Meet the new crop of urbanites-turned-farmers in Sonoma County

Lori Melançon picks lettuce at LOLA Sonoma Farms on Feb. 2, 2018. (Cynthia Sweeney/North Bay Business Journal)

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

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.

In the last 15 years or so Landeck has also seen more young people wanting to get into farming, but there is a lack of available, affordable land.

“When you get right down to it it’s so difficult to find (farmable) land now. They get discouraged and move out of state,” he said.

Landeck is a long-time seed-saver, crossing seeds to create new ones. He’s particularly proud of his Asian cabbage crossed with kale. Kale and mustard are unable to technically cross, but he crossed two types of mustard to get a third, unique mustard green that creates “a striking pattern in a salad.”

Lori credits him with the quality of the farm’s specialty, a seasonal salad blend.

“This is nothing you could buy in a market,” she said.

The Melançons sell their produce at three different farmer’s markets around the county, where farmers come from as far away as Central Valley to sell their produce. However, LOLA Farms gets more share of customers by displaying a sign that reads “grown two miles away.”

“People in Sonoma are aware of what it takes to grow sustainable food and they want to have a relationship with the farmer. They really support us,” Chris said.

But it’s still not their bread and butter.

“You can make money (there), but it’s a lot of work,” Chris said. “It’s hard to make money with vegetables on a small scale, except maybe where the taxes are lower. We do it to stay connected to the community.”

So, the Melançons also keep bees and make honey, and have workshops making goat cheese, and they have also sold produce to Press in St. Helena and Wine Kitchen in San Francisco.

LOLA Farm’s hog share program, however, where customers purchase a whole or portion of the hog, is more lucrative than selling vegetables, which is labor intensive.

“The pigs take care of themselves,” Chris said.

The pigs are a small breed from New Zealand called KuneKune.

“It’s better quality (meat) than you get at the market. The fat is marbleized, so the pigs have less of a layer of fat.”

There is a common philosophical thread between the couple’s jobs in the city and working on the farm, and that is to consciously make a lasting social and environmental impact. Six of the goats, for example, are endangered San Clemente Island goats. There are only 700 in the world and the Melançons are hoping to strengthen those numbers with two breeding pairs.

A big part of the mission is also sharing their experience with the farm with others in part by offering tours of the farm by appointment, and special dinners.

“As you look at what people are drawn to now, they want to have an experience,” Lori said. “People want authenticity. They want to see where the wine is made, go to the wine cave, see who the winemaker is. They can just as easily have dinner on a farm and see where the food and pigs come from, how the food is grown and how it gets on your plate. Knowing where that nutritious food came from.”

And being able to offer that experience is satisfying.

“Kids easily make the connection and that is just a joy,” Chris said.

The pigs are mild in temperament, making them well-suited for visitors to the farm, like children, who have been know to turn into vegetarians when they realize that the pigs will ultimately become the bacon on their plate.

“That’s okay; we’ll just sell more beets,” Chris said. “Creating vegetarian kids who are now asking for vegetables, that’s pretty satisfying. On a farm, we don’t expect to get rich but it’s about quality of life and getting people to appreciate it. That’s enough reward for us.”

After 2½ years of farming, however, the couple hasn’t left the city entirely. Living in Sonoma County is expensive, and selling vegetables at the farmer’s market doesn’t pay the mortgage.

“It’s the cost of land, and taxes are based on the wine industry,” Chris said.

Aside from the rigors of farming, the two both have consulting jobs to help pay the bills.

“It’s like having two full-time jobs. For a lot of farmers (who are couples) it’s quite common for one or both to work other jobs,” Lori said.

“It’s a big leap of faith to let go and dive into a farm,” Chris added.

Are their lives stressful?

“That’s an understatement. It’s running into the house with mud on your hands for a conference call,” Lori said.

“The stress comes from wanting to spend all our time on the farm and trying to find a balance,” Chris added.

Unlike in the city, however, there are immediate outlets to destress such as spending time with the farm’s three working dogs, or putting one of the goats on a leash and taking it for a walk.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.