Farm-raised Olivenhain teen wins national 4-H award


Growing up on a farm can be grueling work for a child. But 18-year-old Samuel Sugarman — who spent his boyhood milking cows, collecting eggs and harvesting honey on his family’s Olivenhain property — figures he was the luckiest kid in town.

“I was so sheltered on the farm I thought everyone had this same love for getting dirty, digging holes and playing in the mud,” he said. “So many children don’t have a connection with the Earth and with animals. So I always wanted to share that love of mine with others.”

Before he left home for college last fall, Sugarman spent more than five years offering free tours of his family’s Sugar Sweet Farm to hundreds of student, scouting and community groups. Those efforts were honored recently by the National 4-H Council, which named Sugarman the recipient of its 2017 4-H Youth In Action Award for Agriculture. Each year, 4-H chooses four teens who embody the pillars of the organization: agriculture, healthy living, citizenship and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). At a recognition ceremony in Washington, D.C. next month, the teens will each receive a $5,000 scholarship, and one will be chosen for the 2017 4-H Legacy Award.

Reached Feb. 23 at his dormitory at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., Sugarman said the 4-H honor means a lot because he believes the organization shaped his life in profound ways.

“Through 4-H you have the opportunity to go out and explore the world,” he said. “The biggest lesson for me was that there’s no such thing as failure. Sometimes you don’t meet all your goals, but that’s not a failure, it’s an opportunity to learn from your mistake and do better next time.”

Sugarman was just 6 years old when his family — parents Shawn and Elizabeth and younger sister, Sissy — moved to Olivenhain from the Bay area 13 years ago. They settled on a 2.5-acre farm property formerly owned by Loren Nancarrow, the longtime San Diego newsman who was a noted organic gardener until his death in 2013. Elizabeth said she’d always dreamed of living on a piece of land with some horses, but she decided to start a farm after a Waldorf schoolteacher encouraged her to do more hands-on projects with her kids.

“My kids saw me on the phone, on the computer and in the kitchen, but they never saw me building or making things with them,” she said. “We started with a backyard chicken and bunny project and it was like magic. It was work with no time attached to it. It was togetherness and peace.”

Over the years, Sugar Sweet Farm expanded to include horses, goats, sheep, turkeys, pigs, a cow, a donkey and beehives, as well as an organic garden and orchard. The farm sells homegrown products, offers pony rides and private farm parties, but the school and club tours that Sugarman began leading when he was in sixth grade are free to the public.

He said the tours always started with a chance to meet the animals, followed by a talk about sustainable agriculture, genetic biodiversity, old vs. new farming practices and the care and feeding of livestock. Much of what he taught on the tours came from his training with the Olivenhain Valley 4-H club, a 100-member chapter that he joined as a boy, and eventually presided over. His sister Sissy, now 15, serves as chapter president and has taken over running the farm tours.

Stephen Kehle, who served as Sugarman’s longtime mentor and adviser in 4-H, said that from the time Sugarman was 9 years old, and exhibiting his own livestock at the fair, he seemed to be on a mission to connect with “city dwellers.” Once, a fair-goer munching on a roasted turkey leg began asking the young Sugarman questions about a “chicken” he was exhibiting. It was actually a 30-pound turkey.

“I personally heard Samuel explain to a youth visitor that prices for produce and meat increase when gas prices rise due to the distance between the farm and retailers,” Kehle said. “I don’t know a lot of high school students who freely discuss the impact of macro-economic factors on a specific industry.”

Sugarman said many children today have never stepped foot on a farm, don’t know how fruits and vegetables grow and don’t make the mental connection between packaged meats at the store and living animals.

“I wanted these kids to see where their food came from. ‘You know the turkey you had for Thanksgiving? Here’s a live turkey. See that pig? That’s where bacon comes from,’ ” he said.

The 4-H work not only taught him a work ethic and appreciation for the land, but he also learned business skills when he raised lambs for sale at the San Diego County Fair livestock auction.

Because he was home-schooled on the farm, Sugarman had time for a lot of extra-curricular activities as a teen. He plays the cello, has licenses to fly airplanes and helicopters, and worked as a DJ. At Principia College, where he’s on a full scholarship, he’s now a member of the town’s volunteer fire department.

Because of his community work and volunteer efforts in the community, Sugarman was honored last June in Washington, D.C., with the 2016 Congressional Award Gold Medal. The award, given to 325 American youth, is the U.S. government’s most coveted award for youth civilians.

Sugarman expressed an interest in politics, but he said it will be hard to resist the pull of moving back home after college to help his mom manage the family farm and the weekly farm tours.

“When children grow up disconnected from their food,” he said, “they miss opportunities to develop qualities of stewardship, compassion, patience and gratitude.”

– Pam Kragen is a writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune