People who endure the stress of city life may dream of a life in the country, but not many take the leap.
Two and half years ago, Lori and Chris Melançon did.
The couple had initially purchased 12 acres of dormant pasture in Sonoma County, as an investment. Then it “called to them” with visions of farming vegetables and raising pigs, goats, and chickens. So they left lucrative jobs in San Francisco, Chris at a startup and Lori at a cancer-focused pharmaceutical company, and started LOLA Sonoma Farms.
“The entrepreneurial thing for us (in the city) started to fade,” said Chris. “In the early stage of this venture we realized the potential on the land and the entrepreneurial spark emerged again. We had the opportunity to take a small part of Sonoma County and show people — just as those who are interested in wine tasting — what it takes to grow sustainable, organic food. To have a lasting impact. And it doesn’t hurt that we’re outside in the fresh air and sunshine.”
Neither Chris nor Lori has a background in farming.
Chris is a graduate of U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served three years as a Light Infantry Officer, went to business school, and has a background in biophysics.
Lori has an MBA from University of San Francisco and a background in communications and pharmaceuticals.
Now, they grow 1½ acres of seasonal vegetables, have 14 chickens and 17 goats — which all have names — and 40 pigs.
“Believe it or not, we just dove in and learned as we went. We couldn’t have done it without the internet and text messaging,” Chris said. “We made a lot of mistakes. It’s a steep learning curve but we can figure things out quickly.”
One of those mistakes was losing a goat in the difficult birthing process. The survival rate for a newborn goat is less than 50 percent without human intervention due to its spindly legs and getting wrapped up inside the mother.
FaceTime with a veterinarian saved the next one.
The farm also recently lost a pig when oleander, which is highly poisonous, got mixed into the bedding material.
The Melançons have gotten help from the Sonoma Valley Farmers Guild, regularly go to farming conferences, and network.
The couple also has help from different WWoofers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) who come a couple of times a month to help work the farm. WWOOF is an international organization that links volunteers seeking to learn with sustainable farms.
Chris and Lori are also working to get the sustainable farm certified organic by the California Certified Organic Farmers, which requires three years of rigorous record keeping and inspections.
“You need to show what you are amending the soil with,” Chris said.
With compost, for example, a farmer needs to show how the temperature is measured and how often. Also, how much compost is applied to the land and how it affects the water table.
The cost to get certified is about $2,000, plus an annual fee.
Among the people helping the new farmers is Les Landeck, who has been farming in Sonoma County, mostly in Sebastopol, for more than 30 years. He has worked on more than a dozen farms in his career.