Three thousand miles across the country, Laura Neale '99 runs Sol Food Farm, a one-acre organic vegetable farm in Sebastopol, California, a city of 7,800 about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Unlike Armiger, Neale lived agriculture for a few years before taking the plunge and starting a farm of her own.
"I agree that ranchers have destroyed land through unsustainable grazing, but cattle can also be used as a tool to heal the land." --Soren Peters '97
The summer after her first year at Colby, she participated in the apprenticeship program at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), the oldest and largest state organic organization in the country. Neale chose a farm outside of Bath, and soon she was "hoeing and weeding and playing in the dirt." She was hooked.
In 2001 Neale and her passion moved to California. Her agricultural resume: an organic farm in Mendocino, an urban gardening program for youth in Oakland, and a six-month ecological horticulture apprenticeship at University of California Santa Cruz.
In 2004 a friend from the Santa Cruz program made Neale a tantalizing offer. He had found a three-acre parcel for rent in Sonoma and he wanted her to farm it with him and another friend. Eager to apply the skills she had honed as an apprentice, Neale joined her friends as they began what would become Sol Food.
When the trio arrived, they found little more than a house surrounded by three acres of lawn. But with the landlord's tractor, they disc-plowed and rototilled an acre of the lawn and sowed a winter cover crop to enrich the soil. Through the first rainy winter, Neale and her partners, Andy Szymanowicz and Leo Goldsmith, spent long hours sitting at the kitchen table poring over seed catalogues, budgeting, and brainstorming exactly what they would grow and when. They built a hoop house for starting seedlings--not out of the ordinary plastic PVC piping, but from more sustainable materials like salvaged wood for tables and local redwood.
In the springtime they began the hard work of mowing down the cover crop, working it into the soil with compost and lime, and digging more than 40 100-foot seedbeds by hand. They transplanted seedlings from the hoop house and, by June, Sol Food Farm's first vegetables were ready for harvest.
About 1,200 miles to the southeast, Soren Peters '97 has taken the bull by the horns, quite literally, on his 1,500-acre Rancho Los Ciruelos, just north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Instead of the more traditional beef operation, Peters runs a herd of Corriente cattle, raising tough, wily calves for rodeos.
A lanky, weathered Santa Fe native, Peters has been working on the family land for 15 years, starting a vegetable farm with his sister and spending a summer with friends, building a cabin with Corbett Bishop '93 and a greenhouse with Scott Monteith '97. Four years ago Peters was ready for a new project, so he bought 30 pregnant Corriente heifers and began building his herd.
Peters now manages about 70 breeding heifers and sells approximately 50 calves a year. The calves, born throughout February and March, graze for a year on the range before selling for about $500 apiece. Unlike beef calves, which can gain up to 700 pounds in their first year, Corrientes are bred to be short and lean. "Half the weight and twice as tough," said Peters.
While this may seem to have little to do with organic vegetables, Peters is applying one of the principles of the new farmers--find a niche that works. His sister, Erica, has found an agricultural niche as well, running a 20-acre organic vegetable farm on the ranch. It produces raspberries, vegetables, lettuces, and herbs, and the ranch's namesake, ciruelos--Spanish for plums.