The Backyard Stories, Dispatch Two: Kimo Laughlin
In the second installment of The Backyard Stories, we travel to California’s Central Valley to talk with Kimo Laughlin about this family’s small orchard, sinking aquifers, and how to live a life of agriculture and adventure.
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The Backyard Stories is a new podcast and written column, in partnership with Protect Our Winters (POW), following athletes and local food advocates who are deeply invested in their home ecosystems – their backyards. Read the introduction here.
In talking to Kimo Laughlin, 32, about his favorite places to be outside, it’s a roster of nostalgia. As I listen to him recall memories from his childhood camping with his mother, climbing trips with his father during his teen years, and his early adulthoods living and working in Yosemite National Park, California, his eyes well up with what I can only describe as longing to do it again.
Last year Kimo became a part owner in his family’s tree fruit and nut production an hour southwest of Fresno, along with his uncle, Kevin, a decision that changed his life. I first met Kimo last year while interviewing him for a food publication. Our conversation moved seamlessly from orchard crops to water theft to his early adult life as a trail runner and climber. Kimo was one of the early inspirations for the entire Backyard Stories project. As a farmer who understands his ecosystem not only by the land he stewards, but from a full spectrum of adventure. Kimo deeply loves his backyard but he also relies on it for his livelihood as a farmer.
The most special thing about asking Kimo to be part of the Backyard Stories is that by taking me on a “greatest hits” road trip from June Lake, California, to his family farm in the Central Valley, this project has been a merging of his past lives with his present reality.
“There’s literally every mountain outdoor activity here”
This was a text I got from Kimo when I was on my way to meet him in June Lake, California, in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was trying to decide what he wanted to show me and feeling overwhelmed with how to fit it into three days. Bouldering, fly fishing, hot springs, hiking up to mountain lakes, dropping in on his old friends, were on the list and we somehow fit it in – all of the company of his dog, Kapono.
When I pulled into the campground at June Lake, this was my first time meeting Kimo in person – but I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend. Both of us bundled in our layers of puffy coats, he gave me a big embrace and yelled “JONNAH! AHHH!”. He popped open the tailgate of his pickup truck and started showing me all the food he had packed for us: eggs and sausages from the Los Angeles farmers market, and dried fruit and nuts from his farm, K & K Ranch.
After moving back to his family’s farm in 2021, Kimo was revisiting the community where he had lived for four years. He was in the process of reintegrating his outdoor life with his new life as a farm owner. I was witnessing the weaving of two areas he hadn’t believed could be in his life at the same time. And I was part of his story as much as he was part of mine.
In outdoor communities there is real hesitancy of sharing locations – and for good reason. The first night we went to a brewery to meet up with his brother and some of his June Lake friends. When Kimo told them that he was going to take me to one of their local spots for bouldering the next day, I caught a sideways glance from his brother. With geotagging giving access to knowledge that has long been protected by locals, bringing a journalist along is met with skepticism. Kimo quickly reassured them that it wouldn’t be published in this project – and it won’t.
The next morning I followed Kimo’s truck to an area where he had spent a lot of time bouldering. He was unusually quiet as we hiked up the trail, Kapono at his heels. After a few warm-up routes, Kimo stood before a problem that he had been working on for years. He said that the camera made him nervous but also that if he was able to do this, he wanted photographic evidence. After two attempts, Kimo topped out, hands shaking, tears in his eyes. It was more than completing a long-standing challenge; it was that he was returning to this place now as a full time farmer.
The rest of our day and into the next, was a slow trickling down, as in downhill, like water, and we were with water. We hiked up to Kimo’s favorite mountain lake and ran down, Kapono herding us by keeping close at our heels. We camped at hot springs and Kimo was pissed off at how many vans and trucks with out of state plates were at the “locals-only” spots. He blamed social media and I couldn’t disagree. After watching the sunrise from a marshy hotspring, we headed to one of his favorite fly fishing streams.
Kimo had to get back to the farm that night to meet a mechanic who was working on his broken well pump. But we stopped several more times at his “favorite spots”. Every spot had a long story and reasons why he’s going to make it back out there more often: unrealized challenges, unfinished adventures, and friendships to rekindle.
Orcharding in the foothills of the Sierras
The Central Valley produces about 25% of the nation’s food. K & K Ranch is a small farm in a sea of gigantic fruit and nut orchards that are continually consolidating.
“My uncle, Kevin, can see what grows well in this environment because he’s farmed this land for so long,” says Kimo “He knows our soil really well, he knows the weather, he knows where the wind is coming from and at what times of the year. And because of that, we can strategize where we want to plant a tree, whether that’s behind the house to break the wind or in front.” Kimo details the intimacy his family has with their land. The smaller the farm, the more time a farmer spends with each acre.
This knowledge is vital in diversified growing systems. K&K Ranch produces dozens of varieties of citrus, stone fruit, and tree nuts. Some of these varieties are sold under an alias at the farmers markets throughout southern and central California, to protect the generational work that has been done to create strong fruit genetics for the Central Valley ecosystem.
“Supporting small family farms is the number one priority, because that is what protects the environment,” Kimo told me. Even more than that, small farms also protect biodiversity in the food system which becomes less diverse and more fragile with each variety that is lost.
“You’re not just buying the food from the farmer. You’re buying their trust. You’re buying into them. You’re investing in them, you believe in what they want. And that’s why we try to focus on smaller markets,” Kimo told me when I asked him why small farms matter.
Mining for water
On a macro scale, Central Valley food production is a race to the bottom – the bottom of the ancient aquifers that support this prolific region.
“Growing up, I think our well was 80 feet; we’ve had to drill all the way down to 200 feet now,” says Kimo of the change in the water table he has seen in just a few decades. “I’d like to help make people more aware that it’s not just rainfall and snowpack, which are very important water sources. It is also the water table below that people don’t see. That’s a huge issue for agriculture in general.”
The Central Valley subterranean water challenge is ultimately won by those who can invest in the most infrastructure. “It’s this vicious cycle. The people who get the most water are the ones who can take it the quickest,” explains Kimo. The Central Valley is experiencing significant structural depression. Since the 1920’s the region has sunk as much as 28 feet from deep well water extraction. The Central Valley is caving in on itself and this can only be offset by farming less intensively or getting more snow in the Sierras.
Kimo is concerned for what the future holds for the entire region, particularly farmers operating on slim margins. “When you pump from a well, it’s really expensive if you’re not on solar, but these big farmers would rather just spend that money pumping from the well, rather than buying water [from the California State Water Project utility – CSW] where it’s way more expensive.” The CSW sources water from a dam, reservoir, and canal system that serves urban and agricultural areas.
Carrying the stress of the family farm, while also leaving space for outdoor adventures that fill him up, is what Kimo is working towards. This is the riddle he was trying to solve over the days we spent together: how to do both and.
“I know that once the farm is a little bit more stable, I will be in the mountains a lot more. The goal is to be out running and climbing and mountain biking and then coming back and doing some work on the farm,” Kimo told me. In addition to being both a fruit producer and living a mountain lifestyle, Kimo wants to be a father. “I want to get to the point where the farm is sustainable enough that I can have my own family. That’s the biggest goal for me.”
Some people would say that it is a dream to have an old family farm waiting for life to breathe back into it. Which is true but there is also the angst of leaving behind a life of adventure. For Kimo, the Backyards Stories has given him a vessel to imagine both existing at the same time. By keeping one foot in adventure and another in agriculture, he is bringing the past into the present, and holding space to look ahead.