Jim Leap gives two pieces of advice to fledgling farmers in their first year setting roots on their own: Double your anticipated expenses and cut your anticipated income by half.
It sounds like a tough dose of wisdom to swallow, but one that Leap, who is farm operations manager at the University of California at Santa Cruz’s (UC Santa Cruz) Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, says his former students often tell him is spot on.
Leap’s advice highlights how challenging it is to make it as a beginning farmer. But by his estimation about 90 percent of the 1,200 graduates of the university’s six-month, full-time farm apprentice program are still engaged in the food system, from running gardening programs for former prison inmates to operating full-scale farms.
If those numbers speak to the ingenuity of small farmers and the organizations that support their interests, they also point to a need for both public and private support—including government policy to market infrastructure—to build a farming base strong enough to support a shift to more sustainable and localized food systems.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that half of all current farmers will retire in the coming decade. Meanwhile, food production must double by 2050 to meet future demand, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Those statistics plus rising oil costs, dwindling water supplies and an anticipated drop in crop yields caused by climate change equals a need for a bumper crop of new farmers.
In 2006, author and Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg, citing the need to unshackle food production from oil consumption, said the United States would need up to 50 million new farmers in the next three decades to meet the country’s future food needs.
Megan Fehrman, a grassroots organizer at Friends of Family Farmers, a Molalla, Ore.–based nonprofit whose mission is to support sustainable and socially responsible agriculture in the state, says she saw evidence of the same while traveling through Oregon to assess how to support small farmers. “One thing that came up over and over again was that we need more farmers,” Fehrman says. Friends of Family Farmers estimates that with an aging agricultural population—the average age of an Oregon farmer is about 60 years old—the state could lose up to half of its agricultural production land if new farmers don’t take over. But more than 70 percent of farms in the state are less than 100 acres, which potentially offers a lot of room for new small farmers to step in. [pagebreak] Heinberg’s vision of a small farmer is one who tends between three acres and 50 acres, mostly by hand, producing food for local consumption. USDA, meanwhile, defines a small farm as one with less than $250,000 in annual commodity sales. There is evidence that the number of such farms is on the rise. Between 2002 and 2007, the total number of U.S. farms increased 4 percent, according to USDA’s 2007 Census of Agriculture, an extensive tally of the country’s agricultural landscape that the agency performs every five years. The biggest sector of growth was small farms, which averaged about $70,000 in sales and 200 acres in size.
Still, small-scale farmers struggle to compete with large farms, which significantly benefit from economies of scale. Mega-farms with more than $1 million in annual sales produced about 60 percent of U.S. agriculture in 2007, according to USDA, up from 47 percent in 2002.
Bucking that trend requires public and private resources for small farmers, starting with solid training, education and outreach.
The Small Farm Program at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis), for three decades has helped California’s small farm owners differentiate themselves through many initiatives, including crop diversification, production methods and marketing channels such as agritourism and farmers’ markets. Yet due to budget shortfalls the University of California system plans to shutter the program by the end of 2009.
At UC Santa Cruz, Leap says demand for the apprenticeship program, through which students learn about organic farming by operating a 25-acre farm and two-acre garden, is booming and admissions are becoming more competitive as applicants show up with education and real-world experience already under their belts. But completing the program is just the beginning of their education.
“When they start farming, they’re just getting started on the learning curve,” Leap says of graduates, who likely face financial and technical challenges, as well as tough competition. “They need to make their own mistakes; that’s when learning happens.”
When Ned Conwell and Ryan Casey, both apprentice program graduates, decided to start their own farm in Pescadero, Calif., they went in with their eyes wide open, Conwell says. They had a strict budget and a plan to start very small and build slowly, reinvesting in the farm along the way. [pagebreak] One hurdle was finding a spot on the San Francisco peninsula, where land is coveted and expensive. Rather than purchasing a plot, Conwell and Casey leased their parcel from the nonprofit Peninsula Open Space Land Trust, which aism to preserve land by setting it aside for open space, wildlife habitat and low-impact recreation and agriculture.
Since starting Blue House Farm in 2005, the pair has gone from about 1.5 acres to 8 acres, but it hasn’t been easy. “If you want to make a living on the coast it’s going to be challenging,” Conwell says. “Everything we’ve done has a significant challenge to it.”
Training, land and access to capital are among the biggest hurdles for new farmers. In Oregon, it can easily cost $500,000 to start a farm, Fehrman of Friends of Family Farmers says. So it’s key to set up creative land-transfer arrangements, such as work-to-own models, through which a new farmer simultaneously builds experience and sweat equity by working with an established farmer. To facilitate the transfer of land and expertise from retiring to aspiring farmers, Friends of Family Farmers in 2009 launched iFarm, an online database listing land available for lease, sale and rent; work-to-own and education opportunities; and financing sources. Funded by the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, iFarm is based on a California program called FarmLink.
In California, the high cost of land and equipment is a huge barrier for beginning farmers, says Glenda Humiston, director of California’s USDA Office of Rural Development. FarmLink functions almost like a dating service—a Craigslist for the tractor-and-plow sector.
California’s program, which has been around for more than a decade, spread to become a pilot program in about 20 other states, funded through the federal farm bill that was passed by Congress in May 2008, officially called the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008.
That same Farm Bill, while it fell short from the goals of groups pushing for profound changes, ushered in a host of policies and funding opportunities aimed at helping small and beginning farmers. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is promoting policies aimed at supporting local food systems and boosting public awareness of eating healthy, organic and locally produced food. Combined, these policies, plus a dose of stimulus funds allotted to local food systems, represent a major shift and are having real impacts, observers say. “Policy plays a role in making sure small farmers have a level playing field and are not shut out by agribusiness and large food retailers,” Humiston says.
From the time Abraham Lincoln started the USDA in 1862 until 1990, there was no specific program aimed at helping beginning farmers. From 1990 until 2008, most programs were credit-based, says Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
One such program, the Down Payment Loan Program, provided federally guaranteed credit to help farmers buy their first piece of land. Then, as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, interest rates for the Down Payment Loan Program were lowered. Since then, participation has surged, Hoefner says. [pagebreak] “Since 2008, despite the financial crisis, it’s been going like gangbusters,” Hoefner says of the loan program. “Lower interest rates proved to be a major incentive.” Between 1994 and 2008, about 3,000 farmers participated in the program. Since 2008, 1,500 farmers have taken advantage of the program.
Another initiative, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, provides grants—about $17 million worth in 2009—for organizations providing training, education, technical assistance and outreach to new farmers.
Launched in September 2009, USDA’s $65-million Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative aims to promote local food systems. The agency says it plans to use existing programs to help producers with marketing, support local business cooperatives and create new opportunities for meat and poultry producers. Meanwhile, some owners of small farms are looking to other business models, or establishing themselves as nonprofits. In the San Francisco Bay Area, one such nonprofit farm, Pie Ranch, operates a 27-acre organic farm about 50 miles south of San Francisco, as well as a farm stand and a youth education program. It sells its products to area bakeries, including Mission Pie, a San Francisco restaurant that also employs some of the students who participate in the farm’s education programs. Securing local and regional markets for their goods is a key to its success.
Over the past decade, local and regional markets for small farmers have really opened up through Community Supported Agriculture sales, farmers markets and restaurant sales, says Garry Stephenson, the coordinator of Oregon State University’s small farms program. The number of farmers’ markets has increased 13 percent since 2008, according to USDA.
Like its neighbor Pie Ranch, Blue House Farm relies on a network of distribution points in San Mateo County and San Francisco. Most of its sales come from its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which has about 160 members. A weekly trip to the farmers’ market and sales to restaurants and area natural food stores make up the rest, Conwell says. Blue House Farm and others on the peninsula have the benefit of being close to urban areas. Finding markets in other regions can be tougher.
What’s missing, Stephenson says, are adequate local processing facilities. “The demand is there, but we’re really starting to see the bottleneck with processing. … As we continue to regionalize food systems, the need to store food becomes kind of an issue,” he says.
Fehrman of Friends of Family Farms agrees. “We’re ready for the next step,” she says, referring to localized storage, distribution and processing. [pagebreak] A trio of federal programs could provide some support: a program that provides grants producers who add value to their products by marketing or processing now includes food marketed as locally grown, while two others provide loans and grants that could go toward rural or community-based food processing facilities. Funding for many of the federal programs will expire with the next Farm Bill but Humiston of USDA says there’s already momentum among small farm and sustainable agriculture advocates to push for more changes in the bill’s next iteration.
“All these special interest groups … didn’t quite get the reform they were hoping for but they got their feet wet,” Humiston says, “and are already working on the next one.”
Some of the possible provisions they might lobby for include removing barriers to crop insurance subsidies for beginning farmers and getting funding for new farmer individual development accounts, says Hoefner. On a broader scale, author Wendell Berry and others are calling for a long-term vision in the Farm Bill’s next cycle that would do more to reduce fossil-fuel reliance and support rural communities.
In the meantime, observers say the unprecedented level of public awareness surrounding small farms and regional food production is a step in the right direction.
“The issue has really arrived,” Hoefner says. “It feels like a new day.”
California FarmLink: www.californiafarmlink.org
Cascade Harvest Coalition, Washington FarmLink: www.cascadeharvest.org
Friends of Family Farmers and iFarm Oregon: www.friendsoffamilyfarmers.org