Seeds of change

Local organic farmer spreads her knowledge

Suzanne Ashworth has worked in organic seed production all her life.

Suzanne Ashworth has worked in organic seed production all her life.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Del Rio Botanical sits on the Peabody Ranch in West Sacramento, near a road that snakes along the Sacramento River. There’s a ranch house on the south side of the lot, with solar panels on its roof, and long fields of purple bean pods, bright-red peppers and a rainbow assortment of cherry tomatoes.

“I’ve done this all my life,” said Suzanne Ashworth. “I grew up here.”

When Ashworth isn’t busy working on the farm, this lifelong organic seed farmer exports knowledge from her self-sustaining ranch, every so often traveling as far away as Guatemala to share her wealth of information.

Ashworth, a spunky and hardworking woman, runs the farm and is a third-generation family member to grow up on the property. Her grandfather started the ranch back in 1942, and she grew up around seed production. When she took over operations six years ago from her father, she took steps to get the farm organically certified. Although her family had always grown organically, she felt it was important for her to obtain the formal recognition from Yolo County.

The farm grows 68 acres of produce, all without the use of pesticides. The seed collection is astounding: The farm has more than 1,200 types of plants, including 47 types of cherry tomatoes, 63 types of eggplant, 110 types of gourds “and herbs you’ve never heard of” from around the world. Pests are controlled with a homemade mixture of water and peppers that’s sprayed onto the plants. Del Rio Botanical produces its own organic fertilizer and draws water from an on-site well.

Del Rio Botanical ships out produce daily to restaurants in Lodi, Lake Tahoe and other locations in Northern California. Early each morning, Ashworth gets on the phone, taking orders from Sacramento restaurants such as Mulvaney’s Building and Loan and Zinfandel Grille. Del Rio Botanical also produces community-supported agriculture boxes, which are stuffed with fresh produce and recipes and delivered to consumers each week.

But Ashworth’s farm isn’t just about seeds and produce packs; she’s worked to make the ranch an example of sustainable agriculture.

As Ashworth said, “Seed production is just part of the bigger picture.”

Del Rio Botanical is almost completely self-sustaining. Solar roof panels charge the orange electric carts that workers use to zip around the farm (one of them with “Land Rover” jokingly scrawled across the front in black letters). The sun powers a solar oven, solar dehydrator, solar ventilated greenhouse and solar water pumps.

“Is that green enough?” quipped Ashworth.

In fact, Del Rio Botanical produces enough solar energy in the summer months that Ashworth earns a credit to offset higher electricity use during the darker winter months. This focus on green power began around the time she took over the ranch’s operation.

Educating others about sustainable agriculture also factors heavily into her work. She has taken on traditional educator roles, such as serving as an adjunct professor at UC Davis and teacher at American River College. She also co-authored Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. Ashworth brings in a steady stream of interns to Del Rio Botanical to learn about the farm’s organic process.

She also travels to Mexico and Guatemala a few times a year, where she works with local farmers on seed production and storage, using her extensive seed knowledge to help them provide sustainable produce to their communities. For the past 20 years, trips have focused on the use of indigenous seeds and organic production to create viable Del Rio-like projects in those countries.

“And by the way, it’s an immensely fun way to travel,” Ashworth added.

While she recognizes the value of her work, she often downplays her importance. She compares her international projects to sending children off to college—eventually, they have to stand on their own.

“I don’t want a whole flock of people dependent on me,” she said. “They need to learn from here and go out and do great things, whatever that is. I’m just a resource now. I can only help. I can only encourage.”