Did you know that Summerland is classified as a food desert? According to Leslie Person Ryan, owner of Sweet Wheel Farm, “the last grocery store closed down six years ago. Our only local access to food is either from a convenience store or fried. This coupled with low income creates the food desert.” Ryan set up a produce cart to help increase access to fresh, organic food in Summerland.
In 2017, Ryan started the produce cart by partnering with local farms after the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows closed off the freeway in both directions, leaving Summerland landlocked. No phone, TV, internet or potable water—and no grocery store. “We were trapped,” said Ryan. “During this time, a woman told me that she got into a fight with another woman over what she deemed ‘the last stale sandwich.’”
Arriving amidst a food shortage, Sweet Wheel Farm donated food to the Free Veterans’ breakfast at the Memorial Building. Since then, they have continued to donate food locally. “Right now, we donate artichokes to Sarah House,” said Ryan. “We came here to solve the food shortage, and we will always give to those in need of food.”
Ryan’s passion for farming came from her upbringing. “My parents were farmers, so I grew up on 1,000 acres of lemons,” she said. “Sometimes when my father came back from work, he would put me on his motorcycle, and we’d ride over the irrigation ditches. I associate those memories with a sense of freedom, and that feeling has driven me in my own career. I wanted to give my own kids that same experience when they grew up.”
Ryan fulfilled her dream to become a farmer, however she did so in her own, often unconventional, way. “I used to own an orange ranch down in Pauma Valley in San Diego. When I made the transition to organic farming, the ranch manager told me I was crazy because ‘no one grows organic.’ Now around 90 percent of the Valley is doing organic.”
For Ryan, a huge benefit of eating organic is omitting an excess consumption of pesticides. “When you use pesticides, you kill the good insects along with the bad ones. We need to pay attention to what is going on in our bodies and what we are putting in them. And I don’t want my kids to get cancer.”
Sweet Wheel Farm is also dedicated to representing women in farming. “Women are underrepresented in farming,” noted Ryan. “Oftentimes, women get into farming when they marry a farmer, and even then, she is usually relegated to selling and keeping the books. As a female farmer, many of my male colleagues often question what I am doing in their field.”
Ryan strives to surpass this bias by instilling her female coworkers with a sense of empowerment. She remarked, “it just happened to be that most of my crew ended up being female. It was remarkable when I heard my girls say, ‘girl power.’ It’s not for the faint of heart! I like to make sure that I’m strong and that I feel strong. All my girls are required to do at least one day of educational labor on the farm so that they can fully appreciate all farmworkers. But none of them ever complain, if anything they are always happy to be there.”
When a customer calls to ask for an organic baby food recipe, Ryan also tells her about a nearby winery that are growing edible strawberries. The farm stand offers an assortment of preservatives and fresh baked goods all made from organic produce, much of which they grow themselves. In her backyard, Ryan is growing a number of produce new to California soil such as tropical fruits like pineapples and mangoes. For Ryan, farming is not only a career, but an approach to life. “I like to grow unusual things, something different.”
Ryan is also the founder of the nonprofit Santa Barbara Agricultural Foundation which aims to teach kids to grow their own fruit.
Sweet Wheel Farm produce carts can be found in Summerland and Montecito seven days a week. For more information, contact (805) 770-3677 or visit sweetwheelfarms.com.