A young Salinas man works hard to
prove vegan farming is the next big thing
With heart on hand, farmer Leo Sanchez shows his love for farmers’ markets
PHOTOGRAPHY BY PATRICK TREGENZA
When Leo Sanchez first heard about growing produce “veganically,” without the use of any animal-derived fertilizers at all, he was skeptical. “I actually thought it was silly and not going to work out,” he says. After all, the Salinas native had long been coached in traditional organic farming methods, which call for using chicken manure, fish emulsion, bone meal or other animal-based fertilizers.
Sanchez—now the owner of Lazy Millennial Farms—has discovered that veganic practices work very well in commercial organic agriculture— and his methods, learned through research, trial and error, and experimentation, may very well be the next big thing, as well as a more ethical and sustainable way to farm.
What he’s doing on two acres south of Salinas has already attracted the attention of Popular Science magazine, as well as local restaurants, farmers’ market shoppers and the Forbes AgTech Summit, which asked him to speak at the event last June.
On a recent bright and breezy day, Sanchez was out in the field inspecting young onions, Asian greens, purple turnips and celery, among other crops he’s growing. The name of his company is ironic, considering the bespectacled 26-year-old devotes most of his waking hours to working on the farm.
The name of his company is ironic,
considering the bespectacled 26-year-old
devotes most of his waking hours
to working on the farm.
His fertilization method employs fermented grains and plant matter, enhanced by minimal tilling methods that suit his crops and don’t disturb the beneficial micro-organisms at work in the lower layers of soil, something that he believes contributes to higher yields and concentrates nutrients in his vegetables. This method also helps consolidate carbon dioxide in the soil, and minimal cultivation reduces the use of fossil fuels.
Sanchez uses an old-timey, hand-operated apparatus called a wheel hoe for cultivation and a propane-powered flame weeder that kills weeds with fire rather than pesticides.
But in accordance with veganic practices, he doesn’t kill gophers, usually the nemesis of row-crop farmers. Sanchez’s method is to live and let live. “You’re really in their house,” he says. “When gophers eat something, it’s like paying the rent.”
And, he points out, gophers aren’t all bad—they do an outstanding job of soil aeration as they tunnel through the earth.
Farming both organically and veganically can save the earth, Sanchez believes. That’s a lofty aspiration to lob out there, but he is convinced that this is the way of the future.
“One of my biggest goals, my life goal, is to find a way to benefit humanity in a positive manner,” he says. “I wanted to find something that would let us symbiotically live cohesively together, to really enhance and benefit the land with the tools that we have.”
Eating less meat and switching to veganic farming can also help slow climate change, he says, citing information from the Environmental Working Group, which estimates that about half of all manmade greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. For every pound of beef produced, 13 pounds of carbon dioxide are introduced into the environment, according to EWG figures, while a pound of potatoes, at the top of the list of vegetables, creates only 1.3 pounds of CO2 as a byproduct.
Lazy Millennial Farms is not just CCOF certified, but also certified by Stockfree Organic, a worldwide community of commercial growers encouraging plant-based agriculture—and considered the highest standard for veganic farms. It’s one of only two veganic farms in California.
Sanchez’s path to veganics didn’t happen overnight—in fact, it was a winding and torturous path that eventually led him to where he is today. It all began a few years ago, strangely enough, with a knee injury from BMX biking.
While Sanchez was restlessly recuperating, his grandfather came from Mexico for an extended stay. They grew tomatoes in the backyard, and “something just clicked in me,” says Sanchez. “I fell in love with it.”
He enrolled at Hartnell College, but ended up flunking all his ag classes. “I thought, maybe this isn’t for me,” says Sanchez, but when his beloved grandfather died, it galvanized him.
He returned to college and started making the Dean’s List, crediting Hartnell ag instructor Dr. Steven Triano for encouraging him every step of the way. Then he enrolled in ALBA, the nonprofit organic farming incubator, and also snagged an internship with Phil Foster’s Pinnacle Organic farm in San Benito County.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” says Sanchez, who did everything from transplanting to harvesting, packing to early morning deliveries. “I had to understand what farmworkers are going through and I’ve never been so sore in my entire life.”
At ALBA, he joined forces with Matt Loisel, who founded the farm and came up with the attention-grabbing name Lazy Millennial. Loisel introduced Sanchez to the idea of veganic farming; however, their partnership ended late last year, and Sanchez took over the business and its ALBA acreage.
Less than a year later, Sanchez has made huge strides. Lazy Millennial currently has 15 CSA customers and is selling weekly at the Kensington Farmers’ Market near Berkeley. In addition, he’s growing produce for Vegetarian House, a vegan restaurant in San Jose.
The workload falls squarely on Sanchez’s shoulders, with a little part-time help from family and friends. But he also plans to spread the veganic gospel in any way he can and hopes to collaborate on an online workshop to teach veganics with Triano, his former professor.
“I’m really stoked on what I’m doing,” says Sanchez. “This has really brought out a fire in me. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work…I’m not doing this because it’s a niche, I really believe in this.”
Kathryn McKenzie, who grew up in Santa Cruz and now lives on a Christmas tree farm in north Monterey County, writes about sustainable living, home design and health for numerous publications and websites.
Lazy Millennial Farms
1700 Old Stage Road, Salinas