Meet the Modern Farmers: Jess Arnsteen

Photography by Drew Kelly

Jess Arnsteen isn’t often held back by indecision.

At 19, he dropped out of Colorado College, climbed into a pickup truck and set out for Mexico and Guatemala with a goal of stemming the tide of globalized oppression. Coffee would be the key. Arnsteen and a partner started BuyWell International in 2006 — a fair-trade coffee wholesaler paying livable wages to Latin American farmers. But one thought plagued him as he ran the business: What did he know about rescuing the world’s poor when the farmers he was buying from were far more self-sufficient than he was? He sold the coffee business at 22 and decided to make farming his life’s work.

Now, Arnsteen is in the unlikely position of being a farmer who doesn’t have to sell his crops. As the manager of edible ecosystems at Parducci Wine Estates in Ukiah, California, he works to feed more than 60 employees in Mendocino County. The crates he brings them twice a week might contain fruits, melons or lamb chops, depending on the season, but he can always promise the workers eggs and fresh vegetables for their fridges at home. (After all, it is California.) A new set of pigs provides for the annual carnitas party.

It’s an arrangement he thinks other large vineyards should consider. No, he isn’t making a direct profit for Parducci, but he keeps the employees happy and the on-site farm closes plenty of resource loops. Waste from the grape-crushing operation, for example, gets fed into compost for his 15 acres of orchards, pastures and vegetable beds. The grass and weeds between the vineyard rows become food for 60 sheep. For Arnsteen, it all comes back to self-sufficiency. “When I can provide a complete diet to our entire company without outside inputs, such as animal feed, I will be one happy farmer.”

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Meet the Modern Farmers: Jess Arnsteen