Growing up in Illinois, Alyssa Brodsky’s father would ask her and her siblings, “What is waste?” The family would respond in a rehearsed chorus, “Waste is evil!” This ethos resonated with Brodsky years later when she found herself knee-deep in the mud of a rice paddy field in a remote village in Madagascar. After graduating University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in animal sciences with a focus on dairy farming, Brodsky enrolled in the Peace Corps and was sent to Madagascar to work alongside farmers to adopt improved farming techniques. Brodsky’s father’s teachings came to mind as she worked to understand the soil, maximize crop yields, and minimize waste for three years on the world’s fourth-largest island.
Meanwhile, in Chula Vista, Christian Frutos earned his degree in plant propagation and nursery management from Southwestern Community College. Following graduation, Frutos was employed by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (FDA) in its pest prevention and detection program. After a few years with the California FDA, Christian went on to work for California Farm & Garden, a San Diego-based company that designs, installs, and maintains edible landscaping in urban environments. It was here that he met Brodsky, who had moved to San Diego after her work in Madagascar.
“When Christian and I met, he said he wanted to start a microgreens business and I said ‘I want to start a business too’, so we were a match made in heaven,” Brodsky says. In November of 2020, the two had decided to grow food together and planted their first seedlings in a 10’ x 10’ community garden plot at Sweetwater Community Garden in Bonita. They named their joint venture Uranus, which doubled as a cheeky reply when people asked where they grew their produce.
“We were realizing many things all at once. My dad passed away pretty suddenly and I was realizing that life is short. You can’t waste your time because it is definitely finite no matter what. I had this brewing inside of me knowing that I wanted to use my time to grow healthy food for the people that I love and not waste another moment doing something else. Time is our most precious resource,” Brodsky shares.
When their plot in the community garden quickly became an organic jungle of heirloom tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and herbs, they knew they needed to expand. They grew their garden plot by 10 more feet, but it was evident that they needed much more space to pursue the growth they desired.
As fate would have it, they connected with a new landowner who wanted an organic farm, and the trio struck a deal that would allow Frutos and Brodsky to begin farming on more acres that same day. This collaboration was the genesis of Ranchito Milky Way.
But there was one catch—the soil was pure clay and not suitable for immediate farming. Thus, Frutos and Brodsky’s love affair with soil began. Instead of tilling the land which can disrupt healthy networks between natural fungus in the soil and the soil itself, they opted to use a broad fork to slowly and gently break up the compacted earth.
“The idea behind it is yeah, it’s going to be a little slow at first, but we’re building up those networks so the plants will be more resilient and less inputs fall behind. We’re investing in this place and it’s going to keep getting better and it will produce more as we go instead of less,” says Brodsky.
The pair adopted a Korean method of regenerative soil care called JADAM. JADAM was established in 1991 by Youngsang Cho and is a method of organic farming that inspires people to resemble nature. Today the community includes over 75,000 organic farmers from around the world that have adopted his methods.
“His whole philosophy is basically to observe nature, see how it is growing, and try to mimic that in its own way,” Brodsky explains.
“So you see a tree, a tree drops all of its leaf litter on the ground and that’s how it feeds itself. It’s literally eating itself. Some of the oldest trees live for thousands of years and they are always feeding themselves” Frutos adds.
At Ranchito Milky Way, they do just that using a JADAM method to soak leftover plant material in buckets by separating each type of plant and its waste into its own bucket. For example, all the organic waste of a beet plant is fermented into a nutrient-rich tea with water and inoculated with native microorganisms. Frutos and Brodsky forage leaf mold from old trees in Mission Trails to use as their indigenous bacteria for the tea. They then will use that beet tea to fertilize only their beet plants. This results in a concentration of nutrients perfectly suited for beets and in turn increases the yield of the plants.
“We’ve seen at least a three-fold increase in production of the produce,” Frutos says.
In addition to practicing JADAM, the two farmers are expert composters. They both are integral members of Food2Soil, a community-oriented composting program that services HOAs and businesses. Some of the collected compost from Food2Soil residences combined with the kitchen scraps of their farmstand and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members ends up in a compost heap on the farm. The compost is cured for a minimum of six months before it is used to bolster the soil. In total, they have added over 150 yards, or 10 dump trucks worth, of compost to the property since starting in 2021.
This layering of nutrients in combination with worm castings allows the heirloom seeds sourced locally from Everwilde Farms in Fallbrook and from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in New England to grow in abundance at Ranchito Milky Way. In mid-August, rows of corn towered above heirloom varieties of tomatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins, melons, arugula, and cucumbers. Their stand-out produce has begun to catch the eyes of chefs and local residents alike with their hakurei turnips and indigo rose tomatoes.
When they're not at the farm, Frutos and Brodsky can be found sharing their passion for organic farming at Chula Vista High School where they co-teach a farm class together.
San Diegans can contact Ranchito Milky Way for Sunday farm stand info or secure tasty veggies for next year by purchasing spring 2024 CSA shares. One can also find Ranchito Milky Way produce on the shelves of the FoodShed Food Hub in City Heights or at various pickup locations throughout the city.
Waste might be “evil,” but these two farmers at Ranchito Milky Way have found a way to make waste beautiful, useful, and delicious. If you’re seeking out-of-this-world produce look no further than earthside, right here at Ranchito Milky Way.
Ranchito Milky Way invites you to visit their website for more information on their CSA program, farm stand, and where to find their produce near you.
It's a small world—Alyssa Brodsky, owner of Ranchito Milky Way, often takes a turn helping to make community food scraps into soil at this Food2Soil compost hub located in Ocean View Growing Grounds, a community garden space and recovered brownfield in Southeast San Diego.