San Francisco to Sonoma County, California
It was a crisp December morning when Urban Exodus visited Ashly Langford during her bi-weekly rounds at Shone Farm, Santa Rosa Junior College’s 365-acre agricultural learning center. Ashly, along with a fellow student in the Sustainable Agriculture program, set out to pick broccoli Romanesco and purple cauliflower for the school’s CSA boxes. Ashly got the farming bug when she was living with her grandparents while attending college. Having grown up in the local food rich area of Marin County, California, her early years were spent going to weekly farmer’s markets with her mother. She didn’t realize how lucky she was in her youth until she moved to an area where fast food and convenience stores were the primary places to eat. Disheartened with her choices, and the state of farming in general, she took the matter into her own hands and built a few raised beds in her grandparent’s yard and began growing fresh, organic produce for herself and her grandparents. Once her fingers touched the soil, there was no going back, she knew that learning to farm was the path she wanted to take. Ashly enrolled in the Sustainable Agriculture program at Santa Rosa Junior College and relocated to a small community in Sonoma County. Now in her final year, she has learned the fundamentals of growing, managing and marketing a small-scale organic agriculture business. This diverse program offers students a foundation in plant and soil science, integrated pest management, diverse crop production, and direct marketing strategies while focusing on the ecological underpinnings of agriculture. Her courses emphasize the “how-to” aspects of organic farming and gardening, including tillage, compost production, crop planning and production. She even took a class on how to safely drive tractors, although she plans to run a no-till operation in the future. Santa Rosa Junior College’s Sustainable Ag program is one of the few affordable higher education options for people interested in learning the fundamentals of small-scale sustainable farming in California. She works several days a week at Shone Farm, the school’s learning center, and is looking forward to starting her own operation in the future. Santa Rosa’s soil and climate make it an incredible place to grow food year round, but the high sticker prices on land often mean that graduates can’t afford the startup costs to establish their own growing operation close by. Ashly’s professors drive home that running a profitable farm doesn’t mean having lots of acreage. Although she isn’t sure where and when she will plant roots, she hopes she will find a little piece of land in a rural California where she can grow food for her surrounding community and inspire and teach others how to grow their own produce in a sustainable manner. (Click here to jump to her interview)
Did you grow up growing your own food, keep animals, etc. or was it something you came to on your own when you were older?
I actually did not grow up growing my own food although my mom was a bit of a health nut. We would always have fresh produce in the house and definitely no junk food. While a good amount of my friends grew up snacking on goldfish and fruit roll-ups, our kitchen was stocked with raisin bread, fruits and wise crackers. I would have to sneak the good snacks over at my friends. My love and desire to grow produce came way later in my early twenties. I’m the first generation farmer in my family.
What made you decide to get into farming?
Growing up in Marin County, I was blindly exposed to a ton of fresh and local food grown within a 30-mile radius. Going to farmers markets with my mom on Thursdays was a regular thing when I was a kid. It’s funny that you don’t realize or appreciate that until you are older. About four years ago, I moved down south with my grandparents to continue my education and I was pretty distraught with the food choices I had around me. There was a huge lack of healthy produce available and fast food joints were practically every other building. I used to stress about what I was going to pick up for lunch or dinner.
My grandma and grandpa have always had a niche or should I say green thumb and I expressed my concerns to them. The next thing I knew, my papa and I were creating raised beds to start our very own vegetable garden. I remember the very first planting day I was out there. I had no gloves on and I just dug my hands into the soil and I swear there was no better feeling in the world. Something just clicked and I had the biggest realization of my life that this is what I wanted to be doing for the rest of it.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?
They were all pretty stoked. I think most people feel pretty moved and inspired when they hear of a job that consists of being outside, in the fresh air, surrounded by fruits and vegetables. I’ve been lucky enough to have amazing family and friends come out and visit me on the farm to see what I’ve been up to.
What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding?
I have been very fortunate to work, as well as go to school, on my farm for sustainable agriculture. I would have to say that one of the hardest parts is becoming more aware of the major agriculture issues we face today. There are massive soil depletion levels, tons of water erosion and waste as well as horrific mono-crop practices going on just to name a few. Unfortunately many farmers without the right knowledge are depleting our resources as well as changing the way our produce is grown, this is a harsh reality that I would love to change and see change.
The most rewarding would definitely have to be the entire process of taking care of a plant from seed to harvest. There are so many steps in between that go into growing produce and I feel very lucky to be there at the farm every step of the way nurturing them as they grow, I feel like a proud parent. I also really enjoy learning new tricks of the trade, I took a tractor class last semester and now I am certified to use it for tasks on the farm while I work. It feels pretty badass to run those machines, lifting heavy material and mowing down huge crops. Farming as a whole is very meditative, there are so many instances I find myself immersed in the fruit trees or the plants and I essentially feel like I become one with the earth, it’s a very calming feeling.
Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more people being interested in learning to grow food?
I do, I have been very lucky to meet the most amazing students who work with me on the farm and it definitely gives me hope that growing your own food is not dying out. I also believe that sustainable agriculture is taking off in Sonoma County right now, which makes me very excited to be in the place I am today. Getting to know the agriculture community has been one of the most humbling experiences I have had thus far in life. The inspiration for growing food on a big or small scale is limitless and I do see more and more people starting to get a taste of that which is exciting!
Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm?
My advice would definitely have to be to not overthink it! Many people are intimidated or stressed out by growing produce because they think it has to be this crazy big operation. Start small! Start with even one or two plants and go from there. I am definitely interested in starting my own farm one day and if there is anything that I have learned from the farm or school it’s that less is more. I’m planning on growing on 1.5 - 4 acres one day specializing in no-till, bio-intensive crops - this to me in an obtainable goal.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I draw my inspiration from wanting to see change in the way we look at food and certainly in the way that we grow food here in America. There is so much beauty in produce that many people in this country never get to see and that seriously hurts my soul. I would love to have people feel the same way I do about the produce I grow and eat (proud, curious, ambitious, intrigued, daring, unafraid, venturesome). There are so many extraordinary edible plants in the world that cure your body in almost every way, it’s a catch 22 for me to see this system in the country failing.
What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America?
I am hoping that the new sustainable methods of farming keep pushing through and that we can ultimately push out the toxic, unsustainable companies/competitors that spread throughout our country like cancer. I would really love to see our nation bring more small-scale farms to urban communities where we can try to bridge the food desert gap. There’s a huge agriculture disconnect with poverty stricken districts in cities and tons of unhealthy corporations have capitalized in those regions targeting children who grow up knowing nothing but consuming junk food. I would love to see small farms take back those areas where we need healthy food the most.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heroes that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
The Market Gardener by Jean Martin-Fortier is a game changer. He’s a genius small-scale farmer who created a very systematic, bio intensive business and he kills it. Winter Harvest by Elliot Coleman is amazing as well as he is a farmer in Maine who sells the best hearty vegetables all throughout the winter using moveable high-tunnels. I just purchased the One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka, I’ve heard really good things about it and I’m excited to start reading it.
What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that farming is the hardest thing to do in the world or even that it’s impossible to obtain as a career. That’s a bunch of malarkey! There are tons of ways to get involved and definitely a bunch of farms that need help if you are worried about owning your own.
If you could plant roots anywhere in the world where would you go and why?
To be honest I’m trying to plant roots everywhere. First place would definitely have to be here in California, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to a lot of places and nothing beats my home with this climate, soil, my friends and my big family! If I were successful enough I would definitely love to expand my operation to many parts of the world, teaching people small-scale, sustainable, low cost, bio-intensive, continuous crop, no-till practices. Spain and Columbia would definitely be on my list.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
It’s very hard for me to peer into the future and tell you exactly where I will be or what I will be doing. The most spontaneous thing about life is that everything is always ever changing; this keeps me on my toes.
However, if I were to really dig deep and look into my goals and aspirations, I see myself waking up every morning on my farm tending to the plants, feeding the goats (and maybe one or two cows), fetching eggs from the chickens, and marketing the plants I have to offer. I would really love to get into the healing aspect of plants as well. I want to grow herbs for medicine, as well as body care essentials for everyday use. Honeybees would be a sweet surprise in my future as well. Honestly the possibilities are limitless, there are also a ton of things (outside of farming) I feel I have to offer this world and I am excited to see all of them unravel!