Jesse Smith: Permaculture Designer

  • Jesse Smith
  • Job Title: Permaculture Designer
  • Job Description: Designer, farmer, partner at Casitas Valley Farm.
  • Location: Santa Barbara, CA
  • Age: 30

Tell me about the path that led you to where you are today.

I went to school for print production, which led to graphic design, which led to web and product design. I really enjoy the design process in general and that’s when I found permaculture, which is a design science. It’s based on creating more outputs than the input of energy that you had within your system. So we are able to create human settlement areas where we can feed the people and the land while also regenerating soil and more water resources.

In 2011 I took a permaculture course in Germany where my father-in-law taught. We had been discussing this project [Casitas Valley Farm] for a while, so after the course we traveled down the coast of France and we saw that every little town had its own food shed. We would sit down for a meal and find out that the salami was made within 10km and that the wine was fermented in a local winery. We saw this throughout Spain, Italy, France, Scotland, England – it was just something they did. They actually have laws in the EU to protect small towns from big markets coming in and taking over.

So that was really what inspired the many enterprises that we are trying to implement here. It’s better for the people, the landscape, and most importantly, it tastes better when your food is grown in the same bioregion. It’s fun for the chefs and the foodies, and it’s exciting for the ecologically conscious generation.

How long after you got back from Europe did you buy the farm?

This was a process where we had a family driven investment opportunity. Another family who had been looking to move their money out of oil stocks and into natural capital (we call it oil to soil) was interested in a project like this. The concept came about in December 2010 and we ended up closing escrow in December 2012. Then we started developing all the other pieces: the piggery, the creamery, market gardens, orchards, our farm stand, the education portion — those enterprises hold the floor piece together.

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You mentioned that your father-in-law teaches permaculture. What’s your wife’s background?

She worked for a nonprofit called International Gandhis, which did a lot of peace and community building in Liberia. While we were living in Europe she would travel to Africa for work, and that’s when she helped her father facilitate a permaculture course in Kenya. From there we started deciding how we would tailor these enterprises to each person’s skill for the longevity, and then leverage a better life for the whole family and community.

Is that when you realized that this was going to really work?

Yes, it was somewhere around the time when we were in Europe and discussing everyone’s different skill sets. There’s actually a funny joke that had been traveling around the family for a while. When my wife’s cousin, Mikayla, who has led our cheese making operation from square one, was in high school she went through that test with her counselor that says what you are going to be when you grow up. She is very business driven and was going to business school but her result came up as “You are going to be a cheese maker.” And it was just such a random thing that she always kind of shunned. She was never really interested in it but then she took that permaculture course with my wife in Kenya and when she came out of it, she was actually interested in being a cheese maker. She had her business degree but cheese making was what she wanted to do now. So when we started looking for properties, it was a weird coincidence that we found a place that had a creamery previously licensed. It was like this big flag saying here’s a place that actually meets the criteria that you’re looking for. We wanted to find a place with orchards that we could transition into a food forrest. We wanted to find a place close to the demographic that we wanted to serve, which is Santa Barbara. We wanted a place that’s big enough to house our entire family. And it was within the price point to where we could actually structure in an investment from another family, so when all those criteria started falling into place, we knew it could actually work.

Tell me about all the different food you grow here.

Our main crop here is Hass avocados. We have about 16 acres, 1600 trees. The next biggest crop is permissions. Then we have our mixed varietal apple orchards. We have walnut, lemon, and blood oranges trees. We recently planted our market gardens with a variety of fruit trees that range from plums, pears, and apricots to cherries, peaches, olives, and pomegranates. We’ve started implementing some kiwi vines. We also do a lot of herbs, mints, lavender, and rosemary for culinary purposes. We have sprawling squashes and will implement pumpkins and melons this year. We planted a bunch of tomatoes and peppers. I’m a spice-o-holic so this year we are doing tons of different pepper types. We partnered with the local brewery brewLAB and are test planting different hop rhizomes this year. We also planted native blue corn, sunflowers, and sunchokes. Our kitchen garden has garlic, leeks, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, chard, cucumber, and beans — both bush and climbing vine beans. And we’ve implemented passion fruit vines.

Pretty much never ending produce?

It’s only growing. We feel like we are just scratching the surface of what’s possible here. There are so many little microclimates we can find and nestle new items in.

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So you keep some food for yourself, some goes wholesale, and some is sold directly to consumers?

The big crops like avocados go wholesale. That’s just because there are so many and everything becomes ripe at once and you have a very small window to get everything into your packinghouse and sold for top dollar. So a lot of the avocados get shipped all over the nation. I’m sure the Whole Foods in New York has been getting some of our avocados — that’s just kind of the necessity of the beast that we are dealing with right now. We don’t have the markets here locally to push our product on that scale. That being said, percentage wise, probably about 40 to 60% goes out to community supported agriculture (CSAs) and distributors. The other 20 to 40% goes through our farm stand and direct to consumer. And then the rest we keep for ourselves.

What’s the best part of your job and what excites you the most?

By far the best part of my job is being here with my family. Being able to wake up and have a long day ahead, but knowing that I will see my wife and daughter out on the land with me — I wouldn’t trade it for anything. That’s what driven this from square one. It has to be something that feeds the family. It has to be something where we get to see each other on a day-to-day basis and we get to express our inherent gifts in our daily activities. That’s what makes me excited about this going forward. Leaving something for the next generation but also being able to work with the next generation. And on top of that, I love to see things grow and watch a seed or animal through its lifecycle. There are so many cycles that are overlapping here, whether you are raising an animal or growing a plant, it’s all living and dynamic. It’s a big puzzle and coming from a design background, I’m really trying to design the systems that start to work together. We are just now starting to find that the cogs are linking up and things are starting to click. It’s been slow in grow but a fun process.

What’s the most stressful part of the job?

The same thing. Just figuring it out. Trying to figure out all the systems and how they work together is sometimes a stressful operation, especially when living things are depending on it. There’s no blueprint for what we’re doing. There’s nothing out there where we can say it has been done before so lets just follow that model. Having to go in to every day with the unknown is the plus and the minus. You never know what you will get out of it — it’s a daily task to keep things on track. You can have your schedule set out and then all of your pigs will break out of your fence and go scavenging around your orchard and there’s the wash on your day. Whether your pigs get out or a water line busts in the orchard, there’s so many different facets that need to be taken into account. Sometimes it’s frustrating because things move slower than you’re anticipating.

 What’s a normal day like for you?

There are no normal days. We joke about that constantly, but for the most part, you’re making sure that your living structures are tended to. The top priority is that the plants and animals are fed and have water. And then everything else comes after that. But for me personally, a lot of what I’m responsible for is making sure that the feeding systems for our pigs are taken care of. From there it just depends on what pieces of infrastructure we are working on at that point. There’s a lot of stuff that we are still building in these early years as far as infrastructure for our enterprises.

You mentioned that you take care of the pigs. Tell me more about that. What was the shift like from ordering off a menu to actually having to kill your food?

I was actually raised a vegetarian until I was 12-years-old and my mother is a pescatarian. But I made the life choice to eat meat and it wasn’t until I moved here that I became closer to the source of meat. It’s something we pride ourselves on — raising the pigs through their lifecycle in the best way that we can and then harvesting their life energy to feed other life energies. It’s never an easy process and I think that if it ever becomes easy then you need to take a step back. It should never become easy. It should be hard and draining because you are taking the life of another animal. And that’s not to say that taking the life of an animal is any more important than taking the life of a plant — we need to respect the way we harvest all the living entities on this earth. I think there’s an inherent need and want for this generation to come closer to its source of nutrition whether it’s plants, meat, or dairy. We eat so much cheese and meat in this country and yet we are so removed from the processing of these enterprises.

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What do you hope your daughter learns from growing up here?

I want her to respect the lifestyle that we’ve been blessed to have here and the freedom we have to go out on a daily basis and tend to the land and animals. And also experience the freedom of the land where we aren’t confined by walls or concrete or smog and pollutants that you get from living in a big city. I’ve done my fair share of living in big cities, and it’s not that I don’t like being there, but I don’t want to subject my daughter to that lifestyle at such a young and impressionable age. So having that kind of appreciation for what we get to do here, but then also showing her that we don’t have to seclude ourselves from the rest of the world. I want her to have the interaction and duality of being able to walk in both worlds and travel and see how other cultures integrate their city and rural lifestyles.

Do you see any personality traits in your daughter that you think are a result of this lifestyle?

She’s fearless. She has this kind of air about her that she’s not afraid to explore. She’s not afraid to charge forth, but she’s also learning what limitations and boundaries are. She’s been attacked by the chickens, knocked over by the dogs, the pigs have nipped at her fingers, and so she’s developed a healthy respect for larger animals. There’s fearlessness and cautiousness instilled very early when you’re on a farm, which is reassuring for a parent when you send them off into the world. It’s inevitable that they will be out without you watching over and protecting them so making sure that they know how to take care of themselves is very comforting.

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You mentioned you’ve lived in big cities. What do you miss most about city living?

Food.

Food? You have food all around you!

I love to have the main part of my diet be seasonal, organic, local, all that. But at the same time, I miss living in a city like San Francisco where I can walk 5 minutes and get Ethiopian, Thai, and Japanese food — or have them delivered for free! I am a self-trained chef and it’s inspiring to be in those areas where you have access to so many different types of cuisines. That’s why we travel. We want to be in touch with what’s going on with food because that’s our clientele and those are the minds that we are trying to tap into and show that there’s a different way of sourcing. But yeah, I just miss the dynamic lifestyle that the city offers. It is a bustling center of interaction between so many different cultures, demographics, and generations.

Is there anything else you want people to know about the industry?

Know where your food is coming from and ask questions. Know your farmer and ask them why they are doing what they’re doing. Get excited about the possibilities of using something different in your home kitchen. We get caught in our habits and the ruts of what we always eat. Try something different. Go out and find something new. Visit your markets and see what’s on the shelf and experiment. Have fun with food.

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Question from our last interviewee: How do you define success?

I define success as whether we are building soil or not. If we implement an enterprise and it’s building soil then I find that it’s a successful enterprise. If it’s not then I feel like we should let it go and figure out another way to get to a point where we are building soil again.

What about in the more broad sense of success?

It’s all about soil. Both the physical soil where we can go grow plants and animals can forage from, but it’s also the social soil where relationships can grow from. If you aren’t being constructive or generative in your daily activities then you really need to reevaluate the purpose of your goals because so much of what we’re doing is extractive in this world. We need to take a step back and ask ourselves if what we’re doing is not only sustainable, but is it regenerative? Are we creating something that’s better than where we found it? Or are we actually being generative? Are we creating something past what its previous carrying capacities were? Can we actually produce more than what we put in? And that’s really where I want to see this go and I want it to inspire other enterprises and other business opportunities.

What one question do you want the next interviewee on People With Cool Jobs to answer? 

In what way do you feel your job is leaving a better world for the next generation?


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11 thoughts on “Jesse Smith: Permaculture Designer

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