Solarpunk Farms, ten acres of meadows, redwood trees and market crops in Guerneville CA, was originally a ten-year plan: an improbable dream for a queer couple with demanding city jobs and zero farming experience, yet who harbored an inkling that personal fulfillment would unlikely be found sitting at a desk. Then, in three quick strokes, fate intervened. First, Spencer, who has a PhD in bioengineering, quit his well-paying job. Next, Covid happened. Then they encountered a property that checked all their boxes. It was walking distance to a small downtown, twenty minutes to the ocean, an easy drive from San Francisco, and—miraculously—within their price range. “We decided we had to do it,” Spencer recalls. “It was a whirlwind to make it happen. But by July 2020 we were living in our little home.”
A riot of color and camp on field days, at once silly and serious, Solarpunk Farms is both a working farm and a vehicle for social and environmental change. Soil Centric’s Judith D. Schwartz spoke to Spencer R. Scott and his husband, Nick Schwanz, about farming, regeneration, and the pros and cons of making sweeping changes in a heartbeat.
Editors note: What is Solarpunk?
Before we get to the interview with Spencer and Nick we want to quickly talk about the farm’s name. It was chosen to express the ethos of Solarpunk, defined as “a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question “what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?”. Spencer recently wrote a piece explaining it from his perspective which we recommend you check out. Now, onto the interview.
Judith D. Schwartz: It’s late September, time for farmers to reap the benefits of their labor. What are you harvesting?
Nick: Our first two years were less about what can we harvest than the mindset of: what can we grow that will repair the soil? When we arrived the land was a degraded horse arena, just pigweed and Bermuda grass. This is the first year that we started planting crops in earnest. It’s also the coldest and wettest year our area has ever seen. Now we’re harvesting a ton of tomatoes and flowers. It’s been a massive flower season. Strawflower has been our signature crop. It’s beautiful, and bouquets last a long time so it fits our sustainable vision.
JDS: That’s quite a heavy lift for less than three years. Do you plan to support yourselves as farmers?
Nick: We don’t have the land or the experience to treat farming as our main income generator. Because we both have fulltime jobs, we can treat the farm somewhat as an experiment. This takes the pressure off. Our goal is to bring on a farm manager so we can start to formalize our practices into a more revenue-generating system, selling to local markets and restaurants and creating a little farm stand. For now we’re doing small sales to restaurants in town and floral sales for charity and sustainability events.
JDS: You each have fulltime jobs, Spencer as Science Program Manager at the climate nonprofit One Earth and Nick as a brand strategist for sustainable tech companies, and you’ve started a demonstration farm. I’m trying to wrap my head around how you make this work.
Spencer: Basically, by giving all our remaining time after work and most of our weekends to the farm. This is probably not the most sustainable model. But the farm does give us energy and fulfillment so it doesn’t always seem like work. We spend much of our time building infrastructure and planning events. That’s why we decided we have to bring on a farm manager. Because we’re a demonstration site and educational center, the point is to bring people here. That requires skills outside of farming. We’re both storytellers who can create a vision and bring it to fruition. We’re willing to lean into that strength and hire the people we need as we grow.
JDS: What kind of events do you host?
Nick: We have work-play weekends, with maybe six to ten people. We’ll spend half the time doing farm work, like weeding or amending soil or flipping over beds, and the rest making food and talking about sustainability and just having fun. We want to change the narrative about what “fun” is, from getting on a plane and traveling somewhere and taking a bunch of pictures to post on Instagram, to getting your hands dirty with your friends and making good food that you harvested yourself and talking about things that are meaningful to you. The notion of “fun” has been coopted by capitalism and travel and commercialism. Perhaps most rewarding is to see people who might have gone to the beach or dance club and instead come to the farm and find that as enjoyable if not more enjoyable. And when they leave they say, “Can I bring back some seeds to plant at home?”
JDS: As the mother of a gay son, I’ve noted that the regenerative movement presents as pretty straight. And I’ve wondered whether that’s been a barrier for queer people.
Spencer: That’s one thing we’re trying to address. The queer community has long found solace and a sense of belonging in the urban party scene. It hasn’t been around land management, or being rooted in a place, which hasn’t been seen as cool or hip—likely because the notion of homesteading and being in rural spaces is often not conducive to queer life. Part of our mission is to redefine not just what is possible, but what is aspirational. We’re a short drive from a major city with a lot of queer folks, and the goal is to provide a place to experience tending land and start the process of engaging with regeneration.
Nick: Like Spencer says, one goal is creating a safe space for queer people to explore farming. The other is showing the world what “queer” means, and that regeneration is implicitly aligned because queerness is about joyfully and enthusiastically rejecting the status quo. Simply by finding your way in the world as a queer person, you have the same spirit as a regenerative person finding your way in a capitalistic environment. You could say that queer is to conventional as regenerative is to capitalism.
Also, queer people have done a good job of creating community in unexpected places. If you think about what makes it hard to live in a rural place, it’s isolation. Queer networks can blow that out and make it more supportive and enjoyable. The regenerative movement will be more palatable to people once they know they’re not alone in these places if they build community the way queer people do.
Spencer: I enjoyed my work, particularly the science. But then the 2018 IPCC report came out and I decided to devote myself to climate. Also, I felt I wasn’t using the creative half of my brain and wanted to do more writing. People have come to me saying they care about climate and want to leave their job. I used to be like, “Do it, yeah!!” But after going through the stress and anxiety I appreciate that the conventional route is the conventional route because it’s safer—made safe by our system. Perhaps more prudent would be to explore what passions you have, to spend what time you can on what you want to move toward. Then again, I don’t think you have to have all your ducks in a row before starting something. Regeneration should be something we’re excited about and not something we’re intimidated by.
Nick: It can be hard to get off the treadmill. The value of what Spencer did is that it shook us both off the treadmill. There’s a role for the safe place and there’s a role for the ambitious. People have to decide what’s right for them.
Spencer: I’m now thinking about the power of the story, and what it signals to others. To make such a big shift sends a strong signal that what you are shifting to must be very important. A lot of people were like, “Wow, you had a very cushy, great job that you basically blew up because you were so taken by climate work.”
JDS: If not “ditch your job and start a farm”, what advice would you give someone called to do regenerative work?
Nick: Know that while some leaps are risky and destabilizing, there are little leaps too. Like changing from working on your marketing team to working on your sustainability team. What we want to share is that you don’t have to feel perfectly ready or be perfectly experienced in order to make a change. Our project was unique in that it was a big financial risk, and that isn’t right for everybody. But how many shifts are held back because people think they lack the knowledge or expertise at the outset? That’s a wall that doesn’t have to be there.
Spencer: I’d add that everyone has something unique to contribute. Find it and believe in it and know that if you set your intentions correctly and put them to work—yes, you absolutely can add that to the regenerative movement. And I hope you will.
All of the photography was provided by Spencer and Nick, thank you for sharing the beauty of your farm with us. We encourage you to follow what they're up to on Instagram: @solarpunkfarms, and through Spencer's writing on his Substack: As If We Were Staying, and on OneEarth.org.