Sky Island Natural Foods and Sky Island Organics owner Michael Wangler was on a fast track to a Ph.D. and a college presidency when his passion for food intervened.
As artist of the week, Wangler shares with other artists a common bond — a passion for creating something of beauty that affects and touches others. As with several artists interviewed for this series, Wangler followed his passion and made a mid-career course correction. He moved from the stability and prestige of a likely college presidency to a less certain path of organic food producer, purveyor and packager. The choice is paying dividends in both success and satisfaction.
“Fast track” describes Wangler both figuratively and literally. In high school and college, the San Diego native was a track and field long distance runner, winning accolades in his sport. He later coached at his old high school, taking his track and field team to a league championship for the first time in school history. He moved quickly through bachelor’s and master’s science-degree programs at UCLA and UC Riverside. He got part way through a Ph.D. program at UCR, taking many earth science and paleontology courses. He became fascinated with how competing theories can both have value and that there are always multiple ways to a solution.
He studied fire ecology and how plants respond to disturbances in their ecosystems. He spoke about how his field, geography, gave him the opportunity to see the world holistically. In field trips he experienced how geography brings together all elements of the natural world. “I learned to pick out the pieces from both sides [of an academic theory or approach] that made sense,” said Wangler.
He left the Ph.D. program to teach and further investigate holistic integration in the natural sciences rather than become a focused specialist. For eight years Wangler taught in the Grossmont/Cuyamaca Community College District and then moved into administration and college governance for the next nine years — as Curriculum Committee chair, vice president, then president of the Academic Senate and College Accreditation Committee chair.
Then food, a fascination since childhood, presented an opportunity and a choice. “While at college, I was always involved in food,” Wangler related. “As a child I spent summers at my uncle’s farm in North Dakota. There was always this farming connection. Driving trips with my parents to North Dakota, to national parks, my fascination with geography — all contributed to my decision to change careers.
“In 2005, we bought a house in Idyllwild. In 2006-07, I met Doug [Yagaloff] and Scott [Douglas], owners of Mountain Harvest Market. I started making sauerkraut in my home kitchen to sell in their market. That’s how Sky Island started.”
In conversation, Wangler is charismatic, articulate and dynamic when describing his career arc. His eyes and voice are alive with intelligence and energy. He described running an organic farm in 2007 close to where he had taught. “It was the best six weeks of my life. I grazed on the land and tasted the beauty of raw food. I tasted my first organic strawberry. Those six weeks solidified my connection to food and farming.”
When Yagaloff and Douglas were going to close Idyllwild’s only organic market, Wangler made his decision. “At the time, I was back and forth between San Diego and Idyllwild,” he remembered. “I was being recruited for president of the college. It was the moment when the store fell into my lap. I decided that if I were going to do this, I had to do it right.”
With his decision to buy Mountain Harvest, Wangler utilized his teaching and research background to redo the store format. “I got rid of textured vegetable protein and GMO [genetically modified organism] products,” he noted. “With antibiotics in the food chain, we’re becoming less alive. This is a big part of the artisan food movement — getting live bacteria back into our system by eating fermented and live-cultured foods. I wanted to bring good food to people, beginning with local organics and focus on the unique local stuff.”
As is characteristic of Wangler, the long-distance runner and holistic scientist, he is fast-tracking to expand his mission of bringing people together by introducing them to healthful food. His commercial production of living food outgrew Idyllwild and now requires a large production facility in Palm Springs, Sky Island Organics. He currently sells his raw and sprouted food products in natural food stores throughout Southern California. He recently formed a distribution company with partner Randy Olsen, “SOL Distributors — Sustainable, Organic, Local Foods and Products.” “We’re just getting ready to go big time,” he said. “We have a broker and soon a refrigerated truck. We want to be a regional distributor, but not too big. Once you’re too big, you lose that artisan focus. The main focus of our expansion will be Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.”
From professor to artisan food producer, artist and scientist Michael Wangler has never looked back. “My passion is to create and market this high-quality food to help the food renaissance in this country. People are beginning to recognize that our conventional agriculture practices are damaging the planet — the land, the air, the water and themselves. Quality organic food is a way to bring people together.”
In 2013, Sky Island Organics was incorporated as a California benefit corporation committed by charter to making a positive impact on society, community and the environment.