By Amy Wu
Regan Eun Choi is a farmer at Ela Family Farms that is owned by her life-partner Steve Ela and his mom Shirley Ela. She’s been farming since 2016. The certified organic farm is a fourth-generation enterprise based in western Colorado and includes production of just under 100 acres. The farm’s staffing level varies on the time of year, but it generally maintains 8 to 12 year-round employees, with an additional 70 or so part-time and seasonal employees. The farm produces organic tree-ripe fruits, along with heirloom varieties of tomatoes and rhubarb plus products made from those fruits. More than 30 varieties of apples also grow on the farm as part of their heirloom conservation work.
Most sales are direct to consumers at farmers markets, restaurants, and small specialty stores. The farm also sells community-supported shares where individuals directly invest, in the spring, in a purchase of future fruits and vegetables to help support the farm through the lean time before harvest; Ela Farms also sells online.
Choi was born and raised in Colorado, “but with the paternal mantra that I was to be a Citizen of the World,” she laughs. She studied cognitive science and biology as an undergraduate at the New College of Florida, and “my career history developed my education in program development and management, in human and natural history, in archaeology, in education, and in nutrition.” She learned farming on the job when she joined the Ela family and the farm, and says that having a background in science and nutrition was very helpful in helping her get up to speed.
“I had some understanding of chemical interactions and plant nutrition as well as human nutrition and organics and the background of the organic system,” she explains. “I have a natural inclination towards being really curious and loving to be over my head in knowledge and needing to learn.”
She is an advocate of agtech and a believer that innovation can help farmers tackle significant challenges including labor shortage. Choi keeps up on the latest through reading or engaging with various agtech start-ups that have approached the farm. She’s excited when discussing tech solutions whether it may be how blockchain [a growing list of records, called blocks, that are linked using cryptography to track information] can provide traceability of produce or how satellites monitor watering in the fields or promote more automation in the fields to help with harvest.
“I really enjoyed the aspect of trying to implement technological solutions on the farm. It still is an issue, but we’re in the phase when the food safety modernization was coming into force and we had to implement a bunch of new practices particularly in how we had things written down and kept records,” she says. “Luckily I had enough background in being curious about technology and use of technology that worked out as something I could do.”
Outside of farming her hobbies include photography and watercolor painting. Prior to farming she had a career as an artist and has managed to merge her passions of farming and art by taking photos of the farmscape.
“I see everything through an artistic eye. But I always look at color and relationship and the visual impact of things. So being able to create photographs or a social media post that tells a story is an expression of the creativity that’s part of life even though it’s still part of being a farmer,” she says. She can also be found “listening to music, conversing with my family, sitting in a tree, going for multi-night backcountry trips, skiing, reading, and experimenting in the kitchen.”
Regan and I first met at an agtech conference that I was moderating in San Francisco in late 2018. She was one of the few women and women of color who I spotted. She was affable and I was clear that she had a thirst for better understanding how innovation could be used on the farm.
Q: What led you or inspired you to work at the company where you are?
A: Would you believe: Tales of Johnny Appleseed? The tales of planting seeds, nurturing growth, and literally being in touch with our trees and food seemed like the most ideal job I could ever have. When I was four years old my imagination was absolutely captivated. At the time my family and I lived in the mountains of Colorado. I spent my earliest years wandering in nature, watching how things grew, how trees and plants and animals and sunlight and air interacted. I was also raised with the belief that to do my part, I had to become a cultural and scientific leader, and problem solver. Being part of an innovative organic farm, I get to do some of all of that. I am part of creating connection in our human community, our ecological communities, our environmental communities, and our collective efforts to act in ways ever more dynamically balanced toward long-term resilience.
Q: What led you to the agricultural sector?
A: Growing up, agriculture was mysteriously far away. I didn’t know much beyond a backyard garden and foraging in the woods for wild edibles. I suppose my wanderlust for remote places made it more likely I’d end up in the rural West where agriculture is a mainstay. My life partner is a fourth-generation fruit grower, so it was a natural fit to join the farm when we joined our lives.
Q: What do you do and what are your main contributions to the farm?
A: I innovate and organize and try to weave among sectors the incredible complexity of systems, which is a living farm. We are vertically integrated [a business strategy where the company owns its suppliers and distributors], to a rare degree for the fruit growing industry. We are also fairly small-scale. Looking for new technologies that can improve our knowledge and operations is a never-ending task of fascinating exploration, frustration, and cool discovery. A few years ago, for instance, we got to talking with our local tire shop manager who also happened to be developing ag drone infrared imaging. It was becoming well-developed for annual field crops, but no solutions existed for accurately imaging orchard tree structures of varying age and density. We worked together to figure out how to get those pictures from drone overflights, and what that type of imaging could do for us in water management. The infrared imaging took a lot of work on the tech end to be a meaningful picture. In the end we were able to accurately, at a glance, see water stress in our tree blocks. That is hugely useful in an arid landscape where water is [as] precious as gold. When it comes to agtech, my involvement is tangential. We work with any number of researchers and start-ups for water, pest, disease, inventory and traceability management. We look for tech developments in fruit picking and packing, sanitation, record keeping, and logistics.
Q: How has business changed for you due to COVID-19?
A: We are still finding out what the changes in our business will have to be. There’s a lot of trial and error. We are adjusting market channels, trying to create human-role redundancy options, employee behavior, customer behavior, community relations, and business locations/set-ups. We have to ask: What can human behavior tolerate? What can workers in the field physically tolerate? We are focused on minimizing risk of any pathogen concentrations. On the farm that means splitting up our crews more, and looking for better real-time personnel tracking when equipment undergoes very rough conditions and WiFi or cell signal are often nonexistent; asking highly social people who make their work lives good by bantering throughout the day to eat separately, at a distance; asking them to cover their faces (and expressions) anytime they are in proximity. As far as sales of the fruit--we don’t know yet. A majority of our fruit was picked ripe and delivered within days directly to the individuals eating it. Largely that has been through farmers markets and relationships with chefs. Covid-19 safe behaviors have changed the landscape entirely in regard to both those outlets. We can’t really know yet how that will have to change our business model.
Q: What do you need in order to overcome this challenging time?
A: Good PPE (personal protective equipment) is definitely among the biggest challenges. If we were able to get N95 masks, workers could breathe better in the heat, and work more safely in closer proximity. Also, at markets or in the fields, using adequate water for truly good hand-washing practices of 20-plus seconds feels wasteful. If water were more plentiful in our arid climate or easier to carrying around throughout the day, that would encourage strong Covid-safe practices. And of course, there’s always money. Farming is one of the highest risk enterprises a person could engage in. Knowing with more certainty when the temperatures are coming which will kill budding fruit, and what those temps are for each fruit at each day’s stage of development, would be a boon. Having ways to protect crops at vulnerable temperatures would help. We think we’ve reached the peak of water-saving technology, but drought is more and more frequent in western Colorado. Reliable drought mitigation or water efficiency/quick-monitoring technology would help. Finding ways to grow, pick, pack, and transport our fruit more efficiently and cost-effectively are always goals, too.
Q: What inspires you to continue what you do?
A: Feeling the webs of connection, providing good food, good habitat, and jobs, and being part of good solutions. One aspect is that idea of providing. We all need food. It has to come from somewhere. The idea of providing for a community, wherever that community is, providing not just subsistence but something that is enriching. It’s nutritionally enriching, experientially enriching, environmentally enriching, it’s culturally and socially enriching. That’s actually a big thing and it provides a platform for conversation and education about what is sustainability? What is reliance? What is curiosity? What are dynamic systems? How are we part of them? How are we part of the natural world, not separate from it?
Q: A quote that epitomizes you or inspires you.
A: It’s actually the title of a book on six-word memoirs, “Not Quite What I Was Planning”.
Amy Wu is the founder and chief content director of “From Farms to Incubators,” a multimedia storytelling platform that highlights women innovators in agtech. She is an active member of EcoFarm’s Diversity Advisory Committee and involved in EcoFarm's upcoming conference. Amy considers herself bicoastal and splits her time between New York and California.