DYLAN & JACQUI
San Francisco to Grass Valley, California
It was a chilly day in January when Urban Exodus visited Werewolf Ranch in Grass Valley, California. Even in off-season, with leafless fruit trees and just a few cold-hardy vegetables hanging on, one can easily envision how these 35 acres transform into a bountiful, pristine paradise in the warmer months. Owners, Dylan Kuenzi and Jacqui Meehan are in the process of converting this former Montessori school into a Permaculture farm and event center. In just three year they have planted an orchard, converted the previous mobile classrooms into shelters for their animals, created pastures for their sheep and goats to regenerate and increase the fertility of their soil, and erected a yurt to overlook the river that runs along their property. Dylan and Jacqui realized that in order to make a decent living they were going to have to get creative and generate additional income streams, beyond their pasture-raised lamb business, by hosting weddings and events. They are launching their event center this spring and they will be holding their own wedding on their property next year. Dylan and Jacqui met while attending UC Santa Barbara. Jacqui’s passion for wildlife conservation inspired her to pursue a degree in Zoology while Dylan studied environmental science and herbalism. Dylan grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and Jacqui spent her youth in the suburbs of Orange County, both a far cry away from rural farm life. Following college, with their shared interest for self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture, the couple WOOFed through Argentina and worked on a friend’s farm in Hawaii. After returning to California, they settled into 9-5 jobs in San Francisco. While they loved their time in San Francisco, they couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something great missing in their lives. Not ones to sit idly by, they started researching different rural locations around California to move to and settled on Grass Valley. When they toured their unique property they both instantly saw the potential. It hadn’t been lived in for several years and the pastures had mostly been reclaimed by blackberries, but they thought that if they started a rotational grazing program they could heal the soil and make it fertile again. Dylan took the role of the farmer, managing their gardens and flocks, while Jacqui oversees their orchards and events. Although they work much harder now than they did in their previous city jobs they take tremendous pride in the fact that they are already able to supply themselves with a majority of their own food. This self-sufficiency paired with being able to work together side-by-side, has made their lives feel so much richer and more fulfilling than when they were living in the city. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Food. That is kind of the root of it for both of us. Being able to grow nourishing food for ourselves, the people we love, and those who come to visit is really important to us. Good food is the ultimate medicine and really, its what brings people together. It was also really important to us to create a life where we could do some good for the earth. Starting a land-based livelihood was a way to create richness in our lives while also doing work to heal the earth.
What has been the hardest part of your transition thus far? What has been the most rewarding?
I (Jacqui) have had a lot of humbling experiences starting a life living closer to the land. I grew up in the suburbs, in Orange County for god sakes! I didn't learn how to use power tools, or drive a manual truck, or fix a leaky roof, or haul hay, or process a chicken, or so many other things until we moved out to the country. There were many-a-morning where I was chasing goats around trying to herd them into the barn. Simple tasks were downright frustrating at times. Dylan is an auto-didact so anything he didn't already know how to do, he has taught himself, and then often taught me. But there has been a lot of experimenting and figuring things out for the both of us. In a paradoxical way, this period of being total amateurs when we moved out here had been the hardest, but also the most rewarding aspect of moving to the country.
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 (Jacqui) didn't grow up doing any of this stuff. Dylan became really interested in growing food in college and kept some awesome gardens, he's got an inherent green thumb. Both of us explored agriculture and homesteading in Argentina, where we WWOOFed for a few months. We also worked on a friend's farm in Hawaii briefly. However, those experiences were quite cursory in retrospect. It feels like we didn't really understand the systems necessary for veggie and meat production until we got on our land.
What made you decide to get into farming?
For us, real richness comes in many forms other than monetary capital. We have food security, and that's really important to us. The ability to produce the bulk of our calories from this land - our fruit, veggies, milk, eggs, and meat - allows us to eat some of the tastiest and most nourishing food possible. It really is something to be grateful for. We also use some pretty unorthodox farming methods as well, which we believe is adding to the diversity and fertility of this land. It is our hope to share what we are doing with the public through weddings, events, and retreats, and maybe do a little good in the world. Food is something that connects us all, and when people can appreciate where food comes from and how it is produced, change can occur.
How did your family and friends react to your decision to farm?
They were all really happy for us. Some of my (Jacqui) family pokes fun at me for being a country bumpkin, but in general they're proud of us.
Where did the name Werewolf Ranch come from?
Dylan and I love ancient, mystical lore. We're also pagans at heart and enjoy the wilder aspects of life. The werewolf encapsulates those things, so we decided to celebrate it by naming our spot Werewolf Ranch.
What surprised you most about country living? Has it lived up to your expectations?
I, like I imagine many other people, romanticized the homesteading lifestyle. It's different than I thought though. It's WAY more work than I had imagined. For example, canning and preserving food takes a lot of time and energy. Some people might think it's crazy to go through all the effort when you can buy tomato sauce or jam at the store for a few bucks. But it is so unbelievably rewarding to open a mason jar of summer's goodness in December. I have started to see my time as less of a dollar value, which has been an interesting shift that I am proud of. So, albeit far less romantic than I had imagined, country living has far exceeded my expectations.
What advice do you give to others wanting to live city life behind?
I think it's important to carefully consider where you want to move rather than buying inexpensive land at your first opportunity. Really consider what's important to you (community, recreation, water access, solitude, safety from flooding, fire, etc.) If you do that due diligence, you're much more likely to be happy. Also, I've learned from my own experience that with the right attitude you can figure out just about anything, so don't let lack of knowledge or experience intimidate you from moving away from the country.
Would you ever consider moving back to a city again?
Do you feel like there is a movement underway of more young people being interested in learning to grow food?
Yes, in a lot of ways I hear of a lot of interest from my peers when I share what I do and where I live. Coupled with the local food movement, I think a lot of people are starting to realize that there are a lot of issues with the industrial agriculture movement.
Do you have any advice for people interested in growing their own food or starting a farm?
I always try to empower people who feel like they couldn't do what Dylan and I are doing. With the right attitude, yes, you can absolutely do it - with no real experience. I think many people are intimidated by the idea of growing plants and taking care of animals, but the truth is, life wants to persist. If you are creating the right environment, you will be able to grow food. Don't get me wrong, you will fail at times, but I think the likelihood of success is often much greater.
What hopes do you have for the future of farming in America?
I hope that consumers, i.e. all people who eat food, begin to recognize and appreciate high quality food and how it is produced. I think if this shift were to occur, then the small scale sustainable farmer would be able to compete and thrive.
Are there any books, mentors, podcasts, farming heroes that you would recommend to people wanting to start growing food?
Books - The Holistic Orchard by Michael Phillips, Holistic Management by Alan Savory, Permaculture Designers Manual by Bill Mollison, You Can Farm by Joel Salatin
Mentors- AmigoBob Cantisano, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Toby Hemingway, Paul Stamets, Brock Dolman (from OAEC where I took my PDC)
Podcasts- Permaculture Voices, Farmer to Farmer
What plans do you have for yourself, your land and your farm in the coming years?
We hope to continue regenerating this land through permaculture design techniques and working in partnership with livestock.
We also intend to begin hosting farm to table weddings, events, and retreats in 2018.
Dylan and I are getting married at Werewolf Ranch in 2019 and hope to start a family together someday.