A Pescadero couple who started with a pie-in-the-sky idea is making a difference in food and farming on the San Mateo County coast.
Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson's story begins at a barn dance at an eco-farm conference about 20 years ago.
"We were actually dancing with two hands together," Vail said. "And the caller looked at us and said, 'Dance like you mean it,' That was the beginning of like, 'Okay, you're my person.' And the next day, we were talking about wanting to start a farm together, and have children, and so, we wasted no time."
The couple found 14 acres of land on the San Mateo County coast in 2003 that was from the Quiroste tribe. On the parcel, shaped like a slice of pie, they co-founded an educational nonprofit named Pie Ranch.
"Pie Ranch began with a shared interest in creating a space that we'd invited people to come connect with themselves, each other, and the land through food production," Lawson said.
Thousands of people a year, including school and corporate groups, have experienced farm life at Pie Ranch since 2005.
Eli Cruz recalls milking goats, and lessons in regenerative farming and cooking the organic harvest. He is now a staff member who works at the farm stand and has planted a flower garden on the ranch.
She also plans to run her own farm.
"They inspired me to go after my dreams," Cruz said of the husband-wife team.
In fact, Vail and Lawson are carving a pathway for local farmers of the future, especially women, Black, indigenous, people of color, and others who've historically been denied land ownership.
Over the years, Pie Ranch along with its partner organizations have given about 100 apprentices land, capital and mentorship to start their own small farms on a 400-plus acre Cascade Ranch nearby.
"We firmly believe that a food system that has producers and ranchers that are directly linked to the community eating their food builds a healthier food system," Lawson said.
That system has fed struggling families, especially early in the pandemic when Pie Ranch bought local farmers' organic produce to give hundreds of free food boxes a week.
No matter how you slice it, Pie Ranch leaves its founders with a sweet taste.
"So seeing young people come to the land and pull a carrot out of the ground for the first time or milk a goat and how that makes them come alive," Vail said. "That's what feeds this work that we're doing here."
Pie Ranch is working on building a coalition to form a new governing structure that will help connect locally-grown food to those who need it most, like school cafeterias, or emergency food organizations.
The group's annual fundraiser takes place on Saturday, September 17 with farm-to-fork dining, a tour of Pie Ranch, and barn dancing. It's called The Whole Pie. For more information, visit pieranch.org.
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