Meet the Students: Kayla and Dimitri
by Daniel Spiro, graduate and rock of the SAA
Stop by Ridgewood Ranch and the SAA campus on a sunny afternoon after classes have concluded for the day and you’re likely to find partners Kayla Cabradilla, 26, and Dimitri Brown, 28, putting in extra hours in the school’s diverse vegetable field. Hailing from Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, the two arrived in Mendocino County in April to be students in the school’s 14-week intensive practicum program, and they’ve discovered in particular a love for vegetable growing. “I’m after real freedom,” says Dimitri, “and to me that starts with knowing how to grow my own food.”
This kind of work is a new undertaking for both of them, as neither had much experience with farming growing up. Indeed, back home, to many of their friends and family, what they’re doing here makes little sense. “The word ‘organic’ was not really in our vocabulary growing up.” Kayla, who is the eldest of four siblings and whose family lives a few generations deep in LA County says, “My family is pretty suspicious about all this, they really don’t know why I’m doing this.” Dimitri nods, “Before coming out here,” he says, “we went vegan for two years, and, honestly we lost friends. This whole movement is foreign to how we were raised.”
So how does a suburban couple in their late twenties decide to buck the traditions of the world they know, move north to the country, and dive into farming?
Let’s dive in.
The story of Kayla’s journey into farming begins with a childhood dream to become a teacher. Loving reading and writing from a young age, her first inclination was to become an English teacher, until, in the tenth grade, Kayla enrolled in American Sign Language classes at a local community college. She was a natural: sharp, facially expressive, and deft with her hands. Kayla’s ease with ASL led to an engagement with the deaf community, and her dream of teaching evolved. Being a hearing person, she figured that she was particularly suited to teaching ASL classes for other interpreters, those who could hear and those who were deaf.
She continued her classes, graduated from high school, went to university, and this is where her story begins to take its turn toward farming. “At some point I realized that I was focusing on the career aspect of my life, and not enough on what was going on around me,” she says. The university atmosphere didn’t fit her learning style, she couldn’t get advisors to meet with her, and the stress of it all was leading her into what she describes as an unhealthy lifestyle, particularly around eating and food. When she left school, first in her thoughts was a desire to eat healthier. “It was basically the first step in getting to the life I wanted,” she says.
Not long after getting back to Santa Clarita, Kayla met Dimitri while working at an Embassy Suites Hotel. In Dimitri she found a kindred spirit, someone who was also questioning much of the societal wisdom he’d received growing up, particularly those norms related to food and eating.
At the time, Dimitri was on his own path toward the farming life. He describes the evolution of his thinking about food as taking place over several years. “There was no one event that made me eat vegan or think about farming, but it feels like all the influences in my life brought me here” Dimitri explains. A serious soccer player when he was young, Dimitri had long been aware of the importance of staying physically fit and healthy. After he left soccer behind after “falling out of love with the competition,” he went to college in Chico and started experimenting with a variety of career paths, searching for what made the most sense to him, and what he could do that “would actually make a difference in the world.” “I went to art school for graphic design first,” he says, “and then switched to studying political science.” But even that left him feeling like it was missing an essential point. “If you don’t buy into the ways things are,” he says, “then you have to go to a more fundamental place than politics.”
Dimitri’s family roots became part of the inspiration for what that “more fundamental place” was. His father came to the states from Guatemala when he was a boy, and Dimitri’s grandmother still owns farmland there. This family tradition – largely unexplored by Dimitri at that point in his life – got Dimitri thinking more deeply about an issue he’d been ruminating on since college: the global broken food system. “If you deconstruct and deconstruct, you eventually get to the basics of food and water,” he says. So he started paying closer attention to what kind of food he ate. After he and Kayla had an enlightening encounter reading the ingredients on a package of Hamburger Helper beef stroganoff, they decided together to eat vegan. Two years later, they yearned for more, and made the choice to get into the food system at the true ground level.
Kayla and Dimitri Going Forward
The two found the SAA online through a simple Google search, came to visit in the fall of 2016, and decided to take the leap. Now, ten weeks into the program, they’ve seen firsthand, through classes and fieldtrips, the consistent – and often relentless – challenges of farming, and this has only strengthened their resolve to keep learning and pursuing a future in vegetable crop farming. Kayla also intends to integrate her teaching dreams into her farming life. She plans to eventually teach the kinds of farming classes she’s taking at the SAA, and to incorporate an ASL curriculum, which can be an extremely useful across distances in a field over the loud hums of some machinery. She also hopes to get more people in the deaf community into farming. And Dimitri is eager to get some land of his own, preferably off-grid, although first he hopes to get to Guatemala with Kayla to see his family’s land there. “That’ll happen in the next year or two for sure,” he says. For now, they hope to keep learning and working here in Mendocino County.
For some, the decision to farm is a radical departure from the world they know, and this is precisely what makes the decision so brave. While Kayla and Dimitri left behind much of the traditions and norms in which they were raised, and while Kayla’s family still struggles with their decision, they both see the larger implications in that choice, in particular for their people back home. “My parents always told me to set the example,” says Kayla, “and that’s what I’m doing. For my brothers and sisters, and for my parents.” Dimitri says, “My dad came to visit here and was just so excited. He said it reminded him of when he was growing up.” “We’re going to have kids one day,” adds Kayla, “we needed to make sure we were doing the right thing with our lives. Now we are.”