Taste of Santa Barbara: Fighting for Better Food System
Speaking to Food Tank Founder Danielle Nierenberg, Lompoc Baker Melissa Sorongon, and North County Rancher Stefan Selbert
By Matt Kettmann | May 12, 2022
“For a long time, I blamed farmers for everything that happened, so many environmental issues, whether deforestation or climate change,” admits Danielle Nierenberg, who grew up in the agricultural community of Defiance, Missouri. “What I learned from being in the Peace Corps and visiting farmers in 70-plus countries around the world is that farmers are the answers. They’re the most knowledgeable people in the world. If they have the right policy initiatives and investments and research, they can solve many of the environmental problems we’re facing, but also the social problems, like the lack of jobs. I feel like farmers and agriculture are the solution. I just wish I knew that growing up.”
A prolific writer, podcast producer, and speaker at more than 100 conferences every year, Nierenberg is the founder of Food Tank, a nonprofit think tank focused on bringing sustainability to food systems worldwide. The recipient of the 2021 Julia Child Award, Nierenberg will speak during Taste of Santa Barbara on Saturday, May 21, with Congressmember Salud Carbajal and Shakira Miracle, the executive director of S.B. County Food Action Network.
We spoke on the phone last week while Nierenberg was attending the Milken Institute’s Global Conference in Beverly Hills and preparing for her first-ever visit to Santa Barbara.
How do conferences about these issues lead to real change?
People are suffering, and investors and financiers at this conference now understand that it’s not just Russian aggression with the war against Ukraine. It’s multiple crises we’re facing right now. We have a climate crisis, but we also have a biodiversity loss crisis. We obviously have a health crisis.
People like me have understood the urgency for a long time, but others are now getting it. We can turn this tide. We have to make the right investments and the right research decisions to help farmers be as productive as possible without harming the planet.
I’m an optimist. I feel like human ingenuity and knowledge and spirit can change all of this, but only if we do it right now so our grandchildren don’t blame us for what’s happened.
How does Julia Child relate to all this?
What a badass lady! She was on TV before all these male chefs who are now lauded as celebrities. She was up there before anyone, and she was real. She was the epitome of carrying on even though things might be going badly in the world. She changed her career in her forties and was so successful. She’s an inspiration not just to women but to all of us who are interested in these issues and want to see change. She made people feel good about themselves. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want. If I can live up to a teeny portion of what she did, I will have done what I wanted with my life.
What do you plan to talk about?
I get to moderate Congressmember Carbajal on the things he’s done over the last two years around immigration reform and how he feels Santa Barbara can be a model for the rest of the country for agricultural systems. Santa Barbara is an interesting microcosm of how we could do agriculture in a real collaborative way in this country.
What’s your impression of Santa Barbara from afar?
California is always above and beyond what the rest of the country is doing with regulations and policy and being at the forefront of these issues. I’ve been to California a bunch of times. My husband was a professor at Stanford. This is a place that I love. We need to distill what’s happening so that people in the rest of the country and world can see that it’s not just a bunch of rich folks that can do this, but we can all do this.
Regional Farmers Rise Up
Also speaking on Saturday is a panel of Santa Barbara County sustainability leaders, moderated by the Julia Child Foundation’s executive director Todd Schulkin and featuring Sarah Koyo from the Chumash and Tohono O’odham nations; Jessica Vieira, the director of sustainability for Apeel Sciences; Melissa Sorongon, the owner and farmer behind Piedrasassi Wine & Bread in Lompoc; and Stefan Selbert, who is the operations manager for his family’s Las Cumbres Ranch near Los Alamos.
Sorongon was one of the first Santa Barbara County bakers in a very long time to start farming her own grain back in 2012, and she became the lead baker about five years ago. The bread is available both at the Lompoc tasting room she shares with her winemaker husband, Sashi Moorman, and at the Saturday farmers’ market — in fact, Sorongon is the current president of the board of directors for the Santa Barbara Farmers’ Market Association.
Those accomplishments are all worthy of celebrating, but she’s speaking on the panel because she developed something even more impactful: the Southern and Central Coast Regenerative Equipment Alliance, which she started with grant money to purchase equipment that could be shared among farmers.
“This co-op aims to chip away at the obstacles farmers encounter when they are starting up, or looking to change to more regenerative farming practices,” said Sorongon. “Our focus is to clear away a few of the barriers to successful farming, especially with a regenerative agriculture focus. The co-op provides a community network of new and experienced farmers as well as equipment to share. We aim to make it easier to share resources and information, so farmers can build thriving, environmentally conscious businesses more quickly.”
Selbert’s presence on the panel will give a solid sense of hope for the future. When his parents retired, they bought Las Cumbres Ranch and removed all the cattle, thinking that would be best for the land. Within a year, they learned that “rangeland needs to be grazed in order to stay healthy,” said Selbert, who was enlisted by his parents to help manage the return of cattle.
“The more I learned about improving the health of our soil, the more enthusiastic I became,” he said. “There is something exciting about the fact that we can actually heal our environment instead of just sustaining the damage we’ve done. All my life, I’ve been told there’s nothing we can do, that we’re stuck with what we’ve got, so when I found out we could make a positive change through management, I was hooked.”
They opted for Bonsmara cattle, a South African breed that makes tender meat while thriving in a dry and brittle climate. “That’s exactly what’s so exciting about our cattle — they fit perfectly into our Santa Barbara environment,” said Selbert, who looks forward to selling meat in 2023.
The ranch itself is also preserved via the Land Trust of Santa Barbara County in order to safeguard a large, contiguous block of open range land that provides for wildlife migration between Los Padres National Forest, La Purisima State Park, and Burton Mesa Ecological Reserve. “We have seen an incredible increase in wildlife since we changed our management,” said Selbert, and that’s not the only benefit of this shift. “Our risk of fires has reduced, our risk of mudslides is lowering, and our ranch is shifting from an annual grassland to a perennial grassland!” he said. “We believe it is possible to improve rangeland and produce top-quality meat in a natural environment that serves our local community.”
He plans to encourage attendees to get to know their region’s ranchers and farmers a bit better. “It’s wild to think that we buy most our food from strangers,” said Selbert. “Getting to know your rancher or farmer really lets you in on the process and makes you want to become a part of it. When the community starts demanding products that have had a positive effect on the climate, our climate changes.”
Sat., May 21, 3-5 p.m., at SBCC’s Garvin Theater. Click here for the $25 tickets.
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