In her bakery, Melissa Sorongon bakes naturally leavened loaves in a wood-fired oven, bread she’s crafted from American heritage grains that she mills fresh.
She’s the only one doing the work she does at Piedrasassi Wine and Bread. The Lompoc tasting room is open by appointment only, and Sorongon sells her bread online and on Saturday mornings at the Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market. Over the years, she’s developed a wealth of knowledge about how to raise a successful ag business from something as small as a mustard seed.
Sorongon is among a handful of Central Coast family farmers and organic growers sharing their expertise during the California Small Farm Conference. From Feb. 27 to 29, the 32nd annual conference, put on by the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, will bring growers and advocates from all over the state to Paso Robles.
This year’s conference focuses on the theme of diversity—among crops and among the farmers themselves. Sorongon is one of three women presenting their perspectives during the Women Farmers: The Key to Success is Diversity panel discussion.
“It’s my first time at the Small Farm Conference—so many of us who own and operate small farms find it hard to find the time to attend conferences, but this one is a good one for people who want to begin to farm or expand/improve their small operation,” Sorongon told the Sun via email, noting that she heard about the conference through Carla Rosin, a farmers’ market manager and promoter of local agriculture.
Sorongon shared that she’s learned a lot over the past eight years, leading her to find the best ways to use everything the small winery and bakery have on hand.
“One thing I think I have learned since 2012 when we first started growing grain is the value of being flexible and creative. When we first started, we were mostly selling just bread at the market,” she said. “Since I am the only baker, and I alone mill the flour, fuel the wood-fired oven, and mix, shape, and bake the bread, bread production is limited by the amount that I can make by myself.”
Now, to help expand the business, she also sells prepared mustard, red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, and a variety of wines at Piedrasassi’s farmers’ market stand.
“The mustard seed was harvested as an accidental crop in our herbicide-free grain, and I make the vinegar from expired wine samples from the winery tasting room,” Sorongon said. “This kind of product development has been essential for us to grow the business while keeping the time-consuming bread production at a manageable level.”
Sorongon said she has found a solid local community through her fellow members of the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Market Association (SBCFMA). She also said there’s a chapter of the California Women in Agriculture in Santa Maria, which provides educational and outreach opportunities in ag.
“I sit on the board of the SBCFMA, and it is very encouraging to see many new younger farmers from diverse backgrounds who are interested in developing new products to bring to market,” she said. “I’m very proud to belong to such a robust and varied farm community here in Santa Barbara County.”
The local ag landscape is indeed varied.
According to the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, of Santa Barbara County’s 1,467 farms, 85 percent are family farms. The census also shows that 14 percent of the county’s farmers sell directly to consumers, largely through the 10 weekly farmers’ markets between Santa Maria and Carpinteria. While the average size of a farm in the county is 487 acres, there are more than 475 farms that are quite small—33 percent of the total county farms work 1 to 9 acres, according to the ag census.
Of the county’s farms, there are 147 registered organic farms on 16,428 acres of organically farmed land, according to the ag commissioner’s 2018 annual crop report.
At the Small Farm Conference, established farmers from around the state and the up-and-coming generation will rub elbows and learn from each other.
“This year we landed on the theme of strength through diversity, because really, I think it’s at the heart of resilience,” said Evan Wiig, who has been coordinating the farm conference. Wiig is the founder of the Farmers Guild and director of membership and communications at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
“There are so many different elements of diversity; agriculture—and especially agriculture at a larger scale—is really veering toward consolidation and veering toward being homogeneous, a lot of mono-crops,” Wiig said, “and some of the challenges we see in our food system, and what really puts our food system at risk is the lack of diversity.”
Wiig also noted that incorporating diversity can help farmers of the future face some of the largest mounting problems.
“There are certainly issues related to climate change … the big issue of our generation,” Wiig said, “and folks just getting out of college—that’s really what they’re having to look at.”
Bill Spencer, aka Farmer Bill, is one Central Coast farmer giving serious thought to the future of his farm. Spencer said he is ready to retire soon from his small family farm (certified organic since 1999), which is currently transitioning to biodynamic.
Spencer will be at the Small Farm Conference—in fact, he and his wife, Barbara, will be receiving one of the 2020 Family Farm Awards: the Legacy Farmer of the Year. His Windrose Farm, east of Paso Robles, grows 12 acres of veggies, apples, and stone fruit. He also has 5 acres of sheep pastures. The rest of his 50-acre land is a habitat full of animal, bird, and insect life.
Spencer is a treasure trove of farming expertise. He said many of his interns move out of state to places like Maine where land isn’t as expensive and the farming community is ultra supportive.
“The problem is most of the young farmers that are doing the best they can are on leased ground, which is short-term,” Spencer said. “They make money, they send their kids to college, and they do a good job, but they never own the land, and therefore ... the kind of permanent infrastructure in the form of habitat for beneficial bees and other insects, you don’t plant because it’s a perennial and it becomes the landowner’s property once it’s anchored in the ground. ”
As they look to the future, our local farmers can use the Small Farm Conference forum to support their efforts to keep the soil healthy to grow our food for years to come. Because as much as the natural elements have an effect on our farming, it always comes down to people and support to actually thrive.
Associate Editor Andrea Rooks is shopping at her local farmers’ market. Contributing writer Beth Giuffre loves organic knowledge. Send favorite foods through the editor at [email protected].
Nibbles & Bites
• In case you haven’t noticed, Los Alamos is awaiting the reopening of its classy, cozy dining spot, Pico at the Los Alamos General Store. The wine bar and retail space will reopen in early March after a brief hiatus, with a new executive chef, a new menu concept of “upscale comfort food,” and an enhanced dining room experience. Culinary crafter chef John Wayne Formica, known as the Traveling Cowboy Chef, will join Pico co-owners, Will Henry and Kali Kopley, in the reimagined hospitality venture, which will also feature a new tasting lounge for Henry’s Lumen Wines. Formica attended the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago in 2006 and was sous chef at chef Marcus Samuelsson’s now-shuttered Chicago restaurant, C-House. Most recently, Formica worked as an executive chef with hospitality groups in Los Angeles. In Los Alamos, Pico will keep its popular Sunday Burger Night, which will also feature a full dinner menu, and later in spring, Pico will launch Saturday and Sunday brunch. Menu highlights include vegan and vegetarian options and seafood entrees. Pico at the Los Alamos General Store is located at 458 Bell St. Learn more at losalamosgeneralstore.com.
Associate Editor Andrea Rooks loves a good brunch. Send mimosas to [email protected].