Sweet Wheel Farms

By Steven Libowitz   |   May 21, 2024
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Although Summerland had relatively minor flooding and damage following the torrential rainstorm and resulting debris flow in January 2018, the town suffered several days of isolation due to the closure of the 101 freeway and debris blocking other access points. Having her hometown turn into a virtual island was a wake-up call for Summerland resident Leslie Person Ryan, then a former farmer who recognized the lack of accessibility also meant something of a food crisis. 

“We couldn’t go anywhere for days, neither north or south, which was a big problem because Summerland doesn’t have a [major] grocery store,” Ryan said. “Summerland was totally unprepared. There was no governmental plan or other organization that could connect people who needed food with those who had extra.”

The crops grown at Sweet Wheel Farms are organic, non-GMO, and often from heirloom seeds

The shortage in supply quickly caused quite a commotion among hungry residents stuck in the tiny town. 

Summerland still doesn’t have a Vons or Ralphs or any other major grocery store, but what it does have is Sweet Wheel Farms – the ultra-organic farm that sits atop Summerland. Its educational arm and myriad programs including a green food cart/farmstand on Lillie Avenue won’t let you stock up on toilet paper and Oreos, but it’s slowly solving a lot of other issues related to community-based nutrition, sourced, and served locally and sustainably. 

Everything came together remarkably quickly. Ryan had owned a farm in the San Diego area years earlier where she turned a non-organic outfit into one offering organic Valencias, avocados, grapefruit, lemons, limes, and more. 

In Summerland, she began with the farm stand, buying organic food from other farmers to both sell and, almost immediately, give away to locals in need.

“People kept telling me that we were acting like a nonprofit, but we weren’t,” Ryan recalled. “I just knew that I wanted to help the community.”

Ryan also soon realized she could do a better job producing her own produce. Early efforts in Orcutt and Carpinteria quickly turned into leasing the undeveloped seven-acre site on Whitney owned by Summerland School. Six months later, when the school decided to sell the site, Ryan reared up and created the nonprofit Santa Barbara Agriculture & Farm Education Foundation in order to raise the funds. 

Ryan said Sweet Wheel Farms is a rare bird in that its practices go beyond organic to maintain practices that are even purer. 

“There are all sorts of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides – including bleach and hydrogen peroxide – that can be used in organic farming, but we decided to grow without using anything like that,” she said. “Everything is non-GMO and often from heirloom seeds.” 

But Santa Barbara Agriculture & Farm Education Foundation and Sweet Wheel Farms’ mission is about more than clean food. It’s also focused on creating a completely closed-loop system, an antidote to an absurd situation in the county where nearly 90 percent of the food we grow is exported elsewhere, while the same amount of food we eat is imported from out of the area. 

“What we do – farming, growing, delivering the food, and having it consumed in the same area – is very unusual for Santa Barbara County, but it’s essential for both food security and sustainability,” Ryan said. 

Through its quick growth in less than five years, Santa Barbara Agriculture & Farm Education Foundation and Sweet Wheel Farms have a number of programs to address those issues, including the Summerland Food Bank and a food pantry, Farm Education on regenerative practices, free breakfasts and holiday meals for veterans, the continuing Community Farm Cart, and its ever-increasing Food Fragile effort. The latter donates to those in need and supports other charitable organizations with Sweet Wheel’s chemical-free, natural, and organic farmed products.

“What started out as one family in 2018 is now a huge network of cancer patients, single-parent working households, and others facing food insecurity,” Ryan said.

But the nonprofit still has a laundry list of goals for the near future and beyond, Ryan said. 

“The point is the farm is something very different, one where we can make our own water from special netting that pulls moisture from the air and eventually generate our own power through wind turbines and solar,” she said. “We also don’t want to put more carbon emissions into the world by delivering this stuff all over the place with trucks or gasoline vehicles.”

To that end, Sweet Wheel has launched a new program to deliver its produce to locals via electric bicycles, a concept that came from a high school student interning with the organization. 

“He delivered his first bag of produce to a food insecure family earlier this week,” Ryan said. “But we want it to be a much bigger thing, so there’s a big fundraising need because we’ll have to have bikes, a training program, and insurance.”  

To support the mission, visit www.SBAFEFoundation.com or call (805) 453-1465.


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