stone Barns interview, Jered also said: “If you are white, find out how to do the dance of stepping back, and allow yourself to be guided by the voices of people of color while also stepping forward to use your voice to lift up love and justice.”

 The Pandemic Forces a Pivot

With the pandemic, all of Pie Ranch’s onsite education programs that served urban and underprivileged kids had to be cancelled. Their main markets–restaurants, bakeries, and the Google and Stanford campus kitchens–were disrupted. One of the ironies of the current crisis is that at the same time that farmers were becoming desperate for markets, the COVID-19 pandemic was leading to an unprecedented number of Americans experiencing food insecurity due to the dramatic rise in unemployment. An estimated 1 in 5 U.S. households don’t have enough to eat.

Forced to pivot from normal business activities, Jered saw an opening: “The pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of a more centralized, globalized, food system. Larger scale farms were plowing under perfectly edible food because their distribution channels had been disrupted. They lost large institutional buyers such as schools and hospitals and companies that provide meal programs for their employees. Smaller and medium-scale farms that had direct relationships to a restaurant community lost those customers. Suddenly there was a need to provide new ways of connecting farms and the communities that had previously been eating food provided by those institutions. At the same time, there were a lot more newly unemployed people looking to food banks and other sources of emergency food. Food banks were overwhelmed and unable to respond to that sudden increase in demand. We saw an opportunity to leverage our infrastructure to aggregate product from local farms and pack boxes with a nice mix of fresh produce and make them available to communities experiencing food insecurity.”

Jered Lawson inspects food boxes for the Farm Fresh Food Relief Initiative

Pie Ranch partnered with Fresh Approach to launch the Farm Fresh Food Relief Initiative to feed food-insecure people along the coast and in the Santa Clara Valley. With USDA funding and private donations, the program was able to support small local farmers while feeding 800 families weekly.

“There are small and medium-scale farmers,” Jered said, “who are former farm workers who are able to sell their produce through our food hub because of the economic stimulus. That food gets distributed weekly to communities with the greatest need. That’s the clearest expression of our goals of food justice.”

Pie Ranch had been approved for the program until August 2022, but unfortunately the funding ended this past August without formal notification from the USDA. The latest round of funding, $1 billion dollars, will go instead to large corporations such as Sysco. The program was initially supposed to help small and medium size farmers while alleviating food insecurity. It is unknown if the same families will be served, and the produce will no longer be local and organic. The USDA requires the new vendors to include a letter from Donald Trump as a thinly veiled campaign promotion, which is ironic considering Trump has pushed to drastically cut food stamps.

In the short term, limited philanthropic funds have enabled Pie Ranch and their partners to deliver 265 boxes to community members in the mission district of San Francisco, East Palo Alto, and Pescadero while they figure out a way to engage the community to invest in food justice for those who are disproportionately suffering from the pandemic

Fire and the Hope for Transformation

On August 16, a massive thunderstorm produced 12,000 bolts of dry-lightning that ignited hundreds of fires in California. A number of smaller fires merged in the Santa Cruz Mountains when the winds shifted. The CZU Lightning Complex Fire burned from the San Mateo Coast through the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains, ultimately destroying some 1000 homes and 490 other buildings. Pie Ranch farm crews worked to exhaustion to create fire breaks to protect the ranch but were only partially successful. An ember blew over the fire-line and burned down the historic 157-year-old farmhouse (used as an office) and destroyed other infrastructure such as water tanks; and some staff members lost their homes.

Nancy Vail picking pears

Showing remarkable resilience, Nancy Vail wrote in a Facebook post: “May this be the beginning of transformation; may we resolve to bring back Indigenous knowledge, heal the damage done since colonization, bring justice to the lands and the people, build resilient homes for all people, practice climate-friendly everything, feed people, love more.” To support fire evacuees, Pie Ranch teamed up with Off the Grid, Fresh Approach and others to buy food from local farms, prepare meals, and deliver them to fire-affected communities. Since September 1, produce from nine farms affected by the fire have provided over 13,000 meals. During the first 28 days, 800 evacuated families were served 500 meals per day.

Beyond the Pandemic

In my pre-fire conversation with Jered and prior to the discontinuation of the food relief funds, he was already thinking ahead: “Delivering food to those in need during the pandemic is meaningful, but it’s not sustainable, and sometimes it seems like a drop in the bucket…Looking beyond the efforts around the pandemic and the emergency food relief program, we want to build connective tissue with the farmers (including us) and the households that are receiving the food. We’re about to do outreach to the communities that may be connecting with local farmers for the first time to see how we can create experiences that are the seeds of that new relationship that will last long after the pandemic has (hopefully) been resolved.”

Communities of color are getting hit the hardest with Covid-19 and trying to create personal relationships during a pandemic is a real challenge. Jered is cognizant of the fact that the lives of people in those communities were difficult before Covid-19. Structural racial inequalities have become even more apparent with the pandemic, and Lawson sees those inequalities playing out in the food system as well. Many people in low-income communities and communities of color rely on food banks and don’t have access to high quality food. The Food Relief program, which delivered local, fresh, organic, food boxes at no cost, was a temporary remedy.

In thinking about structural racism in the food system, Lawson raises difficult questions: “Who owns the farmland? Who has the ability to access land and grow food for their communities? Who has access to the capital to build a viable farm business? Who has the networks and distribution resources to establish market partnerships?” In 2018 Pie Ranch secured a 10-year lease at the nearby 416-acre Cascade Ranch to start a program called the Regenerator with an emphasis on recruiting BIPOC new farmers and others who have been left out of equity-building in agriculture.

 The Director of Operations for the program, Leonard Diggs, one of the few African American farmers in California, is leading the efforts to transition Cascade Ranch to regenerative agricultural practices. On a phone call, Leonard told me that the goals of the program are to “provide skills and resources for the next-generation of farmers who haven’t been able to accumulate the capital to buy land and start a farm and to train them in climate-responsible agriculture because if we can’t farm carbon-neutral or carbon-negative, and if we can’t get our communities to support that, then we’re not going to be successful.”

Leonard Diggs harvests tomatoes

Leonard’s vision for farming prioritizes the nutritional needs of the whole community, not just the affluent. He would like to see a bioregional approach with a network of farms that coordinate their production to manage the regional impact of farming. Farmers would receive 30 % of their income for ecosystem services funded by local sources. The program, in its first year, will work with new farmers for 3 to 5 years and help them develop farming and business skills, as well as to accumulate some start-up capital through saving accounts to help with a down payment on property and equipment and start their own farm or possibly remain on the Cascade Ranch and lease some acreage.

I asked Leonard in what ways he has encountered racism. He noted, as a Black, first generation farmer, one way racism manifests itself is through a lack of access to land, information and capital—all the things the Regenerator program is working to help people overcome. He added that “as an African American farmer people ask me what I think about Black Lives Matter. We talk about white privilege; people regularly bring up the privileges they have. So, the question I ask is, ‘What are you doing with your privilege? What actions are you deploying?’

The Regenerator program is one way that Pie Ranch is addressing inequity in the food system, and Diggs’ ambition of a regional network of farms working together fits into a larger vision of a regional food system.

“We’ve always been short on funds,” Jered Lawson said, “to build the local food system networks and the infrastructure necessary to accelerate a healthier and more just food system locally. It occurred to us that instead of relying on funding from USDA or CDFA [California Department of Food and Agriculture], maybe we could develop a local food and farm bill, as a Bay Area initiative, that would be modeled after the national farm bill but governed and funded locally.” Before the pandemic, planning had begun on how to engage the community, what counties would be involved, what the right structure would be, and when to place it on the ballot to raise the funds. Lawson feels that framing it as a regional food and farm bill could help connect urban and rural communities.

He explained it in this way: “The simple idea of a locality taxing itself to enhance its own local food system feels essential. It would be a direct recognition from the experience of the pandemic that local food resiliency is what’s going to enable us to weather such disruptions in the future, be it another virus or some climate crisis-related disruption. The stronger the bonds are between local farms and food producers and the local communities eating from those farms, the more capable we will be of surviving such disruptions.”

Just a few months after reorganizing their operation due to the disruption of the pandemic, the fire struck. In a Facebook post, Nancy Vail wrote about how farmers, local officials and Indigenous tribal members are using the trauma to unite and build community: “We circled up to meet each other, honor the land and history, and walk together through charred hillsides and the ash-filled watershed. We learned about the resources available to farmers and discussed putting together a recovery plan for the region that would include removal of eucalyptus, seeding of native grasses, erosion control techniques, prescribed burns, and other methods to support restoration and resiliency of the whole area while centering the Amah Mutsun tribe’s skill and knowledge with the commitment to bring back Indigenous practices of land stewardship.”

Undeterred by multiple setbacks, the work at Pie Ranch continues—fire cleanup, rebuilding and harvesting–with an unbroken commitment to food justice.

 Learn more about Pie Ranch Fire Recovery 

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