Impact Profile - Lauren McNees and Rainwater Ranch

It was ten years ago when Lauren McNees and her husband Lee Millon began their farming journey at Rainwater Ranch near Winters, at the very edge of the Sacramento Valley, where they started with a seven-acre orange grove. After five years, and with a desire to start farming full-time, they chose to complement the orange grove with five acres in flower production. Now Rainwater Ranch sells fresh as well as dried certified organic flowers, seasonal wreaths, bouquets, and navel oranges.

Amidst all the farm duties, Lauren has been participating and contributing to FarmLink’s work over the past three years. She started with The Resilerator because she knew there were layers of knowledge needed to run a small farm business. After that experience, The Employment Resilerator would be her next investment. “It's once a week for two hours for just a couple of months…a very manageable commitment,” she said, “and you can get a lot out of it without impacting your day-to-day operations too much.” In addition to the courses, Lauren was nominated by a FarmLink board member to join the Farmers Resilience Grants committee, and most recently, she shared her knowledge with partners working to drive improved job quality and economic dignity for workers.

“The [employment] course was really appealing to me because Judith Redmond was the main instructor and she has so much experience,“ she reflected. One primary goal was to ensure the farm was compliant with regulations, but also, Lauren explained, it was “...about creating a positive workplace culture and tools for doing that and the importance of investing time and energy into it.” In addition to updating her farm’s employee handbook, which was started in concert with employees, she’s also created a new hire onboarding packet and started a more formal approach to one-on-one meetings with each employee, she explained, “To see how things are going for them and have open discussions about how we can do better going both ways.” With five employees, it’s an investment in everyone’s success.

Lauren recognized early on that offering year-round employment would be valuable, and the orange grove offered unique value. “Any farmer in California who has good land, tenure, and capital to invest, I would highly recommend some kind of winter harvest like navel oranges,” Lauren suggested. “That harvest season is December, January, February, March, and that's when most other small farms don't have very much work for crews.” There’s also dried floral work in November and December, “I try to manage it as best I can…some people are happy to have fewer hours late in the year because we work so hard the rest of the year.”

“Our team is great. They're up for the hard physical work. They're interested in being part of a collaborative team,” she enthused. There are indeed hard physical aspects of flower farming. “I have to tell my customers about it all the time. It's not just frolicking in the flower fields.”

This spring Lauren hosted a visit from one of FarmLink’s funding partners, The Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program. “[Their representative] was really interested in learning about the challenges that small farms face,” Lauren said, “and I was very happy to be frank with her about the challenges, because I think that people in general need to be more aware of them. If her organization is funding programs that are helping farmers with challenges, then hopefully that knowledge helps her.”

When approached to serve on a three-member grant selection committee for small farms in her region, Lauren felt that her prior work experience with scholarship programs at UC Davis would be an asset. “It seemed like the type of work I would enjoy and I do enjoy it.” She completed its third cycle of grantmaking in the spring, and Lauren has helped improve the process each time.  “I've enjoyed reading the applications and understanding what people are focusing their businesses on,” Lauren explained, “...farming on a really small scale, which some of them are…it doesn't leave very much room for capital investments. When we've been able to fund projects like a small cold room, I think that can make all the difference in a small business being able to scale up a little bit.”

When asked about measuring success on her own farm, she said, “It means being financially stable, proud of the work I do, enjoying the life on a daily basis, and farming with the values that we have, which in our case is organic agriculture and putting value and respect into our employees and reducing our climate footprint as much as we can.”

Learn more about Rainwater Ranch and where to buy their products here, including various farmers’ markets as well as by special order, or limited-availability wedding flowers.

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