Ditching Corporate Stress for Backyard Farming

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Gloria Broming bends down and sticks her fingers in the dirt. Her silvery locks ready to tumble from a loose ponytail, she doesn’t worry about dirty fingernails, or toenails for that matter. It’s an “eh” to her; part of the job and an occupational hazard she’s more than willing to embrace.

Laguna Beach resident Gloria Broming ditched a corporate job to become a “community farmer,” seen here working in a San Juan Capistrano garden.Photo by Jody Tiongco.
Laguna Beach resident Gloria Broming ditched a corporate job to become a “community farmer,” seen here working in a San Juan Capistrano garden.Photo by Jody Tiongco.

Broming assesses the amount of moisture and microbes in the soil for a soon-to-be vegetable patch. The patch will replace water-intensive ornamentals of plumeria, bird of paradise and various ferns.

For 18 years Broming drove the asphalt interchanges across southern California as a pedal-to-the-metal corporate rep. She secured permits for an architectural firm, jumping through tight and seemingly endless public-agency hoops. She worked as a high-paid, and equally stressed, entitlements manager for LPA, a design firm in Irvine.

Eventually she found that unending stipulations and deadlines from government entities weren’t conducive to her health.

“I had to constantly push to get approvals,” she said. “So when I came home, I’d go out to the garden and dig in the soil and plant, and that was a healing for me. I would meet people out and about in the neighborhood when I was in the garden, particularly my front-yard garden. It just fed my soul.”

Petite and spunky, Broming’s got a dancer’s sense of motion, a refined bohemian style and a supportive husband who plays guitar in a rock band in his spare time. “I have never been one to dye my hair, wear a lot of make-up, change anything about my body,” she said. “This is who I am.”

She gave up Excel spreadsheets, fluorescent-tube lighting and a six-figure income for full-spectrum sunshine and fresh air to start her own business, Farm to Fork Garden Designs. She now earns a living determining the organic gardening needs of homes, homeowners’ associations, businesses and restaurants and offers classes on preparing, cooking and canning the resulting bounty.

Being able to grow your own food gives people an added level of independence and self-reliance, she says. With the full swing of her hoe, she’s now digging her true calling — showing people how to grow and prepare food. “There’s a value in loving what you do,” she said.

“All over the world, we’re starting to see an independence building with growing your own food, harnessing your own energy and water,” said A.G. Kawamura, the former secretary of the state Food and Agriculture Department and a third-generation fruit- and vegetable-grower in Orange County. “Behind that, there’s a growing interest in healthier eating by having your own backyard or neighborhood garden.”

At the Great Park in Irvine, master gardeners from UC extension courses teach classes on growing, preparing and cooking homegrown food. “There’s a building enthusiasm with better and more efficient systems of growing food,” Kawamura said. “The slow-food movement is continuing to pick up speed,” he said.

In turning over a new leaf, Broming, 50, embodies the maturity of self-rediscovery as she playfully embraces the slow-food trend, reinventing overwatered, under-used lawns into productive food zones. Her mantra is: if it doesn’t produce food, don’t waste water on it. Food-producing plants bear beautiful flowers, she said, that, in fact, attract pollinating insects and seed-spreading birds.

Now, instead of stress, she’s showing her clients how to assess their own soil — a common butter knife is a useful tool — so they can make their gardens richer whatever the season or weather conditions. Earth worms, she said, are key.

Gettin’ Grubby

“Earthworms are a sure sign your soil is on the right path. It all starts with the soil,” she said. Composting, she said, is something everyone can do to replenish the soil around their homes. And that’s good for everything that grows.”

If digging around in the garden churns up certain grubs, be wary. A grub looks like a whitish C-shaped cocoon with a brown head. The common grub around here is the larva of the June beetle; it eats roots, which eventually kills the plant.

“It’s almost like the plant smokes cigarettes,” says Broming, because the plant starts to crumble in on itself.

The problem with the June bug grub is that it looks just like the grub of the green fruit beetle, a large iridescent-green flying beetle with blue filigree wings common around Laguna. The green fruit beetle is beneficial because it decomposes plant matter and enriches the soil, Broming said.

“The way to tell them apart is to put them both on the sidewalk and watch them move,” says Broming. The June beetle larva will use its six legs because it’s a fully grown grub, while the green fruit beetle larva scoots on its back with its legs in the air, like a baby on a blanket, she said

A New Job Description

Broming’s interest in dirt and growing things took root when she started volunteering six years ago for Transition Laguna Beach, a local sustainable-living group. As lead for the food group, she set out to literally change the landscape in the cottage-filled seaside resort town where she’s lived for 25 years. Under her guidance, the group turned 20 lawns into a cornucopia of organic edibles, including her own cottage on Anita Street.

Her new job title with Rancho Mission Viejo’s homeowners’ association is “community farmer.” Her downsized paycheck is not even close to the salary she was earning, she says. Her husband, Richard, has worked with Mission Viejo Ranch for 30 years and is senior vice president of planning and entitlement.

At “the ranch” garden, Broming oversees 17 communally owned raised beds and chickens that eat and spread seeds. As “The Farmer and the Chef,” she and chef Linda Elbert teach classes on cooking and canning.

Ellen Swallow, a semi-retired psychotherapist, has gardened there since moving in last November. “I’m always learning something new,” she says, “like if this caterpillar is going to turn into a butterfly or if it’s going to eat my entire plant.” As well as deepening friendships while digging in the dirt together, Swallow says working with nature is a lesson in humility. “It connects me to what is real, nature, and it’s calming. I have a lot more respect for my food.”

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