After graduating from college in San Francisco with a degree in marketing, Meredith Bell, a Bakersfield native, swore she would never return to Kern County.
“I wanted to live in a big city,” she tells me during our first meeting. She accomplished that goal with stints in NYC and San Diego, where she worked in food and beverage sales.
Despite a successful career, her discontentment grew. “I felt jaded,” she says.
“I would talk to people every day about food, and they didn’t know where their food came from. There was a disconnect between the farmer and the consumer.”
While living in San Diego, Bell found herself making more phone calls home to her sister and brother-in-law, Janice and Michael Poncetta, to discuss farming. Janice, who earned a BA in agribusiness from Oklahoma State University, and Michael, a fourth-generation farmer who holds a degree in agronomy from Cal State University, Fresno, were living and working on his family’s farm in Bakersfield.
They shared Meredith’s disillusionment with what they saw as a broken farmer-consumer relationship. Michael recognizes an irony: “In Bakersfield, we’re surrounded by farms, but most people had no idea where their food was actually coming from, other than the grocery store.”
They resolved to do something about it. Bell determined it would be too expensive to start a small farm in San Diego and instead chose Kern County, where “we had access to land and water we knew we could work off of.” And that’s where she has been since February 2014, when she, Janice and Michael launched Autonomy Farms—a small, sustainable farm and ranch that offers organic produce and naturally raised beef, lamb, poultry and eggs.
Propelled by the “need to fill the gap in the local marketplace,” the trio have become farming and community evangelists. “We are constantly educating our consumers about what it means to be sustainable, what it means to be organic, why it’s important for our bodies and our environment,” says Bell. And like any good evangelist, storytelling and relationship-building are key ingredients to their recipe for success.
Whether at area farmers’ markets, CSA pickup locations or the local diner, the three are continually engaging with their community. Take their grass-fed, grain-finished beef. They encounter many consumers who prefer to purchase less expensive grass-fed beef at a local grocery store rather than from a local ranch. That’s when the conversation begins: Do they know how the animals were treated? Autonomy’s animals are raised naturally and humanely. Are they certain the store-bought meat is entirely free of hormones, antibiotics and GMOs? The cattle at Autonomy Farms are grass-fed and grain finished, which means in the last 90 days of their lives they are fed a high-quality combination of non-GMO grains, most recycled from local craft breweries, never corn or soy. (The grains are essential to add marbling to the meat, which enriches its flavor.) And they are always hormone- and antibiotic-free.
Then there are eggs, which sell for $6 a dozen, a price some consumers balk at. That’s when the farmers tell the different stories of egg production. As Bell explains, unlike most commercially raised hens, “our hens live as they should … outside on a pasture” and subsist on a natural diet that is supplemented with flaxseed and fish oil. This natural process produces eggs that are richer in color and flavor, higher in healthy omega-3 fatty acids and lower in cholesterol. Bell says once people understand this process they’re more inclined to pay more and to feel good about their choice.
Feeling good about their food choices has also led to Autonomy’s thriving community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription plans for both fresh produce and meat. (San Diegans can purchase Autonomy meats at The Heart & Trotter butcher shop in North Park or enjoy them at The Red Door Restaurant in Mission Hills.)
It should be said that running a sustainable farm has its costs: It is both more expensive and more labor-intensive to maintain. Since Autonomy eschews synthetic pesticides, they have to be extra thoughtful about soil maintenance as well as crop selection, rotation and covers to limit potential crop infestations and diseases. They use well water on a drip, which reduces consumption. On the upside there is no waste. Damaged or unattractive produce either gets incorporated into feed or gets composted. “This helps us limit our carbon footprint,” says Bell.
As for that nagging discontentment, Bell exclaims, “I’m so happy now! This is what I was meant to do.” Michael agrees: “Meredith is one of the best farmers I’ve seen. [She proves] if someone is determined enough and does the actual hard work, it’s possible to be successful.”
For more information, visit the farm's website or check out their Facebook page.