Spotlight on San Diego’s Women Farmers

By Caron Golden / Photography By Chris Rov Costa | March 01, 2015
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Vesper Vineyards

For as long as there's been agriculture, there have been women on the farm in one role or another. But women-operated farms historically have been few and far between. Even by tripling the share from 5% in 1978 to 14% in the U.S. by 2007, we're still talking just barely double digits. And, in the last U.S. Census of Agriculture in 2012, that number didn't change much.

Additionally, women-operated farms tend to be smaller, with fewer acres and lower sales than those owned by men. It's been referred to as the "grass ceiling," a situation in which female farmers are regularly denied government and financial support, including loans—all of which makes it more difficult for them to fulfill their potential as food producers.

But locally, the County of San Diego's Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures reported a slightly different story in 2013. Of the county's 5,732 farms, almost 27% are owned by women. We talked with four of them—each very different in age, ethnicity, crops and experience. What they have in common is an absolute dedication to the land that gives them the determination to make it work, no matter the obstacles.

Alysha Stealy at Vesper Vineyards
Alysha Stealy at Vesper Vineyards

Alysha Stehly
Vesper Vineyards

 

Her last name alone gives away her heritage. Her dad, Al Stehly, is the oldest of a generation of siblings deeply embedded in North County farming.

"Farming has been part of my life since day one," says Alysha Stehly. "Summers were spent checking on groves with my dad or 'helping' my mom in the office of their management company."

So, when it came to selecting a career path and college (UC Davis), the 29-year-old Valley Center native knew that farming would be it, although, as she says, "Farming is about family. It isn't a job or career choice; it is a lifestyle."

Stehly delved into viticulture and enology. She and then boyfriend, now husband, Chris Broomell launched Vesper Vineyards and enjoyed their first harvest in 2008—a single barrel of Pinot Noir. They've increased production—despite water issues, challenging regulations and an irritating reluctance of local restaurants to carry local wines.

But with almost 3,000 cases produced in their 2014 harvest and recognition as a Winemaker to Watch, Stehly is determined to live up to the promise, while also teaching viticulture classes at Mira Costa College.

"I'm still waiting for a paycheck from Vesper, but I still love what we do."

Deborah Zappa of Spur Valley Ranch
Deborah Zappa of Spur Valley Ranch

Deborah Zappa
Spur Valley Ranch

 

El Cajon native Deborah Zappa, 63, grew up on an egg production ranch run by her mother while her dad taught chemistry and biology at El Cajon High School.

"With 46,000 egg-laying chickens, it kind of got into my blood," she laughs. "I've always had a passion for getting dirt under my fingernails."

Zappa's family eventually moved away from the ranch, but they always had turkeys, chickens and rabbits. Even when she became a special education teacher and raised her own kids, there was always a garden and chickens raised for eggs.

In 2003, Zappa and her husband bought Spur Valley, a seven-and-a-half-acre dude ranch. Widowed three years later, she kept the ranch and in 2010 launched her business at the Golden Hill farmers' market, while she continues to teach. Today, she and her family, who live on or near the property, keep two cows for personal beef, meat birds, 40 breeder rabbits, over 100 quails and 50 laying hens of various breeds—along with an organic garden.

Today, Zappa sells eggs and meat at the Little Italy Mercato and is revamping her strategy for the farm with plans to retire from teaching.
"I feel my lifestyle is as a fulltime farmer. It will never leave me."

Idazi Mubaiwa of African Sisters
Idazi Mubaiwa of African Sisters

Idzai Mubaiwa
African Sisters

 

If you grew up on fields of corn, eating what your family planted, moving halfway across the world to an urban center wouldn't change things. So, when Idzai Mubaiwa, 49, relocated to San Diego from her native Zimbabwe in 2002 with her husband and four daughters, finding land to farm was as important as finding good schools for her girls.

She got her start through the International Rescue Committee, with a 30- by 40-foot garden plot' adjacent to her sister Tsitsi's. When her sister died from breast cancer, she took over her plot, then found land to farm in National City and just off Market Street. On her four plots she grows magnificent produce, including scallions, carrots, broccoli and greens, beets, kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes and celery, which she sells at the North Park farmers' market, where she's been a vendor for four years.

Before her farming day begins, she drives an airport shuttle bus starting at 4am.

"Eventually, I'd love to just do farming," she says. She'd also like to have a small organic produce store in City Heights. In the meantime, she's eager to meet more chefs.

"I want to grow what they want to use."

Laurel Mehl of Coral Tree Farm
seeds
coral tree
Photo 1: Laurel Mehl of Coral Tree Farm
Photo 2: heirloom seeds
Photo 3: Coral Tree

Laurel Mehl
Coral Tree Farm

 

It's hard to tell there's a farm behind the cul-de-sac of McMansions on the short Encinitas street, but Coral Tree Farm has been around since the 1800s.Laurel Mehl, 56, who grew up on the property eventually bought by her parents when it was still an eight-acre avocado ranch, tends to a reduced but still vibrant farm filled with exotic heirloom produce, heritage breed chickens, ducks and goats.

To subsidize farming the remaining two acres, Mehl also works at her husband's heating and air conditioning business.

"Our goal is to be self-sustaining but expenses are high," she laments. "Water costs are nuts."

Consequently, the avocado trees are mostly gone, with Mehl, a former high school chemistry teacher, planting more sustainable guavas, cherimoyas and vegetables. A huge slow food advocate, "I like people to come by and be involved with the growing space if they have time." 'Her sons, who live on the property, also help.

Mehl has two special passions: her egg business and her seed business. She develops custom heirloom seeds and sprouts trays for customers.
"We really love what we do and love to share it," Mehl says. "To me, it's a gift."

Kylie Konyn
Kylie Konyn

Kylie Konyn: A Farmer to Watch
 

An outsider may be awed at what seems to be the overachieving determination of 11-year-old Kylie Konyn. But Kylie, the daughter of Frank and Stacey Konyn of Frank Konyn Dairy in the San Pasqual Valley, is doing exactly what she wants—and has been since she was 5 years old.

And what she wants is to be hip deep in animal husbandry.

Currently, she has four grass-fed Angus beef projects. She breeds cows, exhibits calves at shows, raises chickens for eggs for the family and to sell to parents at her school and raises free-range turkeys for Thanksgiving.

"I think this interest was inherited from my parents," she says. "My dad has been in dairying his entire life and my mom was a former agriculture teacher. From a very young age I got to go out to the dairy with my dad and work with him and our calf raiser."

Her first love is Heart, the first heifer she raised. "She is what got me involved and interested in starting my own dairy herd."

'Of course it's hard for Kylie to sell her animals for market, ''but she's already decided to make dairy her career and thinks other girls should get involved in dairy work.

"It teaches you things that carry over to real-life experiences and it teaches you responsibility about the raising and care of animals."

Article from Edible San Diego at http://ediblesandiego.ediblecommunities.com/shop/spotlight-san-diegos-women-farmers
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