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Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail: Pie Ranch: A Rural Center for Urban Renewal


Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail make up two thirds of the founding partnership that operates Pie Ranch—“a rural center for urban renewal.” With San Francisco-based colleague Karen Heisler, Lawson and Vail began establishing this working farm in 2002 as a place where city youth could learn about food. The non-profit organization’s mission, according to its website, is “to inspire and connect rural and urban people to know the source of their food, and to work together to bring greater health to the food system from seed to table.” Mission Pie, a sister business located in the city’s Mission District and overseen by Heisler, employs local young people in baking and selling pastries concocted from the farm’s products.

Perched on a coastal hillside in southern San Mateo County, between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, Pie Ranch’s triangular slice of land now produces “everything you need to make pie”—from pumpkins, berries and tree fruits to eggs, milk, butter, honey and wheat. Students and teachers from urban high schools make monthly farm pilgrimages throughout the school year. Guided by Lawson and Vail and other Pie Ranch staff, they experience hands-on learning about soil, compost, weather, weeds and water; the cycles of planting, tending, and harvesting crops; the challenges and rewards of working as a group, and the pleasures of cooking and eating wholesome food from scratch.

Pie Ranch also offers year-long apprenticeships, summer internships, monthly work parties and barn dances, and a variety of educational programs and cultural events. Travelers and locals can sample the farm’s wares at a roadside farm stand downhill from the farm fields, on coastal Route 1—near the historic Steele dairy lands that Pie Ranch, in cooperation with the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), is working to protect.

Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail both bring a wealth of experience to the Pie Ranch project. Lawson is a UCSC community studies graduate and a former Apprentice in Ecological Horticulture at the UCSC Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS). Between his first two college years, Lawson spent a formative summer at Stephen and Gloria Decater’s Live Power Community Farm in Covelo (Mendocino County), where Alan Chadwick—Stephen’s mentor at UCSC—had been invited to establish a garden project in 1972. Live Power had recently launched the first community supported agriculture (CSA) program in California. Lawson went on to initiate and oversee a CSA program for Santa Cruz’s Homeless Garden Project, and later did the same for CASFS. Increasingly interested in CSA as a marketing strategy for sustaining small farms, he organized a 1995 Western Region CSA conference and created a statewide CSA advocacy and outreach program campaigns for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). He also helped establish farm-to-school and buy-local programs for CAFF, and did similar work with the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley.

Nancy Vail, a graduate of UC San Diego, began learning about farming in a series of post-college internships abroad. Returning to the U.S., she apprenticed with writer-farmers Eliot Coleman and Barbara Damrosch at Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, at Angelic Organics (whose proprietor, John Peterson, was celebrated in the 2006 documentary “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”), and at biodynamic Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County, New York. Like Lawson, Vail also apprenticed in the CASFS program, eventually staying on as a second- and third-year apprentice. She went on to share oversight of the UCSC farm operations with Jim Leap, and managed the CSA that Lawson had inaugurated in 1995. After Vail and Lawson’s first child was born, she moved into a part-time position as farm-to-college program coordinator for CASFS. In early 2008, she left CASFS to attend to childrearing and Pie Ranch full-time.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Jered Lawson on March 4th, 2008, at Rabkin’s home in Soquel, with a brief follow-up interview in the Science and Engineering Library at UC Santa Cruz on March 18, 2008. Rabkin interviewed Nancy Vail in the same library conference room on March 18, 2008. These interviews covered Lawson’s and Vail’s individual histories prior to the founding of Pie Ranch. On December 11, 2008, at the offices of UCSC’s Program In Community and Agroecology and Community Agroecology Network, she interviewed Lawson and Vail together about the founding and development of Pie Ranch.

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