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Farm Fatale: Meet Edible San Diego's July Cover Girls

Olivia Hayo
July 30, 2018
Barbie, Laura, Jessica, Deanna, Katie, Maria and Cora

Selecting an image for the covers of our six annual issues is one of the most enjoyable tasks in producing Edible San Diego magazine.

As the editorial team developed the issue theme of “Cultivating Plenty”, we wanted an image that would encourage San Diego County residents and visitors to learn more about where our food comes from locally. And this time, we decided to do something really different in creating a cover story that lived not in the print magazine, but on our redesigned website.

As I mentioned in my Publisher’s Note in the magazine, we literally wanted to share the new faces of growing food in our region. So, I invited several dynamic local farmers, who just happen to be women, to join us for a photo shoot.

Barb, Laura, Jessica, Deanna, and Cora are farmers who responded to our call, meeting us in a really gorgeous avocado grove between Escondido and Valley Center.

I could tell you that San Diego County has the 12th largest farm economy in the country. Or that we have more small farms (less than 10 acres) than any other. I could tell you that we are number one in producing avocados, nursery crops, and in the number of part-time farmers, or that San Diego County ranks number two in farms with women as principal operator, third in honey production, and fifth in lemons, according to the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

But, these numbers don’t really tell the story of what it’s like to  grow food, flowers and seedlings in today’s global economy, here in our southwestern corner of the US. So, I thought we’d let the women who are doing the work tell you about their farms, their inspirations, and their experiences, in their own words.

Barbie Thompson

Barbie Thompson Lee of Lucky Dog Ranch


Her Farm

We are micro-farmers looking to produce vegetables with macro flavor. We grow the kind of things that you may not be able to find easily anywhere else and we do it using methods that are easy on the environment. Things are always changing, but we are currently growing Blackberries, Raspberries, Boysenberries, Heirloom Tomatoes, Beans, corn, and herbs.

Why did you start farming?

I had a strong desire to work with plants and found great gratification working in nature. I basically fell in love with the land and delighted in watching it come to life as I worked and nurtured it. So for me it’s a love story that’s still delighting me every day.

How would you describe a typical day in your life on the farm?

I start by looking over the fields to check for damage either from broken water lines, gophers, bugs, you name it. It seems like everyday you have to be vigilant to catch what’s out to hurt your crops! We pick in the morning and I deliver in the afternoon. We’re a small farm operation, and we mostly pick specifically for our client’s orders.

What is the biggest lesson farming has taught you?

Humility!! Plants don’t care how important you think you are or what promises you’ve made on their behalf. They are going to do what they are going to do and I’ve found it best to just be there to support them through their process and be grateful for what they produce.

Cora Ragaini of Bear Valley Organics


Her Farm

We’re an 117-acre organic farm dedicated to sustainability and mind/body wellness. We grow organic avocados, guavas, lemons, mangos, figs, with much more to come. We also raise special varieties of koi and grow succulents, agave, specialty flowers, which include protea and wax flowers.

Our farm is unlike anywhere else on earth. Goats and ponies are our lawnmowers. Wild turkeys and peacocks crow in the distance. Our farm stretches east to west, soaking up the sun and offering gleaming views of Lake Wohlford from the top of the property.

Cora Ragaini
Laura Hillebrecht

Why did you start farming?

I started farming with an interest & advocacy for quality food. As a dietitian and vegetarian, healthy food is imperative in my life. I dived into America's farming practices and how they affect our health and environment.

I started taking working vacations on farms, trading farm work for room and board, I traveled to Hawaii and Costa Rica to expand the little farming knowledge I had. I wanted to learn holistic organic farming practices. Once I returned I collaborated with a small urban farmer and worked in exchange for produce. I started teaching cooking & yoga classes on the farm. Together, that same farmer and I moved cross-country to help start the farm I am at now,  Bear Valley Organics.

How would you describe a typical day in your life on the farm?

As a new farmer I am growing with the farm and building a wellness center, as well. My days vary but can include anything from computer work for financials, organic certification, content creation, spreading the online presence of our farm, and event coordination. I love the farming part of my job which includes weeding fig orchards and flower beds, watering & inspecting irrigation lines, feeding the trees, propagating succulents, boxing avocados, and pruning our specialty flowers. I also teach yoga in the community and on the farm.

What is the biggest lesson farming has taught you?

My favorite lesson I have learned from my short experience farming is based around gaining connection to nature and the land. I am not a morning person and have not been since I was a little girl. However, in order to work in such harmony with the natural rhythms of nature and to maximize your time spent working you must follow the circadian rhythms, waking with the sun and winding down as it sets. This has also shown me how special early mornings can be. No more hitting the snooze button over here!

Laura Hillebrecht of Farm Stand West


Her Farm

George Hillebrecht bought his first parcel of the ranch in Escondido in 1924, and continued to buy adjoining parcels as he could afford them, until he had 150 acres. His parents were citrus farmers from Orange County, and he chose this area because the land was affordable and they had a promising source of local water.

George planted valencia oranges and lemons from his own nursery, and later planted fuerte avocados. He retired in the mid 50’s and his son Ben, Laura’s father, continued planting more avocados, Hass this time. Ben also planted about ten acres of muscat grapes when the last “old Escondido” vineyard was plowed under in the mid 1970’s. When the muscat grapes matured, he found that the only market outlet for the imperfect-looking muscat-of-Alexandra grapes was roadside selling to the public. Thus, our farm stand operation was born of necessity in the late 1970’s. My brother and sisters were of college age at that time, and we all helped with the growing and selling at the stand. We converted some of the very old citrus plantings into crops which would widen our variety of offerings at the farm stand. We planted five acres of deciduous fruit trees, six acres of raspberries, two acres of asparagus, four acres of strawberries, two acres of tomatoes, and other small crops.

We also have a ranch seven miles east of here (contiguous to the Wild Animal Park in San Pasqual Valley). We farm about 80 acres there, mostly valencia oranges and 15 acres of white sweet corn and five acres of various melons and potatoes. We are planning to develop some hillside Hass avocado plantings, since we have improved our water well capacity.

Why did you start farming?

Our farming experience started way back in the late 60s with our farm family garden. Farmers have farms and often times they have a family garden. We were one of those families. It was training grounds for the future of our family farm. We learned to plant, irrigate, weed, trap varmints, and harvest at age 5 and on. My earliest recollection of harvest, was picking wild blackberries at the crack of dawn with the entire family…dogs included, until we discovered they were stealing the berries from our pans! My parents suggested that we whistle while we were harvesting so that we wouldn’t eat all the berries we were picking.

I started farming because I was born and raised to be a farmer. It's not just my heritage, it's my passion.

How would you describe a typical day in your life on the farm?

A typical day on the farm is interesting, challenging, and delicious.

What is the biggest lesson farming has taught you?

Farming has taught me to be patient and persistent.

Jessica Sanchez
Deanna Smith

Jessica Sanchez of Terra Madre Gardens


Her Farm

We've been farming for more than 10 years now. First as apprentices with La Milpa Organica Farm. When we first started we knew nothing about planting seeds, pulling weeds, or even how vegetables grew. We left our office jobs to find something that would satisfy our needs to be more connected to nature.

La Milpa offered us a sanctuary where we could live under the oaks, simplify our life and live off the land. We were eventually put into a leadership role at the farm, now called Stone Farms, and we were able to take the farm to another level, essentially creating a mini edible forest that provides a wide array of fruits and vegetables.

We then decided to open the farm to the public on a weekly basis and have events with live music, movie nights, wood fired pizzas, out in the field dinners, weddings, and workshops. It was an amazing way for us to connect with the public and provide a genuine experience that very few places could offer.

Why did you start farming?

Farming for me was a way to get in touch with myself. At that time in my life, over ten years ago, I was working a corporate job, having my children in daycare and having very little time for family and myself. I felt like something important was missing. My life felt empty and unsatisfying.

The contact with the earth provided me with all that the corporate world was taking from me: connection and freedom. My working space was outside; with the sky as my roof and no walls to limit my gaze. I feel free and unbound here. To me, working with the earth has been a portal to a more fulfilling life.  

How would you describe a typical day in your life on the farm?

My days are guided by many factors. The garden always wants and needs something different and even though I try to be consistent with what I am working on, I also allow the cycles of the garden and those with in myself to guide me. There are days in which I have a lot of energy and I am very active clearing beds and preparing them for the next crop. There are others in which my energy is lower or I am in a more contemplative mood and I can sit down on the earth and hand weed a bed of carrots.  

My day typically starts with me walking the garden and finding out what calls me. I allow the waning and waxing to happen and I try to enjoy all the phases.

What is the biggest lesson farming has taught you?

The earth and the interaction of all the components that come together in the garden are full of lessons. On a daily basis it is ready to deliver what you are ready to perceive and receive.

The lessons for me have been many and they have all been life changing. They have all come at different times and stages in my life and they have moved and merged into different understandings as I have matured with them.

The biggest one has to be to do and be from the heart.  Coming from a corporate job/world background, I wanted to impose, transform and control. The garden with its people, plants, trees and weeds have taught me to do my best and allow growth to take its course. Working from the heart means that whatever task I am performing, I am doing it with love, attention and devotion.

Deanna Smith of Deanna’s Gluten Free & Farm Stand West

Her Farm

In addition to running Deanna’s Gluten Free bakery, Deanna farms in Escondido, where she sells her produce at Farm Stand West.

When Deanna Smith learned that her four-year-old cousin, Karlie, was put on a gluten free diet, she wanted to do something to help, especially since Karlie said all the gluten free breads tasted like cardboard. Even though Deanna had never baked a loaf of bread in her life, she started experimenting with gluten-free bread recipes. Deanna responded to early calls asking about buying the bread by baking an extra loaf or two and giving it away. It didn't take too long for her to realize that there was a tremendous demand for delicious gluten-free breads and pastry, and her business was born.

Why did you start farming?  

To feed my family with home grown truly healthy foods. Knowing where and how our food is critical to me. What better way to know than to do it yourself?

How would you describe a typical day in your life on the farm?

I rise minutes before the sun to be out in the field hoeing, watering, extend trellis lines when needed for tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and tomatillos.  I harvest of fruits and vegetables as well as fresh eggs. Then, I deliver freshly harvested produce and eggs to Farm Stand West before 9 am. Next comes cleaning out the chicken coop, adding fresh straw, watering and feeding the hens, including fresh greens for extra nutrients. Then, it’s on to any maintenance, i.e. water well filters, tractor oil changes, rodent barriers. Check on bee hives and green house plants.  There are many unexpected tasks that are always on the list to get to but that is true with all businesses and lifestyles.

What is the biggest lesson farming has taught you?  

Patience. Everything in its time.

Katie Stokes
Katie Stokes is the Publisher and Executive Editor of Edible San Diego.
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