Here in the North Bay, we enjoy a bounty of local, farm-to-table, organic and naturally grown fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meats. When we slice a tomato, we know where it comes from. But if we’re honest, most of us take for granted that this bounty will always be here. We imagine “the farmers” growing, picking and bringing the food we love to our favorite markets on into the future, just as they’ve always done.
But times have changed. Farming is changing. “The farmers” are growing old and a new generation isn’t having an easy time stepping into their shoes. Since 2007 and the recession, statistics show an alarming decline in the number of people entering or staying in agricultural careers.
Those who might want to try to make a go of a life and business growing healthy food, such as the farmers we talked with for this article, know that their farming success will depend not just on hard work, dedication and energy, but on innovation, creative diversity and the support of their own community.
Many new farmers lack the traditional basis for a farm: land. Instead, they typically lease property—if they can find it available. “That’s the only way these farmers are making it,” says Evan Wiig, sole staff member of The Farmers Guild. But land to lease in Sonoma, much less Napa or Marin counties, is hard to find. “The persistent challenge on everyone’s mind,” says Wiig, “is the rising cost of land and housing.”
Housing is another issue. “Where are these people supposed to live?” asks Wiig, pointing out that many of the country homes they once occupied are now refurbished, put on Airbnb and rented out at high rates to Wine Country visitors.
The people who come to The Farmers Guild, a network created to bring new farmers, including people who weren’t handed down family land and who may be completely new to farming but who have a desire for a life and lifestyle working the land, together to share knowledge and support. The Famers Guilds (there are 11 in Northern California, mostly in Sonoma County and one in Napa) offer educational workshops on topics like how to finance land, how to plan crops and where to find tools or help. “We focus on helping these folks work in the earth and also to be financially sustainable,” says Wiig. “We help people get information they need to go organic, plus we have an active job board.”
As gathering place for exchange and support, the guild is helping create a social and professional network of farmers in the local community, “so folks can get together, share a meal, knock back a few beers and talk shop. They talk about new market opportunities and blueprints for a new chicken coop,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for farmers to talk about farming.”
These new farmers are serious. Wiig calls them “intentional entrepreneurs” who are growing food and building their businesses. “They have very small acreages and have to build their business little-by-little over the years. Maybe they started out with a half acre five years ago and now are up to four or five acres.” The guild is helping foster a surrogate farm community where people can get the kind of information that used to be passed down within farm families.
Seth Chapin, who helped call together the Napa Farmers Guild, has operated Evermore Flowers for one year and is passionate about becoming a grower. “I want to be growing,” he says. “That’s what makes me happy.”
A graduate of the Center for Agro-ecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UC Santa Cruz, Chapin launched his floral business last year with even less than the usual minimum requirement. He doesn't own his land; rather, he sources his flowers creatively. He admits he enjoys foraging, and friends help out, he says. At a recent guild meeting, a woman mentioned she had about 300 roses on her property and he asked if he could pick some. She said she’d be delighted. Picking, as everyone knows, encourages growth, so they’re helping each other.
Asked about challenges, Chapin says “Land access is the biggest challenge for young farmers,” he says. “People can’t afford land and often times get stuck in an untenable lease agreement. I found what I consider a dream relationship here in Napa.” He has a friend with a parcel of land and she agreed to let him develop a portion for his flowers. “I get to cut from most of the plants while adding value to her property as I develop it.”
Chapin provides flower arrangements for a restaurant and a few wineries. Most other clients are events, including baby showers, birthdays and weddings. He says his marketing is purely word of mouth and, while he doesn’t have a lease, he does have a vision. “I’m thankful to feel at the helm of this project,” he says, before acknowledging his current business model doesn’t completely address the long-term. “While we are in the early stages of this relationship, one of my concerns is, how do I build equity?”
“Farming isn’t a get rich scheme,” says Wiig. “It’s hard work and long days. The people who are getting into and staying in agriculture are motivated by what they value for the community and for their own lives. They don’t want to sit at a desk. They’re not a fan of fluorescent lights. These people are willing to take a pay cut for the privilege of being able to work outside and professionally engage in a relationship with the earth. It connects them to the heart of the community, which is food and the food system.”
Bob Cannard, co-founder of Green String Institute and Green String Farm in Petaluma, has a lifelong passion for what he calls “natural process” farming—and for helping others to learn about and share that passion. For him, “natural process” is more than a method designed to meet certain standards or certifications. It’s a whole attitude that sees the health of the soil, the health of the plants and the health of the human being as an integral part of a whole. “To be truly sustainable, you have to grow soil while you grow people,” he says. “We need processes where food and soil grow synergistically.”
In the 1990s, he began working with vintners Fred and Nancy Cline to convert their 1,000 acres of winegrapes away from traditional farming to the organic vineyard it is today. In 2000, he and Fred Cline founded Green String Institute to teach people how to practice and make a business doing “natural process” farming and food production. His goal is to outfit new farmers with the right skills and attitudes so that if and when they can find property, they can jump in and start making a life working the land.
The Green String Program is a 90-day intensive internship program where students live and work on the farm and become skilled and inspired to work the land in the natural process way. “A significant number of [students] are turning it into a life idea,” says Cannard. “My goal is to give them enough of an introduction so they have confidence to move forward.”
For the students, the way ahead is complicated. “Space is a great problem,” says Cannard, who urges them to look at the economics: what to grow, what can they afford and how they can find some land to work. “There’s lots of opportunity out there,” he says, but you have to be creative. For example, there might be an older couple who’ve worked a small-scale farm and are now ready for someone to work the land for them.
He says Green String is trying to develop a system of land procurement, but it takes time. “I’ve been working on it for years. It took six years to get Green String Institute approved as a nonprofit through the feds and the state.” The project is costly, he says, but worth it. “We’ve been struggling along, but it’s a wonderful activity, and I’m perfectly happy to support the economic burden of the program.”
Green String Farm is run by graduate students and is open to the public year round. “We haven’t made any profit yet, but last year we met payroll. We would have made more, but for the drought.” He says they average between $50 and $100 per day in local food sales and, while they need to triple that, “I have a long standing feeling we shouldn’t charge too much and believe we ought to make quality food available to all people in our local area.”
When you talk to Green String interns, their faces shine with enthusiasm. They understand there’s a climate crisis and want to be part of the solution. They also understand they aren’t walking into a shower of money. Intern Greg Spevak, a New York estate attorney who wants to work the land, says they’ll need to be innovative and patch together a living “through a diversity of enterprises, such as educational tours, weddings and cut flowers. It will take a lot of hustling, creativity and collaboration.” Spevak also notes, smiling, that in the winter months, he can practice law.
The multiple ecology award-winning Singing Frogs Farm is an example of new thinking based on ancient knowledge and put to into practice on an old patch of Sebastopol acreage with the help of education, time, experimentation and the early support of a day job.
After serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser were able to purchase a piece of run-down farmland in Sebastopol in 2007. Elizabeth worked for a few years as a public health nurse, while Paul (who holds masters degrees in agri-forestry and sustainable agriculture) gradually restored three of their acres to a condition suitable for the kind of sustainable farming they wanted to pursue. Through intensive, “no-till” soil-health-conscious farming (they use compost to let the organisms in the soil do the work), they’re now able to bring in $100,000 per acre for year-round yield. This is about three times the local average. Their business model is completely direct to market. “We really like to tell our story,” says Paul. “We focus on direct market sales to CSA [community supported agriculture’ and farmers markets. We don’t sell to restaurants because we like to send our story with our food.
Singing Frogs Farm proves that a small amount of land can yield a healthy living for farmers who work with the land—not just on the land—and who recognize the soil as the “skin of the earth.
Ed Smith, manager of the St. Helena Farmers Market, oversees one of the community’s most cherished institutions. Open on Friday mornings in the summer months, it’s a place to meet friends and the growers of the food you plan to serve that night. For growers, having a place in a farmers market can be a step to stability.
Asked what he’s looking for, Smith’s answer is in line with the entire discussion of new farmers’ challenge: Diversity. “Don’t just grow what all the other people are growing,” he says. “Grow special stuff. People are looking for unique things to buy and to try—different types of cabbages, different types of cauliflower and more Asian vegetables.” Variety is attractive and draws people to the market, which helps everybody. “I love when a grower says, ‘We’re trying all these different things,’” he says. “The idea is to stand out.”
Most important, though, is for the greater community to come to and support farmers markets. “Support the farmers! It’s a tough job and it’s very interesting to talk to these hard-working, good people,” says Smith.
If we listen carefully to the voices in this article, we’ll pay attention to where our food comes and enjoy the hand-grown foods that make this area so appealing to people all over the world. We’ll encourage and support the people who help make our area a food mecca from much of the country.
The most recent USDA Agriculture Census, conducted in 2012, shows the average age of California farmers was 57.9 years, which is slightly younger than the national average but still approaching the age when people in other careers are retiring.
As for new farmers (those in the business for 10 years or less), the data seems to indicate it’s harder to get into farming in California than it is in other states. Here, the number of beginning farmers has dropped 29 percent (compared to a national average of 20 percent) since 2007.
The study states that, “The steadily increasing average age of farmers reflects the economic burden endured disproportionately by young farmers. Lingering impacts of the recession and multi-year drought, along with astronomically high land prices across the state, may be some factors discouraging Californians from entering into farming.
On the upside, California’s changing style of agriculture is good for all. According to the report, fertilizer and chemical use decreased 16.3 percent between 2007 and 2012.
Sustainable agricultural increasing, and organic sales surged by 82 percent nationally since 2007, despite the recession. California leads the nation with 3,008 farms now selling organic products and total annual organic product sales of above $1.35 billion, a 106 percent increase in sales since 2007.
On its blog, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) highlights the role of the local market, citing a 60 percent national increase in direct-to-consumer sales over the past decade. Additionally, NSAC notes the 2012 census gathered entirely new categories of data related to local food marketing, such as direct-to-retail and community supported agriculture (CSAs). California leads the nation in both of these categories.
When we think of climate change and greenhouse gasses, we tend to think of automobiles and emissions from industrial smokestacks. But methane, a gas occurring in agriculture as a by-product of animals’ digestion, comprises 8 percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated in California and creates a global warming potential about 25 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. Agriculture is responsible for about 60 percent of California’s methane emissions, and the state’s dairies are the primary source. Straus Family Dairy in Marin County has been working with the Marin Carbon Project since 2013 to change that.
“We have a long history of looking out for the environment and looking out for the land and animals,” says Albert Straus, whose parents were leaders in the organic and conservation movements in Marin. “Ours was the first organic dairy in the United States,” he says. “Now, more than 80 percent of the dairies in Marin are certified organic.” The Straus dairy is not only organic, but emphatically non-GMO as well. “We test every load of feed for GMOs, rather than wait for someone else to do it.”
The by-products of even healthy cows create methane gas. Since 2004, the farm has had a methanedigester transforming the environmentally costly gas into useful energy. This is yet another step in the evolution of the dairy as a completely self-sustainable entity. “We’ve put manure and compost back on the land since the 1950s,” says Straus, “so, in conjunction with the Marin Carbon Project, we came up with a 20-year plan for carbon farming. We’re now looking at sequestering an average of approximately 2,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, 1,600 of which comes from our methane digester.”
The Carbon Farm Plan on the Straus Dairy estimates avoiding 1,962 metric tons of CO2e (otherwise known as carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. The methane digester is the largest source of avoided emissions, accounting for about 75 percent of the total.
“I think everything we look at as a business is about how we can have less impact on the land,” says Straus. “We’re here to sustain family farms in Marin and Sonoma counties and help revitalize the rural community.” He wants to show that animal agriculture cannot only serve the community with beautiful dairy products but be managed in a way that actually helps the environment. Through his work with the Marin Carbon Project, the Straus organization is showing that animals can be an essential part of a system that’s a solution to climate change, a solution to high quality food and the best management practices for land.
• Greenbelt Alliance has published a new report called Home Grown, giving a comprehensive look at the state of Bay Area farming as well as how to support local farms and ranches. http://www.greenbelt.org
• At American Farmland Trust’s website you’ll find out how to contribute to a family farm and see how they are helping local Bay Area farmers. www.farmland.org
• New Beginning Farmers offers a 7-month program by the California Farm Academy in Solano County. The program has graduated 80 farmers, of whom 70 percent are now farming. www.newbeginningfarmers.org
• National Young Farmers Coalition offers information about farming internships, apprenticeships, jobs and land to rent, nationwide. http://www.youngfarmers.org/land-and-jobs/
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