Pie Ranch: All-American Dessert Baked with Dreams of a Better World
“Slow for pie.”
These tempting words, hand-painted on a wooden sign, greet visitors and lure passersby to Pie Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm situated just north of Año Nuevo State Park along a pastoral stretch of Highway 1.
Behind the sign is a beautiful 19th-century barn where customers peruse farm stand offerings and, on the third Saturday of every month, revelers gather for the farm’s legendary barn dances.
Up a bumpy dirt road is a historic house built in 1863 when the land was a dairy ranch operated by the Steele Brothers. Inside the house there’s a framed newspaper clip where descendant Will Steele was claimed to have whispered before he passed on July 27, 1956, that “he hoped a small part of the ranch—and the beloved quaint old ranch house—could be preserved as a public historical site, where people might come and breathe the air of the pioneer west.”
Now, inside, employees are stationed at their laptops. Outside, the farm is abuzz. The winter sun sparkles across remarkably green surroundings that are blanketed in song by a boisterous choir of birds. Apprentice farmers—residents in the farmer-training program—crouch in rows of winter veggies and move purposefully between blocks of crops.
Co-founder and co-director Nancy Vail leads the way to an open-air kitchen beyond the house where chef David Stockhausen is slicing his way through a mound of lemons. He’s rushing to make marmalade with the bounty from their fertile Meyer lemon trees while also prepping for the following day’s visit by a group of third graders. The kids will partake in the standard Pie Ranch field trip: a tour, farm activity, educational lunch preparation in the kitchen, pie baking and, of course, pie eating.
Up to 40,000 people engage in Pie Ranch’s programs each year, including youth of all ages and any members of the public who wish to visit the farm stand or get their hands dirty at the monthly community work day. However, Pie Ranch focuses its educational efforts on teenagers—2,000 of whom participate in its programs every year, including 700 students from its three partner schools: Mission, Oceana and Pescadero high schools. Some continue on with Pie Ranch’s internship program, HomeSlice, in which they till the metaphorical soils of food justice organizing, sustainable farming and healthy eating.
For the teens, many of whom have never set foot on a farm, the full-circle experience of making a pie—from harvesting the ingredients to examining the food miles in store-bought pie versus their pie—is an eye-opening introduction to the ins and outs of the food system. It’s the “diversity of animals and crops that tell a story in a hands on way,” according to Jered Lawson, Pie Ranch co-founder and co-director.
Vail and Lawson didn’t plan on having a pie theme when they first fell in love and decided to start a farm together (along with co-founder Karen Heisler).
“We knew right away that we both shared the same dream of starting a farm and a family,” recalls Vail, who lives with Lawson and their two children in a 700-square-foot yurt in Pie Ranch’s back corner. “We didn’t know it would be Pie Ranch, that we’d be growing pie ingredients or that everything that takes place now would be happening. But we did know that we wanted to start a nonprofit educational farm and bring the public to connect with the land and each other and themselves.”
The couple decided to call the farm Pie Ranch after seeing an aerial photograph of the 14-acre, wedge-shaped parcel they bought in 2002. Next came the vision of baking a pie from scratch with each group of visiting youth and growing or raising ingredients that could be used for this purpose: fruit, pumpkins, whole grains, legumes, animals for dairy and meat and eggs and all manner of vegetables.
“Really, you can bake anything into a pie,” says Vail, whose personal favorite is chicken potpie.
The original piece of land became known as the Upper Slice when Pie Ranch acquired another pie-shaped parcel (the Lower Slice) below it, bringing the total acreage to 27. On this brisk sunny day, the Lower Slice is draped in cover crop and scattered with a rotation of chickens. A woodsy path, lined to the south by a ridge of eucalyptus and to the north by a Christmas tree farm, leads to the Upper Slice, where fruit trees and winter veggies are in full swing. The certified organic and Food Justice Certified farm sells its pies (which are currently baked at Companion Bakeshop in Santa Cruz) at the farm stand, and its produce both at the farm stand and through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.
“We use pie while teaching about the food system as a metaphor for everything—about the components that go into our food system,” such as who doesn’t have access to healthy and organic food and how that can be changed, Vail says.
Seated beside her on a picnic table bench, Lawson (favorite pie: mixed berry) elucidates on the farm’s more philosophical take on the pie concept.
“We have high aspirations or ideals for making the world a better place,” he says. “Through food and farming we are utilizing principles of health and sustainability for those really pie-in-the-sky changes in our society.”
Those ambitions are growing: Last year, the farm began a pilot project called Pie Ranch at Año Nuevo that involves leasing 75 acres across the highway and adjacent to Año Nuevo State Reserve, where they grow a range of vegetables, grains, legumes, hay fields and rotating pastured animals in collaboration with TomKat Ranch.
“We think we have something promising around the rotation of pasture management with row crops, as far as being able to more radically increase the organic matter in the soil and therefore help contribute to storing that carbon and mitigating some of the excessive carbon in the atmosphere,” explains Lawson.
The new effort is a test in scaling their methods up to a commercially viable level, as well as an experiment in ways to better reach the region. Pie Ranch has partnered with Google Food and Stanford Dining on a “CSA 2.0” project in which the institutions front some of the production costs, commit to a season’s worth of crops and are delivered food for their cafeterias throughout the year.
“Our goal from the beginning is to particularly look at how this can be relevant to the public school food system,” Lawson says. “There’s a willingness on Google’s food team to be early supporters of these concepts so we can figure out ways that they can grow and scale and be more accessible to the broader community.”
Another pie in the farm’s oven is a Relearning Garden in partnership with the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Land Trust. It will be a space for the tribe and the public to learn more about the tribe’s history and activities as original residents of the land, with native plants as the lens.
Honoring the land’s history is one slice of a bigger pie. “From the beginning we were about the health of the land and the health of the people,” Vail says. “Those are very big concepts that we at Pie Ranch are trying to understand and embody.”