Spring 2018 /Rural Voices/

Her Little Slice of Heaven

Jazmin Lopez '09 welcomes you to Rancho Colibri, the place she calls...
Jazmin Lopez ’09

Photos by Glen McDowell

TUCKED AWAY IN a corner of Greenfield, California, a rural town located in the heart of the Salinas Valley, Rancho Colibri sits on a narrow sliver of land bordering a large vineyard with dormant vines.

Standing at the center of the property, wearing scuffed leather boots and Levi’s jeans—the unofficial uniform of most residents in the area—is Jazmin Lopez ’09, who loves to welcome visitors to her “little slice of heaven.”

At 4.2 acres, Rancho Colibri consists of a renovated midcentury house, a large barn where two owls make residence, a mobile chicken coop with squawking residents, sprawling protea plants, a variety of citrus trees that include the unique Yuzu lemon and Australian finger lime, garden boxes made of repurposed materials and a variety of succulents, herbs and native California plants—and of course, the unwelcome gophers that Jazmin is constantly battling.

Rancho Colibri

Rancho Colibri

Although she and her husband, Chris Lopez CMC ’08, took the name for their farm from the Spanish word for hummingbird colibri, Jazmin shares that her father nicknamed her property La Culebra (The Snake) because of its curving, narrow shape. Either way, it’s home sweet home.

Here, with views of the valley floor and the Santa Lucia Mountains, Jazmin is at peace—but don’t let that fool you. She is full of bursting energy, ideas and dreams for her farm. The goal: to one day have a working farm, grow the food she wants and make a living off the earth.

A Napa Childhood

Having grown up in 1990s Napa—a smaller, calmer place than it is today—Jazmin got a taste for the outdoors at an early age. Her parents come from a rural town called Calvillo, located in the state of Aguascalientes in Mexico, and settled in Napa, where they raised four daughters: Jazmin; her twin, Liz; and two older sisters.

Jazmin Lopez ’09 gathering eggs from her portable hen coop

Jazmin Lopez ’09 gathering eggs from her portable hen coop

“When they moved to Napa, they brought a little bit of their rancho to Napa.”

The Lopez children grew up on a street that dead-ended at a creek. Childhood in Napa “had a rural feel to it because some of the sidewalks were missing. There were lots of walnut trees we’d go pick nuts from, and we had a surplus of wild blackberries at the nearby creek.”

They also grew up with a rural awareness of the realities of where food comes from that most urban Americans lack. “We had a lot of rabbits growing up. I thought they were my pets. But I soon realized at a young age that the chicken we were eating at our family barbecues was really rabbit.” That’s why, she says, when their neighbor gifted her and Liz each a rabbit on their first communion, she made it a point to tell her parents, “Este no. Este es mi mascota. No se lo pueden comer.” (“Not this one. This is my pet. You can’t eat this one.”)

Once, she remembers, her father brought home a cow that he had bought. Butchering the animal was a family affair that took place in the garage, with Jazmin having meat-grinding duty.

“We grew a lot of our own food. We always had fruit trees, strawberries, tomato plants, chiles, tomatillos—I hated harvesting the tomatillos. Every time I had harvest duty, my hands would turn black and sticky. They’re delicious in salsa, but a pain to harvest and clean.”

As teens, Jazmin and Liz would sometimes accompany their dad on the weekend doing odd jobs like gardening and landscaping, plumbing and electrical work. Jazmin picked up the basics from these trips—practical skills she’s honed as an adult at Rancho Colibri.

“I’ve always been really passionate about gardening.” With a deft pinch or twist of the fingers, she was always bringing home cuttings to stick in the loamy Napa soil—a habit that her husband says continues to this day.

When it was time for college, the twins separated—Liz off to Bowdoin College in Maine and Jazmin to Pomona College. Today, as she sits in her living room, where a white and brown cowhide adorns the hardwood floors her father helped install, Jazmin tries to recall why she never worked at the Pomona College Organic Farm or visited the nearby Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens.

“It’s almost like I put it on hold,” she says adding that academics at Pomona were rigorous enough to demand most of her time and effort. An international relations major, she also felt pressure to follow a certain kind of career path. There’s no regret in that self-reflection. After all, she recalls college as four years to focus on her academics and try new things.

After Pomona, Jazmin accepted a yearlong Americorps placement at a legal-rights center in Watsonville that provided free legal services for low-income people. She liked the work, so after completing the Americorps program, she moved to Oakland—just a few hours north of the Salinas Valley but a world away—to work for a successful criminal immigration lawyer.

There, despite the joy of living with her twin sister and seeing friends who lived in the area, Jazmin soon came to a hard realization: City life was not for her. “It was easy to feel lost and insignificant in such a densely populated area,” she says. “I also missed being able to be outside and feel connected to nature.” She pauses and continues softly, “I don’t know. At times, it just felt overwhelming.”

Trusting her instincts, Jazmin left the city for the countryside with a feeling of coming home.

Dreaming of “Ag”

Located in the town of Gonzalez, off the 101 freeway, family-owned Pisoni Farms grows wine grapes as well as a variety of produce. For the past three years, Jazmin has worked there as compliance and special projects manager. In the office, Jazmin has an unobstructed view of the fields immediately to the south and west and the mountains that form the valley—a gorgeous view she doesn’t get tired of.

Eggs packaged with the Rancho Colibri label

Eggs packaged with the Rancho Colibri label

Inside her mud-speckled Toyota Corolla, Mexican rancheras are playing at a low volume, background music as Lopez expertly maneuvers the car through clay mud to a paved two-way street. As she drives past fields with budding greenery, she explains one project where she was tasked with measuring the levels of nitrate in the soil to ensure efficiency in the use of fertilizer. Turning onto another dirt road, she parks her Corolla alongside another project that she oversaw—dozens of solar panels waiting to harness the power of the sun.

Jazmin’s days at Pisoni are always different, full of projects that balance office work with being out in the fields. Off the top of her head, she mentions a few recent projects she’s proud of, including the solar panels, which she researched and helped install on the farm, and getting to work with local high school students who helped test water moisture in the soil. “I love working in agriculture, so when I have the opportunity to encourage kids to learn more about the industry, I invite them to the farm. I like to expose them to how diverse this industry is—there are a lot of opportunities.

From the solar panels, Jazmin spots a familiar face on a tractor down the fields and sends a friendly wave. She seems to know almost every worker. Switching to her native Spanish, she’ll flag them down to ask them about their families and how the day’s work is going. Do they have any questions? Can she help them with anything?

After a short 10-minute drive to one of Pisoni’s vineyards, we see a small group of eight to 10 workers pruning dormant grapevines by hand, one by one—special care that they say makes for better-tasting wine. One of the older men, Paco, without missing a beat from deftly pruning branches, starts to wax poetic about la maestra Lopez—she’s a teacher, he says, because she gives them important training and workshops and, he adds, she’s just a “chulada de mujer” (a wonder of a woman).

“I get along with my co-workers,” she says. “I’ve had some of their kids come shadow me for a day. We bump into each other at the supermarket. We go to their family parties when they invite us. It brings a lot more meaning to my work, and it makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger.”

Although it’s not totally unusual to see women in the California’s agriculture industry, her boss Mark Pisoni, the owner of Pisoni Farms, says it’s still not a very common sight. “Pomona should be very proud of her. Her diverse skill set is huge—for us, it’s amazing. We’re all called to do what’s required to be done, and she just jumps in.”

Fixer-Upper: Salinas Edition

Back at Rancho Colibri, the cold Salinas winds are picking up, but the hens and rooster remain unbothered as they cluck and crow in their chicken coop. A two-story affair covered by chicken wire, the coop was designed by Chris (hand-drawn on a napkin) and built by Jazmin in her basement, where the shelves are stocked with tools and supplies that would give any hardware store a run for its money.

Lopez attending to the beehives on the Pisoni Vineyard

Lopez attending to the beehives on the Pisoni Vineyard

The coop she says proudly, is portable. It can be picked up and carried to a fresh spot of grass. With a grin, Chris says Jazmin wishes she could do it all—build the coop and lug it herself—but Jazmin grudgingly cedes that job to her stronger husband. She, however, remains the builder in the marriage.

Chris, who recently launched his campaign to succeed his mentor as Monterey County supervisor, came home one day needing to build a podium for a rally he was holding the following day. With  w a gentle scoff at her husband’s building skills, she came to his rescue. With scrap wood found around their farm, she designed and built her husband a rustic podium—all in one hour.

Jazmin admits that they had nearly given up their dream of buying a home because there were few, if any, properties that fit their budget in the area. As the housing crunch in the Bay Area and the East Bay pushes people out, it’s created a trickle-down effect that has increased property prices in small towns like theirs. In addition, local policies are in place to preserve farmland, explains Chris. There’s a big push not to subdivide under 40 acres.

Almost by chance, Chris found their farm for sale, but the house was in bad shape, unlivable really, and in dire need of some tender love and care. Jazmin—who admits to being a fan of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, a home remodeling show—was not only undaunted; she was inspired. After fresh coats of paint, new floors and windows, new toilets and the coming together of family and friends, Rancho Colibri was born.

Upstairs, the living room’s glass doors open to a deck that overlooks the valley floor and beautiful Santa Lucia Highlands where Pisoni Farm’s vineyards are located. Jazmin, a newly minted beekeeper and a master gardener, has introduced beehives, an insectary and a new orchard of her own design to Pisoni’s vineyard.

Jazmin still has a list of projects around the farm, but the place already has the indelible stamp of the Lopezes. A small hallway table with an odd assortment of jars is both a décor element and station for her kombucha tea fermentation. Midcentury modern furniture, bought used and restored by Chris, dots the four-bedroom home.

A Future Sowed

With her roots firmly planted in the soil, Jazmin is happy.

In early fall, she started a prestigious program she’s had her eye on since the first year she started working in agriculture as a grower education program assistant for the California Strawberry Commission. She’s part of the new cohort for the California Agricultural Leadership Program, a 17-month intensive program to develop a variety of agricultural leadership skills.

“I tend to be on the shy side, and when I attend meetings that are ag-related, I’m in a room full of older white men, and I lose my voice. I don’t feel comfortable speaking up. And even though I know I bring a different perspective as a Latina in agriculture, there’s still that fear that I haven’t been in this that long, that I’m not an expert in this.” The program is challenging her not just to find her voice but to own it.

“I hate public speaking—I can do it, but I avoid it when possible. That’s one thing this program is pushing me to do—to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s a really big deal for me because I want to develop into an individual, a Latina who is able to speak up and share her perspective. It’s a privilege getting to participate in this program.”

Jazmin’s drive doesn’t stop there, however. On top of her full-time job at Pisoni, supporting her husband’s campaign for county supervisor, the never-ending list of chores and home renovation projects on the farm, she’s also just deeply committed to giving back.

For the past few years, Jazmin has been a volunteer with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. As a Spanish-speaking volunteer, she gets called on to interview Latino families to find out what wish a child wants to see come true. “Make-A-Wish does a good job of making families feel special. A lot of the families I have interviewed are farmworking families or recent immigrants. When they get the red-carpet treatment and see a big black limo show up at their apartment complex, it just shines a light of positivity during a dark time.”

Jazmin also recently joined the board of nonprofit Rancho Cielo in Salinas, an organization run by alumna Susie Brusa ’84 that helps at-risk youth transform their lives and empowers them to become accountable, competent, productive and responsible citizens.

Lastly, Jazmin is a Master Gardener volunteer through her local UC Master Gardener Program. Through this program she provides public gardening education and outreach through various community workshops, activities and on the web.“

For a normal person, this might seem daunting, but as Chris says, “Jazmin is a superwoman.”

For Jazmin, making the time for what she loves to do is no chore at all, and Rancho Colibri is the battery pack that keeps her going.

Doing It Right

The first two years of living on their farm was a lot of “trial and error” for Jazmin who would walk around the farm to discover what plants grew on the property. Since then she has learned to distinguish the invasive weeds like shortpod mustard from the native plants and is on the offensive to get rid of the invasives.

Jazmin Lopez ’09“She used to have this little hand pump and walk around the farm, so I got this big pump that hooks up to the battery of this Kawasaki Mule,” says Chris, who explains he drives the small vehicle with Jazmin hunched next to him spraying the weeds. “The neighbors think we’re crazy because I’ll be driving as slow as possible and she’ll be hitting these little things at the base. The neighbors ask why we don’t just boom spray and kill it all and then bring back only what we want, but Jazmin is very passionate about the local flora and fauna.”

Looking at her farm, Jazmin adds, “I’ve never owned this much land before, you know? It’s exciting, and I want to take care of it the right way.”

This coming year alone, they plan to install an irrigation system around the farm so they can plant more things further away from the house and expand their garden, to which they want to add hardscaping. They’ll also continue the offensive against invasive weeds and the gophers. “The garden around the house—I have it all designed in my head,” Jazmin says. “I know exactly how I want it to look and the purpose I want it to serve. On the weekends, I take either Saturday or Sunday, or both, to just work on it and make progress.”

They also plan on building a granny unit for Jazmin’s parents when they retire. “I really think they would enjoy living here in their retirement,” she says. “They could have some chickens and make some mole. That’s another project to figure out this year.”

The more Jazmin learns about her farm, the more she wants to do it all. “I want to have a small fruit tree orchard; we want to have a small vineyard to make sparkling wine with our friends; we want to have a cornfield. We want it all.”

“We’ve put a lot of our time and heart and soul into it, and it’s just the beginning. We have so many dreams for our little ranchito, our Rancho Colibri, and I can’t wait to see what we end up doing with it. I can guarantee you that in five years, it’s going to look completely different.”