Screw the weeds
A young farmer overcomes abuse to launch a company selling locally grown products
A fly clings to Rubie Simonsen’s razor-sharp bangs, and she doesn’t swat it away. The 26-year-old farmer continues grinding leaves against a grate and flexes her biceps, which are armored in Egyptology tattoos. Green particles skitter through the air. She smears the gathered dust across her cheekbone.
“This part is really satisfying because it’s almost the final step,” she says at her West Sacramento farm. Rather than making catnip, its better known end point, the catmint she’s crushing will become part of a tea sold by Simonsen’s company First Mother Farms, which launched earlier this year.
Simonsen represents the next generation of farmers, an industry with fading ranks. The average farmer is 58 years old, according to the 2012 U.S. census of agriculture, and that number has steadily risen since 1982. Simonsen says she got hooked on farming as a teen through a Winters-based nonprofit hoping to change that: the Center for Land-Based Learning. She started pulling weeds in its high school program. Years later, she enrolled in its California Farm Academy geared toward adults, which has graduated 96 students since 2012.
Already, the young farmer’s mentor Marisa Alcorta is impressed with her business savvy. Simonsen raised $5,000 through crowdfunding, but she’s sticking with her eighth of an acre before scaling upwards.
“She’s just experimenting with seeing what captures her audience,” says Alcorta, an apprenticeship coordinator with CLBL. “It’s great for someone so new to have that consciousness and not just be freaking out about everything.”
For Simonsen, farming is not just a business, but a mode of healing stronger than counseling has been. Six years ago, her mother was arrested for child abuse, according to the Superior Court of Sacramento. Simonsen took care of her two younger sisters and prioritized their homework over her own. While her mother was in jail, Simonsen swore to herself that she would never get entangled in prison or an abusive relationship.
Soon after, she broke both of those promises.
“You’re just like, ’When will we ever feel normal?’” she says. “Or is there a normal?”Violent patterns
Simonsen didn’t fully admit to herself that she was in an abusive relationship until she spent a weekend in the Sacramento County Jail, looking out the window and asking herself “How? Why?” The jail confirms she was booked in October 2011. She remembers thinking, “I should be at my internship right now, I should be at school right now, I should be at work right now. I should not be here right now.”
She was the one in prison, even though Simonsen called the cops in the first place, as confirmed by Sacramento Police Department spokesperson Eddie Macaulay. She and her ex had gotten into a violent fight, but it was Simonsen who ended up in handcuffs. That’s because his body showed more scratches than hers, she says.
A few weeks after her stay in jail, Simonsen was having dinner with a friend when her ex spotted them and eventually punched her male companion into a pole. Blood pooled around his head as Simonsen screamed. Only after that incident was she granted a restraining order by the Sacramento Superior Court, according to court records.
Since then, she has replaced old patterns with new ones. Farming and its repetitive motions ask her to flow through each thought in a daily meditation, instead of stewing in anger. “It’s like washing it out.”
The young farmer has done so much healing, an outsider might even sense that she is grateful for what she’s been through. “It’s made me stronger,” she says. She claims she is not mad at her ex.
“Going through that relationship made me realize that there are patterns in my life that I need to be active with, and farming is a reminder of that,” she says. “Weeds grow no matter what—perfect conditions, horrible conditions; water, no water. … Shit. Is. There. I have to actively freaking fuck all the weeds out of this physical field as well as my life. It can’t just be, Oh, there’s a weed. Isn’t that nice. I think I’ll just leave it there. Because none of the beauty in your life would be, if you weren’t active.”
Active she has been. Simonsen recently harvested 40 pounds of herbs in a day. She’s launched an online store selling organic salves and teas, and in the not-too-distant future, she hopes to expand to body scrubs and brick-and-mortar stores.
And she agonizes over setting fair prices. After all, these are organically grown, locally sourced teas and body products—high-class pampering tools usually marked up for their premium qualities. However, by using affordable herbs like catmint, lemon balm and sweetening stevia, she can sell 2-ounce salves for $7 and 7.5 ounces of tea for $12, including shipping. She hopes to make these modes of self-care accessible to more people.
The minimal packaging seems to say: Chill out. Take just one moment to reconnect with yourself and the earth. That’s what helped her.
“I think it’s a good reminder, as a philosophy, to ask people to slow down,” she says. “What do you have to lose?”
Alcorta says Simonsen’s business is a natural extension of her own catharsis. “When we go on a path to heal ourselves, we often want to heal others, too,” Alcorta says. “I think it’s a great field for her because of that. She is trying to be more in touch with her inner self and also what’s valuable to her, what’s true—and extend that out to others.”Healing flow
Inside Simonsen’s apartment, rows of quart-sized mason jars brim with crushed herbs. Plastic buckets on the floor hold freshly harvested marigolds, lemon balm and calendula with a whiff of citrus. “My house is gonna be like an apothecary, I’ll have to start getting raven skulls,” she says with a small giggle.
Across her sunny balcony, she hangs a garland of lemon balm to dry, threading each stem in a patient rhythm.
Her connection with urban farming started early. During the peaceful moments of her childhood, Simonsen played in her grandmother’s garden in South Sacramento with her pet rabbit and a toad. She and her sisters would make natural tinctures to heal wounds. “We were like, ’Don’t put Neosporin on it, Grandma! we want to use our potion! We want to see if it works!’”
Later in life, Simonsen dusted off her garden-grubby hands to transfer to Sacramento State and major in sociology. Around the same time, she started working as a caseworker for the California State Assembly, and then as an initiative coordinator for the City of Sacramento. She says she noticed what thrilled her most was passing an urban agriculture ordinance.
But she still missed the dirt. Last year, she went all in and signed up for the seven-month-long California Farm Academy, where she wrote a business plan for First Mother Farms. Then, earlier in 2017, she started working full-time at a nonprofit. She soon chafed at its time restrictions. When her boss told her that her work came before farming, she knew it was wrong in her gut.
She quit in May and got a pep-talk tattoo on her middle finger that says “jump.” With her middle finger lifted, it’s “fucking jump.”
Now, Simonsen lives with her younger sister Jade Kelley and a friend, and says she relishes the freedom in her farming life to simply be silly. She and her sister laugh and scream along to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Queen, making up absurd lyrics as they go.
Upon hearing Simonsen talk about her sisters, Kelley shouts from the other room “Ya-Ya Sisterhood!”
Their mother was recently released from jail for a second time in October, and Simonsen says she dropped her off near the American River to be with her fellow homeless friends. Previously, she and her sisters had tried enrolling their mom in rehab and counseling. She simply didn’t want the help.
Like a surrogate mother, Simonsen acts as a role model for her sisters, and she has her own caretaker: the earth. She named her business First Mother Farms after that original matriarch. The logo shows a triangle pierced by an arrow to signify moving forward. It also refers to the strong lines of womanhood: the womb.
“Being a woman is more than just being feminine: It’s being tough and taking care of yourself,” Simonsen says. “I think we’re badass, you know?”