When most people see 4.7 acres of Southern California land off a major freeway, they see dollar signs. Lots of them. Elizabeth Vaughan isn’t most people.
Instead of selling the plot of land she co-owns with her siblings for the millions offered by developers, Elizabeth Vaughan plans to buck the landless, listless Generation Y trend by hunkering down on her family’s property and becoming a farmer.
In many ways, Elizabeth’s story could belong to any “next gen” farmer. The risks and start-up costs associated with first-time farming are formidable challenges. Farming is a part of Elizabeth’s family history, but it’s not a skill that was intentionally or systematically passed down to her. And despite her intentions to be one of the CSA-coordinating earth mamas, she already feels the financial pressure to carve out a market niche and specialize in a single crop.
On the other hand, Elizabeth’s story is exceptional. The average American farmer is a 56-year-old man; Elizabeth is a woman less than half that age. Many young farmers are daunted by the challenge of renting or purchasing land; Elizabeth inherited it after both of her parents passed away. And in this era of morally-charged agriculture, when many farmers are working hard to remind people that they run a business that must sustain their families, Elizabeth is focused on creating a farming community as much as a farm itself.
Over two hours on a golden Sunday afternoon, I visited Elizabeth on her soon-to-be homestead in Santee, CA. We walked the land and then settled in at her kitchen table to talk about what inspired her career choice, how she’ll decide what to plant on her land, and what sage—and surprising—things she’s learned from the local veteran farmers she’s met.
This land was purchased by my great grandfather, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Connecticut, where he met my great grandmother and they had their three children. He was working as a chauffeur for the Scripps family when they moved out to San Diego. My great grandfather was asked if he wanted to come with them and bring the family.
He built the house with his buddies in the late 1930s, so it’s going on 80 years now. The land went from my great grandfather, to my grandmother, to my mother, to me, my sister Audrey, and my brother Teddy.
As I’ve been talking to farmers—and I’ve always known this—the first questions they ask me are, “Do you have land? And do you have water?” And I’m able to answer those questions with a confident, “Yes!” And they’re like, “Oh my God!” You can just tell they wish they were in my place because that’s definitely where the majority of their money is going.
[motioning] This is our little old-school well. It’s only 20 feet deep or so, if I remember, because the San Diego River agrarian zone is less than a quarter of a mile away. So the river goes right there. This well never dries up.
[The well is] just, you know, about this wide. My uncle actually used to be lowered down in a bucket to trim the tree roots, and they’d pull him back up.
You know, it’s great. [In California] it’s free water–it’s amazing. But irrigation experts that I’ve talked to and that I’ve had come out here have said, “You probably need to redo the whole system, which is going to cost close to probably $10,000—if you pay for the labor. If you do it yourself it’s going to take a long time but then you’re going to save a lot of money there.” So that’s it: [water] is one of my best assets but at the same time one of my biggest challenges.
It’s on the more sandy side, which is actually really good for growing because it drains better. But they say that, being so close to a freeway, brake dust and cyanide can end up in your soil. I’ve been wanting to do a soil test, but the recommendation I’ve read is that you need to do it in 15-foot-by-15-foot quadrants.
I just need to make sure I do this right the first time just because it’s going to be quite a project. I’m think I’m going to have to have someone come out with chalk and measure it out!
Any other challenges you want to mention?
One thing that’s really unique about this property…when the car repair place right here was built, they rezoned our back [residential] acre to commercial. You can essentially do anything you want on a commercial property, so now we’re doing a lot of little mini feasibility studies to figure out if we can run a larger project just on this back acre.
What’s unfortunate about it is that we don’t have access to a main road [from the back acre], so we would have to go through the residential part, and that’s where it gets tricky. This [area between my land and the main road] is CalTrans property. I’ve had a meeting with them about it and they’re like, “Well, we might sell the land in the future…” But that’s going to be years down the road.
A lot of those issues have been really challenging, just figuring out where we stand with regards to following the law.
I brought these seeds back from Uganda, where I did the Peace Corps. This is a tropical plant called Moringa. Their leaves are more nutritious than spinach. You can eat the flowers. The beans are really good for you, too.
I’ve been growing these trees for three years. These, if they were growing in Uganda, would be this tall at three weeks. It’s this fun kind of souvenir I brought back for myself, but the more I see them struggling, I’m just like, “I’m sorry I’m putting you through this!”
[walking] Now, this is an area with a lot of potential.
My great grandfather used to have hunting dogs in that kennel back there. I’ve been talking about turning this into a big chicken coop.
It’s all about having the time. If I had double the amount of hours in my life I would be running a lot of little things on here, so it’s part of…I want to get some more individual dwelling units—like tiny houses—on the property so that people who do want to come here and do those projects, can.
Currently under renovation, this is our little pond area. My mom was really big into this project and she did a really beautiful job with it. There was a system set up where the water was flowing from one area to the next. Beautiful lilies were growing everywhere.
And these are my two…these are memorials for my mom and my dad, these little benches.
My family friends joke, “Ah, I wonder…”—because my mom’s name is Bev and my dad’s name is Dan—so it’s, “I wonder what Bev and Dan are debating right now.” Their two benches are facing each other, like they’re in the middle of a big discussion.
You know, there’s something about having my great grandfather build this house that’s meant to last for hundreds of years. We haven’t had to do anything major to it. It’s still a really strong standing body. And that’s what he did with everything.
I think we’ve lost that value in American culture. Traveling in other parts of the world with Peace Corps…Ugandans, in a way, are much more sustainable than we are because they understand that they’re going to be on their land for a long time, so they really need to treat it with respect, while in America, it’s the opposite.
I’ve just come to realize that for me to be happy, I need to be living the values I believe in. And this house just exudes all of those things.
Instead of developing [the land]—which, we’ve had the option to sell it—I want to do something that is more important and will contribute in a more long-term way to our community here in Santee.
I want The Ranch—my family has always called this place The Ranch—to be a place where people can grow together. To bring our values back to their roots. To learn how to treat our environment with the respect it deserves. And to provide a space for people to contribute to the world in a truly sustainable way.
I went to UC Santa Barbara and majored in business economics with an emphasis in accounting. Economics was kind of natural. I like math, and I was always into business and entrepreneurship when I was little. My grandparents used to live across the street and they had a big lemon tree. I would sell the lemons every weekend on the side of the road so that I could go to the movies with my friends.
Then, when I was 19, my parents passed away. It was kind of right in the middle of my major. And I just felt really confused, but I knew I wanted to give back to the world in some way.
[laughing] I actually originally came across Peace Corps because of free pizza. Because my roommate freshman year always wanted to do it and she was like, “Elizabeth, come with me to this Peace Corps presentation.” I didn’t know what Peace Corps was, but she assumed I did, so I was like, “Uhh…ok! Yeah!” She’s like, “They’re going to have pizza!” So I went there to get the free pizza, but I just fell in love with the recruiters’ stories and everything they had experienced. I wanted to experience it, too. So after my parents passed away and I was trying to think of what I wanted to do next, I was like, “This is it. This is perfect.”
I went to a little village called Nakaseke in Uganda. I was in the economic development program–I was essentially my village’s own little business advisor. So I was connected with this local organization that had a big chicken project and they needed help with the financial management of it. And as I was helping with that, I was doing some savings and loan associations with women. I was teaching entrepreneurship skills to secondary students. And I was also helping with another women’s group that was growing mushrooms, helping to get their crop to market.
You’ve already said that when you came back from Peace Corp, you realized your values were at odds with our disposable culture. Did the Peace Corp in any other way contribute to your thinking, “Hey, I want to move back home and start a farm”?
Yes, the importance of community was one of the biggest lessons. A lot of times when Americans think of Africa, they think of all these starving children with the big swollen bellies…But when you are in a Ugandan village there is no child that’s starving because if a family has a huge lunch that they’re cooking and neighbor kids come over because their mom can’t feed them, they’re going to get fed. And you just feel that love and trust that everyone has for each other.
When you’re walking anywhere, people greet you and they ask how you’re doing and they really mean it. If you’re struggling in some way they want to know how they can help.
And here in America we don’t have that as much. I came back, and I don’t even know who my neighbors are. I really like going to Sprouts because I have built a tiny relationship with all the cashiers. They kind of know you and they know you’re over 21 so they stop IDing you…But it’s just ridiculous that those are some of the closest community relationships I have outside of my immediate circle of friends.
So there are a lot of different options. And that’s where the whole business side comes in because it’s really hard to make money on a farm. Even with the free land and the free water it’s going to be really hard.
There are some niche little farms that are doing really well. Like there’s this guy out in Lakeside who’s growing all different varieties of peppers–from sweet peppers you can eat like apples, to the spiciest peppers in the world…So if there’s something like that, that would be a lot more profitable.
If we were to do just a general CSA farm, it would be difficult. But not impossible.
It’s hard to articulate because I’m still in the research mode, still figuring out what’s going to work with us. And I have people who want to be a part of it, too, so I kind of want to wait until those relationships are solidified so we can come up with the idea together…Because if it’s just my idea, maybe it doesn’t completely resonate with other people. So just having some place where people can grow together, to bring our values back to the roots…
[laughing] Yeah. But it’s scary. This is the riskiest thing I could ever do with my money. I could put all the money I’m going to spend on this farm into one stock, and this farm would still be riskier than that. That’s the reason why, if I feel more people are involved, then that takes a little more of the risk off our hands.
And for me, what’s amazing when I think about all this stuff is that I literally have the best situation. I have free land and I have free water and I’m still like, “I don’t know if we can do this,” which is why I’ve been visiting other farms, talking to them about how their situation worked out.
For some of them, their accounting systems simply don’t exist. The accounting and just keeping track of your expenses…for me, with my education, I just can’t do anything unless all those things are in place. It’s been really humbling to talk to all these famers and realize that they are the people who are just going out there and doing things. They’re doing it because they know that’s what they want to do and so nothing’s stopping them. Finances just aren’t a priority when you’re working the land that hard.
Another thing is fundraising. That’s been encouraging. We’ve been looking at other farms and they easily raise $15,000 and $20,000 like that. [snaps] It’s just ridiculous. And they just have a fun picture with what their farm looks like [on Kickstarter]…and they’ve all hit their goals. It’s definitely something that people want to support.
And then what is cool is that all the farms I’ve talked to, they haven’t had a big problem selling their produce. I was worried that sometimes you’ll just have a big batch of stuff that doesn’t get sold, but these smaller farms have their community supporting them. They have local restaurants that are willing to buy from them.
Actually, there is a farm down in Potrero, down towards Tecate, Mexico, and she had people from Santee who were wanting to buy her CSA box! I’m like, “What? If you’re getting calls from Santee, I’m in good business!”
Yeah, Farmer Leo’s in Encinitas has these beautiful farm dinners. I just love that idea of having people sitting at a huge, long table, looking out over whatever is being produced and just being a part of that. Experiencing that social environment while you’re enjoying good food with good people…It’s what life’s all about.
Bringing people on the team. I’ve been so amazed at how eager some people are to get involved. Sasha, [a fellow Peace Corps volunteer who served in Guatemala], has given so much of her time to go through this stuff just to figure this out with me. She really wants to be part of this, and there are so many other people who want to as well.
And there are so many people who have been in the business for a while who want to be more like advisors. Like Bill Tall at City Farmers Nursery. He came out to the property to drop off some soil and he was just telling me all of his ideas for the tiny homes, and how to get production going in the back, and how you could even do a bed and breakfast and have people stay here and work on the farm.
It’s been a huge success to see that all of these people support my story, and they like the land, and they want to be a part of that in some way.
Every time I put myself out there, I get something back.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.