By Mike Nelson | Photos by Viktor Budnik
A farmer with a law degree? Sounds like Oliver Wendell Douglas, the highly successful attorney from the big city who became a highly unsuccessful rural farmer in the 1960s sitcom Green Acres.
Except that Evan Graham Arango, the modern-day Ojai farmer with a law degree from UCLA, is nothing like Oliver Wendell Douglas. For one thing, Evan grew up in Ojai with a love and appreciation for all things nature, developing a home garden on his parents’ property and learning what does and doesn’t work.
For another, his Ojai Roots farm — a regenerative, no-till, ecologically focused operation that grows and sells an array of produce — has been a huge and immediate success, garnering a devoted customer base of families, schools, restaurants, resorts and more.
Finally, Evan’s life and business partner is not a daffy Hungarian socialite, but Reiana Onglengco, a Philippines-born, Ojai-raised, New York-educated marketing pro who oversees Ojai Roots’ business development. And, like Evan and the entire Ojai Roots staff (and unlike Oliver’s wife, Lisa), she is literally hands-on when it comes to farming.
“We all get our hands dirty,” laughs Reiana, during a rare break from what is a 24/7 kind of lifestyle, and not for the faint of heart or weak of body. But it is exactly what Evan, Reiana and the Ojai Roots staff enjoy.
“For me,” Evan declares proudly, “farming is a natural fit.”
Getting into nature
So how . . . or better yet, why . . . does one go from law school to the farm?
“I always liked getting into nature,” says Evan, who recently turned 30, “and I liked hands-on, day-to-day activities, which farming and gardening definitely are.”
Growing up on his parents’ one-acre property in Ojai’s Arbolada district, Evan learned “kind of on my own, really” how to grow and raise vegetables in his home garden. He continued his gardening and plant education during his studies at UCLA School of Law, where he specialized in environmental law and food regulations.
“I had an interest in food systems, especially methods of farming and food production that are regenerative, low impact, sustainable, organic and environmentally responsible,” he says. “And food regulations and environmental law were in my wheelhouse.”
He was completing those classes when the COVID pandemic struck in early 2020, “and effectively shut UCLA down,” he recalls. “So I was in Ojai finishing school via computer, with free time on my hands. It was a time of food insecurity and instability all around, so I thought, let’s become more self-sufficient and produce our own.”
Good idea. Almost too good, in fact.
“Initially, my purpose was to grow as much food as possible for family, friends and neighbors,” he says. “I ended up producing more than we could eat or give away. So I needed to either figure out how to distribute what I was growing, or scale back. And I had no interest in scaling back.”
Planting seeds for a healthier food system
Upon earning his JD from UCLA, Evan became more engaged in developing his business — which, he notes, is hardly unusual for law school grads.
“Many of my colleagues from law school are not just practicing law,” he points out. “A law school education and background sets you up for establishing your own business, as much if not more than an MBA does. And I use my legal background every day, studying regulations, insurance issues, land use rules and contracts.”
Among the first to join Evan’s team was his girlfriend, Reiana, a Manila-born graduate of Nordhoff High and New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and a fellow nature-loving Ojaian. With a background in styling, photography and marketing, Reiana came up with the Ojai Roots name and helped develop and further the farm’s mission, specifically in regards to “re-envisioning the local food system.”
“Our work,” Reiana says, “is aimed at creating an innovative regenerative food system that addresses many of the environmental, social and public health problems present in traditional food production and distribution. We believe that real food — how we grow it, how we share it, and how we experience it — has the potential to transform our health, our communities and our food system.”
Growing a community
Having created the company’s first website and Instagram pages, Reiana handles branding and marketing, and curates partnerships with area businesses. Currently, half of Ojai Roots’ business is through direct sales to individuals and families, while the other half includes sales to restaurants and resort customers, including the Ojai Valley Inn.
Now operating on a 30-acre space, Ojai Roots grows citrus, avocados and vegetables, components of its popular “Farm Box” produce packages that are delivered to customers weekly or monthly. The company also offers olive oil and uniquely aromatic candles.
“Growing for Farm Box is a key part of our business,” says Reiana. “When customers know where their food is coming from, that it has been harvested that day and that it is high quality, it makes a difference. And having farm dinners on our property to share what we’ve produced with the community, being able to bring people together through food, is so important.”
“We also work with a lot of local farms in the area,” adds Evan. “Having built our brand as customer-based, the process of how to sell our products and having a place to sell them is something we’re learning as we go, and helping others with. Working with other local growers has been one of the best parts of what we’ve done, because we have some amazing regenerative farmers in our area.”
One of them, in fact, is part of Ojai Roots’ management team: sales manager John Fonteyn, owner of Rio Gozo Farm, who brings a wealth of local restaurant and farming experience, connections with the Ojai farming community, and a similar passion for farming and protecting the environment. Like-minded staff and volunteers have helped make Ojai Roots into a popular and productive supplier of farm-fresh produce serving Ojai, Ventura and Santa Barbara.
Not that growing high-quality food and maintaining a successful business is easy.
“The list of challenges is almost endless,” Evan says, “especially in a business so closely linked with nature. Look at the recent weather and climate changes we’ve had: a severe drought followed by record rain. So you have to be able to adapt. So far, we’ve done pretty well.”
Expansion and evolution
And the business is expanding, taking a significant step forward in the coming months, with a move to a larger, 100-acre location near Lake Casitas.
“That will change our business pretty substantially,” says Evan. “It will allow us to highlight our regenerative practices and techniques that we’ve developed, and to have more people come and experience what we do.”
The expansion process, he continues, will include a 7,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art greenhouse “that will allow us to grow food in a more controlled way, be less affected by climate and weather changes, and be more efficient with labor and resources. That’s very exciting for us.”
The move represents not simply an expansion but an evolution for Ojai Roots.
“Our focus has expanded beyond food,” says Evan. “It’s quality. We love high quality products, like olive oil, candles and health and wellness-oriented products. Our mission is to become more than a farm; we want to make a positive impact on our community.”
And if that’s the plan, aren’t green acres the place to be?