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Los Angeles to Landers, California

Melanie Buck reached out to Urban Exodus back in 2016. She wrote about her and her husband's journey from Los Angeles, California to the tiny community of Landers, located in the Mojave desert. A weekend trip to visit their friends who just bought a place there made them reevaluate their lives and decide that they wanted to spend the next chapter together outside of the chaos, smog and traffic of the city. Melanie got a youth programming job at the Joshua Tree library. She was loved by the children and parents that attended her reading hours and events. She acquired a herd of Nigerian goats and various feathered friends, built a thriving organic garden, and planted 50 fruit and nut trees. She constructed pathways and built installation art pieces with the discarded scrap metal and objects found on the property. She created a sanctuary for herself and her husband Paul. For Paul, moving to the desert was something he didn't even realize he needed, until Melanie created this Shangri-La around him. When the couple found of they were expecting a baby, they couldn't believe their luck. Paul, a photojournalist, spent his younger years focusing entirely on building his career. He had worked his way up through the ranks and became the bureau chief of European Pressphoto in Los Angeles. Melanie, after serving in the U.S. Navy, ran a successful landscaping business in Los Angeles for 15 years. Both had thought the possibility of parenthood had passed them by. When Urban Exodus was planning a trip out West last winter, we emailed Melanie to see if she still wanted to be featured. She shared the exciting news of their little boy arriving just around the time we were coming through. We planned a trip to come and document their desert homestead and their newest addition. 


This is where this story takes a heartbreaking turn. Just a week after baby Joe Claude Buck arrived Melanie had sever medical complications associated with the birth and passed away. It was so quick and unexpected, Paul had no clue what to do or where to turn. Their entire desert community, of which they had become an integral part of, rallied together to support Paul and their newborn son through this absolutely devastating time. Women brought frozen breastmilk, meals and a GoFundMe account raised thousands of dollars overnight to help cover the costs of their medical bills and a night nurse for Joe Claude. Joe Claude, born with a birthmark resembling a Joshua Tree on his forehead, was given the nickname "The Price of the Mojave." 

Paul responded to our email days before we were planning coming and broke the news. He welcomed us to come by still because he wanted to celebrate Melanie's legacy and the beautiful oasis she had built for her family. Paul's mother and aunt had just arrived from Texas to help with Joe Claude, while Paul figured out how to move forward. Paul, still the bureau chief of European Pressphoto, commuted back to the city a day or two a week. Melanie planned to continue running their homestead and care for Joe Claude when he went back and forth to work. Now as the only parent, he was exploring his options and contemplating the major career change of becoming a vintage motorcycle restorer. Motorcycles were the reason Melanie and Paul found one another. They were both avid riders and met at a vintage motorcycle rally. 

Melanie was a woman full of light, kindness and energy. She very quickly threaded herself and Paul into the tightly-woven fabric of the Mojave community. She left this world too soon. She is mourned by all who knew her. During our afternoon visit at their Jackrabbit with Paul's mother and aunt, they said, "At least she made her way here, to this beautiful place. Here she was truly happy. She got to welcome her son into the world and spend those precious days with him. So many people stay in unhappy situations and don't take risks. She worked hard to build a beautiful life for herself and her family. She got to leave this world on a high note." These sentiments brought tears to all of our eyes, but I knew it was true. 


Melanie ended her email to Urban Exodus by saying, "We have found our life here in what we call 'Our little slice of hi-desert paradise' a magical one and we wake up everyday grateful for having made the transition out here, away from the rat race of Los Angeles.

    • He is a photojournalist and is employed by the European Pressphoto Agency as the bureau chief of Los Angeles and the southern California region. I hail from Nebraska and I am a descendent of an almost exclusively agrarian and pioneering lineage. I am currently a library assistant and youth services lead at the Joshua Tree public library but previously owned and managed a landscape design and maintenance company in Los Angeles for 15 years. Prior to that I served as an officer in the U.S. Navy and was stationed in San Diego. My husband and I currently own 15 acres in the hi-desert Mojave in Landers, CA on which we raise registered Nigerian Dwarf goats, honeybees and chickens. We also have an orchard of over 50 fruiting trees, grapes and a grow house full of organic vegetables and herbs. We also own an original Jackrabbit homestead cabin that we plan on refurbishing this spring on five acres that we intend to transform into a rentable destination and orchard. We have owned our homestead, which we call Ranchita Liebre or 'Little Jackrabbit Ranch' for over four years. I make handcrafted crochet rag rugs as well as hand salve and my husband restores vintage motorcycles which we both ride and enjoy as a hobby. We have found our life here in what we call 'Our little slice of hi-desert paradise' a magical one and we wake up everyday grateful for having made the transition out here from the rat race of Los Angeles. 


I don't know how to tell this story without including Melanie's letter she wrote us. (Click here to jump to their interview)

Anchor 11

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 grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s with limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. My mom would drive 20-30 minutes to the nearest grocery store that sold any worth eating. The only reference I had growing up to anyone taking care of their own food were my Mexican and Latina neighbors who were growing vegetables, fruit trees, or had chickens. 


I started growing food as an adult after many years of killing house plants. I knew nothing about plants for the longest time. But I got some herb starts from a nursery, read books and watched videos. Maybe by the third year, I was feeling confident enough to germinate seeds. 



What made you decide to get into farming?

I spent a lot of time working in food service. I did some variation of cooking, baking and serving coffee for almost 10 years. Sometimes, I would worked with fruits and vegetables I’ve never heard of. I wanted to learn more about where food comes from and eliminate this disconnect combined with wanting a change of pace when it came to what I was doing for a living. Farming has really taken down my work stress level as compared to working in restaurants or making sure someone’s latte is perfect.


So, after three or four years of growing herbs and vegetables in my yard, I started thinking about the possibility of starting an urban farm when I lived in Oakland. I watched a lot of YouTube, I still do. The videos I came across on SPIN farming seemed the most applicable to start while living in a city. I was either going to do that or take over an abandoned lot down the street from me.


I’ve always wanted to have my own business. Farming seemed like a crazy choice to make being that I live in an area where land is at a premium but it seemed like a good, relatively low-cost business idea if it’s done on a smaller scale.


And I get to work outside.



How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?

Well, no one has come out directly and say that they think it’s a bad idea. The most negative thing I’ve heard from family and friends is that it’s going to be tough. My city friends are more supportive than I initially expected. Maybe a want do something similar. Overall, my family has been very supportive. They’re of the mindset-yes, go do your own thing.



What has been the hardest part of your journey thus far? What has been the most rewarding?

Being patient is the hardest thing ever. I wish I had land to farm right now. The most rewarding part has been all of the great people I’ve met. I’ve run into a lot of friendly people. The farming community is filled with people who want to see everyone succeed. 



Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more young people being interested in learning to grow food? 

I think more people in general are interested in learning how to grow food. More people want to know where their food comes from and what goes into it. As more people learn about environmental health and climate change, more is known about the beneficial and detrimental impacts agriculture produces. This might inspire some to bring about positive changes.



Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm?

My main advice would be to learn as much as you can first. Read a lot of books and talk to as many people as you can. If you’re completely new to growing buy a couple of starts at a nursery and transplant into pots or the soil around your house. Volunteer, intern, or get a job on a farm similar to one you’d like to have. Do that for at least two or three years. Then, start small. Start off your first year or two with less growing space than what you really want to have. 



Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?

That’s a hard question to answer because there are so many influences. I’m so obsessive about farming that I think about it all day. I want to be able to feed myself, my family and many others with healthy, nutrient-dense food. I’m also driven by seeing that I get a little closer to my goal everyday. Working outside and getting dirty keeps me coming back. 



What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America? 

I hope that more people start their own small farm. I hope that farming is recognized as a public service. Student loans are keeping a lot of folks from getting started and those without generational land access may find it harder to get started. Farmers should be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Unfortunately, that whole program might be on the chopping block. It is doable to start farming with student debt. Just start small. We need more small farms and those farmers need access to land. And I hope there are more programs with greater advertising to link land owners with land seekers.



Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heros that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?

There are a lot of really good books out there. Start with The Market Gardener by Jean Martin Fortier and The Urban Farmer by Curtis Stone. The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman is excellent. He has a new book that I haven’t checked out yet. You Can Farm, by Joel Salatin is good if you want to raise livestock. Also, Growing for Market magazine is a great resource. Also, Richard Wiswall’s The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is good for the financial side of farming. 


I love watching YouTube for gardening and farming videos. There are a lot of people on there putting out great content. If you’re just getting started in gardening, I would recommend MIgardener, Charles Dowding, and John Kohler of Growing Your Greens puts out really good long format videos. Also, watching Justin Rhodes will give you a lot of great ideas.


For farming, I don’t think anyone other than The Urban Farmer, Curtis Stone is putting out high quality videos on a consistent basis. Richard Perkins from Sweden has a dreamy permaculture farm working with crops and animals. Diego Footer makes videos on farming topics that don’t get talked about as much-scaling an enterprise, marketing, the work/life balance and time management.


There are a couple of podcasts I would recommend. My professor for a class called Cool Season Crops made the Farmer to Farmer Podcast required listening. I had never heard of it prior. But I felt like I found a gold mine of information in the interviews with farmers from all over North America. This was back when there was about 60 episodes. So, I went back and listened to all of them. Now, there’s about 150 episodes and I’ve heard every one. Also, I really like Diego Footer’s podcast called Permaculture Voices. But I think he changed the name to Creative Destruction. Still good and you should be able to find it under either name.



What are some common misperceptions about farming that you would like to dispel? 

There is a perception for some people that you have to have a tractor tilling the soil to be a successful farmer. I don’t know if I can personally dispel that perception. However, there are plenty of examples of no-till farmers with excellent per acre incomes, paying employees good wages, and aren’t up to their eyeballs in debt.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years, I am the owner and operator of my own farm. Not only am I farming myself, I’ve collaborated with others to inspire tons of people to start their own farm. And Oprah and I sometimes garden together.



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