Summerland Farm Faces its Moment of Reckoning

By Jeff Wing   |   July 4, 2023
Summerland Farm is not a hobby, an eco-conceit, or a symbol – it is food security for those who need it – but is now at risk of losing its water,

A farm is a lovely thing – a pastoral slice of heaven that restores the soul, reconnects the bewildered human to unbridled nature, and just incidentally pushes food out of the dirt. It is the darndest thing. “You see a lot of lettuce. We’ve got broccoli, cauliflower, kale…” Our gesturing tour guide today is the farmer. Her name is Leslie Person Ryan, and her farm – Summerland Farm – is headed for a cliff. Reader – remember the date July 1. This story concerns a threatened community farm, an activated citizen, a cadre of heroic financial supporters, and a Montecito Water District graciously doing everything it can to address a resource on which many have come to depend. 

Summerland Farm is not a sprawling agribusiness. It lives at the end of a little street in its namesake town. You get out of your car, walk over a little rise, and there it is: 6.8 hopeful acres looking down on a painterly rolling valley through which a threadlike creek glints silver in the sun. From the elevated perspective of the farm, the omnipresent ocean seems to rise up like a cornflower-blue slate.

In addition to providing food security to Summerland, the farm serves as an educational vessel (Courtesy photo)

Here’s the rub. Summerland does not have a supermarket. This jarring fact became apparent in the wake of the cataclysmic debris flow of January 9, 2018. Highway 101 services Summerland, and the flooding made that throughway impassable. For six surreal and eye-opening days, the community was effectively cut off from the county’s food supply chain. Summerland Farm’s origin story thus includes a hair-raising anecdote about locals besieged by flood waters squabbling over the remaining food in the town’s liquor store fridge. For real.

Summerland Farm is not a hobby, an eco-conceit, or a symbol. It is a food-producing plot of land for a community that learned the hard way they had no nutritional autonomy – no food security whatsoever. Today Summerland Farm delivers anonymously to locals who need food, has made their produce available to 1,800 struggling veterans in the region, and operates a food stand where chemical- and pesticide-free, regeneratively-sown produce can be purchased. Facts: the median age of a Summerland resident is 63 and the town’s last food supermarket packed up and left in 2017.

As has been reported extensively in these pages, longtime CVR business owner Leslie Person Ryan of Coast Village Road’s Letter Perfect Stationery rose to Summerland’s food-insecure occasion, pulling others into her orbit. She contrived to lease the hilltop plot from Carpinteria Unified School District (CUSD) and having secured the lease began hurriedly planting – establishing a business she called Sweet Wheel Farm & Flowers.

When CUSD inevitably decided they wanted to sell the land Ryan had been leasing and farming, Ryan formed the Santa Barbara Agriculture and Farm Education Foundation (SBAFEF), a nonprofit around which a cadre of selfless donor orgs rallied to help formally purchase the land from the school district. SBAFEF’s multi-talented board is itself a gathering of skill sets perfectly calibrated to the mission. A Minnesota-based foundation called the Manitou Fund put the foundation’s cash offer over the top with their extremely generous capstone contribution. After a ceremonial toss of confetti, Ryan, her supporters, and consultants got back to work looking at a worrying technical issue – getting enough water to the farm to keep it truly productive in perpetuity.

For a time, water was trucked up to the location in 500-gallon plastic tanks – an increasingly non-workable solution. “We needed a water miracle,” Ryan says of that period. Irrigation became the prosaic but grail-like answer to the farm’s water problem. “One day we had a UC Davis hydrologist come up. He took one look at the place and said, ‘You need irrigation.’” Ryan looks at me with what I’ll call exasperated eyebrows. “I’m like ‘…look, please give me a different option!’” When a brainstorming fire official did suggest a stopgap irrigation solution, a similarly engaged Montecito Water District humanely got behind it. It was a new day.

The SBAFEF preparing 1,800 meals for veterans with Summerland Farm’s own produce (Courtesy photo)

Water began trickling into the fields, pristine produce sprang from the rich soil, and Summerlanders, some of whose families had grown desperate, were at last provided home-grown, healthy food – much of it surreptitiously delivered at no charge. The flowing water was metered by the district and wholly paid for by Summerland Farm. There was just one problem – the stopgap solution existed in a policy gray area regarding the use of a fire hydrant for other than firefighting purposes. A passerby visually noted the eccentric solution and for reasons of their own duly reported the situation to the beleaguered Montecito Water District, who were then obliged by the circumstances to concoct an ultimatum: figure out an alternative in six weeks. The stopgap water solution gets shut off on July 1. 

This effort – which goes by the name Save Summerland Farm – has drawn the attention of local philanthropic legend Palmer Jackson Jr. “The Ann Jackson Family Foundation feels fortunate to be able to respond to urgent community requests,” Jackson says, “and here in Santa Barbara we’re surrounded by nonprofit entrepreneurs who are coming up with great ideas all the time. Clearly, Leslie Person Ryan is one of those entrepreneurs. I met Leslie two weeks ago and was struck by her passion and drive – and by the foundation’s accomplishments. I told her story to our foundation board, and we decided to make a grant. I’ve also been in touch with friends in the philanthropic community. We’re getting closer to reaching the goal, and I really hope others will climb aboard and help Summerland Farm over the finish line.” Mr. Jackson’s predilection for superlative veggies may have informed his participation. “Have you ever tried their produce? It’s unbelievable!”

Showing us around, Ryan’s close-cropped hair, black t-shirt, aviator shades, and work boots give her a decidedly hipster flair – an impression mitigated by the fine layer of topsoil that covers her like flour. “This is a biodiverse farm,” she says. “The birds will eat the grasshoppers, the snake will eat the gophers –” Did she say snake? “So you may see Steve the snake. We had a class here from Cate School,” she says. “One of the girls went back to the van to get a drink and I heard her suddenly yell out ‘STEEEEVE!’” (This was not a cry of alarm). “All these Cate kids came happily running from all over the farm to see Steve. It was really cool.” 

That is, Summerland Farm is also a teaching outfit. “We had three horticulture classes that came from San Marcos High School last month,” Ryan says. “We’ve got elementary students coming out to learn, and all the kids understand what it’s like to grow without pesticides and herbicides. It tastes totally different!” Few things motivate a youngster like a palatable snack. Community cornucopia? Yeah. But Summerland Farm is also a bastion of training for the NextGen cohort we are counting on to redress our globally broken food system with their learned practices and fiercely-wielded common sense. This is not tie-dyed wishing on a star, but a buildable tomorrow.

As for today – “Nobody knows this,” Ryan says, “but following the debris flow we had 1,600 people trapped here without food. Yes, we had people arguing over the food at the liquor store here.”

Per the norm, it comes down to greenbacks. Through no fault of their own, the empathetic Montecito Water District is between a rock and a wet place, and have necessarily spelled out their terms. Summerland Farm needs to show up with $218K by July 1st. That figure will fund the two-inch piping, meter, and backflow hardware; the alternative infrastructure needed to properly irrigate the pointedly water-efficient farm. Ryan has several downstream initiatives in queue that will beautify the farm space, innovate water collection, and even accommodate cyclists ogling the local majesty. But first the farm needs actual rescue.

The farm’s mission includes feeding the underserved and the medically fragile – and otherwise ending Summerland’s food insecurity. At this writing, the Summerland community’s beating heart is a closed-loop farm that robustly uses regenerative practices and is fueled by its own recycled nutrients. Reader, please consider becoming part of this movement to keep our lovely Summerland food secure. In so doing, your name will be “writ in water,” to borrow from poet John Keats. On July 1, the current H2O solution ends. In the absence of complete funding for the proposed alternative, the farm will have no water – the one missing ingredient no farm can survive.

Editor’s Note: Digital version has been modified from original print version due to inaccuracies.


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