People Who Give Us Hope: Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail of Pie Ranch

Visionary, inclusive, equitable, and regenerative are just a few adjectives woven into the community that Jered Lawson and Nancy Vail have built at Pie Ranch over the past eighteen years. Now, in addition to COVID-19, they face tremendous new challenges due to destruction of some critical parts of the farm’s infrastructure, including the historic Steele Ranch house, casualties of the CZU complex wildfires in August. 

Jered and Nancy founded Pie Ranch in 2002, when they gained access to a 14-acre property shaped like a slice of pie on the south San Mateo coast. This land had been home to the Quiroste Tribe for thousands of years before European contact. The Quiroste were Awaswas speakers and today they are represented by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, with whom Pie Ranch has been partnering on several initiatives.

A Holistic Community Vision

Pie Ranch’s holistic community vision includes creating a regenerative farming and food system education center that provides a space for healing relationships with ourselves, each other, and the earth, stewarding the land and the environment, sequestering carbon through climate-friendly farming techniques, empowering and training new young farmers, making healthy food accessible to Bay Area communities, and leveraging privilege to address systemic racism and oppression.

Pie Ranch is a place for people to learn about food. For starters, they produce everything needed to make pie – from pumpkins, blackberries, strawberries, apples, and other fruits to eggs, milk, and wheat. Through partnerships with Bay Area schools, young people 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’s success in farming depends upon regenerative cultivation practices including perennial crops and a 4-year rotation of annual crops followed by animals on pasture. Chickens are enclosed in a portable solar electric fence where they move freely through the pasture, scratching for insects, and fertilizing as they strut. Chicken poop is a great source of nitrogen and other nutrients that plants need. The cycle is completed as eggs are sold at Pie Ranch’s roadside farmstand or used in pies baked on site with the youth.

Emerging Farmer Program Expands at Cascade Ranch

Two years ago Pie Ranch expanded their Emerging Farmer Program on the neighboring 418-acre Cascade Ranch Historic Farm. With planning support from the alumni consulting team of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and through an incredible new leader, Leonard Diggs, joining as Director of Operations, the new effort is accelerating next generation farm businesses by supporting women and Black, Indigenous and People of Color who have been historically marginalized from access to land and resources. To hold this larger vision of multiracial land stewards providing for the multiracial communities around the Bay Area, Jered and Nancy have brought together a diverse, skilled, multiracial leadership team of 6 directors to steward Pie Ranch’s work going forward.

Meeting the Challenges: COVID-19 to Wildfires

COVID-19 brought huge challenges to Pie Ranch. All educational programs were closed down leaving the youth program staff without a job to do. Visionary leaders that they are, Nancy and Jered worked with their leadership team, staff, and community members to pivot, find funding, and prevent any layoffs. The youth program staff are now supporting a crucial service: procuring and packaging organic produce boxes weekly to Bay Area families experiencing food insecurity.

When the CZU fire roared down the hillsides above Pie Ranch on Friday, August 21, it destroyed the historic Steele Ranch house that had served as apprentice housing and office space as well as several outbuildings, the farm’s vital water systems, and all of the information technology and communications phone lines, satellite, Wi-FI, printers, modems, walkie talkies, and more. Treasures lost in the fire include historic photos and relics from the Steele family, depictions of the land before European colonization, information about the Amah Mutsun Tribe and Land Trust efforts, an extensive library of books about regenerative farming, food, and social justice, images of high school youth baking pies, and binders filled with thank-yous from the thousands of visitors who have participated in Pie Ranch programming. 

But even as they dealt with the fire that impacted the personal safety of their family, Nancy and Jered leaned into their resilience and met this existential challenge with their unquenchable positivity. Within days people were back to work, and the Pie Ranch greater community was re-energized. Now, two months after the fire, plans are coming together to rebuild the historic farmhouse and other infrastructure. They are also collaborating with organizations such as the Amah Mutsun Land Trust, Resource Conservation District, Natural Resources Conservation Service, State Parks, and neighbors to look at a broader regional recovery effort which includes the removal of non-native eucalyptus trees, sowing of native grasses for erosion control, and long-term planning for cultural burns with leadership from the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and CalFire.  

Resiliency, regeneration, and innovation are foundational elements of Jered and Nancy’s work at Pie Ranch. You are invited to support their work of restoration and rebuilding along with their inspiring vision of farm education and building opportunities for multiracial farmers and land stewards along the coast. You can visit: https://www.pieranch.org/take-action

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