As with many members of the organic farming movement, Zea Sonnabend’s passion for organic agriculture grew out of an early involvement in the back-to-the-land and anti-war movements of the late 1960s. Born in 1951 in Brookline, Massachusetts, Sonnabend dropped out of college in Philadelphia to work on a farm. But then her interests took a more technical, scientific turn, as she returned to school to earn a BS in plant science from the University of Massachusetts and a MA in plant breeding from Cornell University. After graduation, Sonnabend came to California, and worked for several years at the Isla Vista Food Co-op and the Mesa Project demonstration garden run by the Community Environmental Council in the Santa Barbara area. At the Mesa Project, Sonnabend was mentored by ecologist and horticulturalist Richard Merrill, and by organic activist and writer John Jeavons.
In the 1980s, Sonnabend farmed organic figs, peaches, and vegetables in Tehama County, California. This led to her involvement in the North Valley chapter of the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF). She became an inspector for CCOF, and in 1985 began serving on the CCOF board that developed the first organic certification standards and materials list in California. She is a founder of the Organic Materials Review Institute, and worked as a contractor with the National Organic Standards Board and the USDA to develop federal organic standards. Sonnabend is also a lifetime member of the Seed Savers Exchange and teaches classes in Seed Saving at the UC Davis Student Farm and at the UCSC Farm and Garden. She works on diverse projects for the Ecological Farming Association, and until 2008 coordinated the Eco-Farm conference at Asilomar, an enormous task. Irene Reti conducted this oral history at the Ecological Farming Association’s offices in downtown Watsonville, California, on April 23, 2007.