We Grow Farmers: Interview with the Center for Land-Based Learning

From foodtank.com, by Emily Nink
We Grow Farmers: Interview with the Center for Land-Based Learning

The aging population of farmers is turning into a food security crisis. At the Center for Land-Based Learning in California, the organization is taking on this challenge by training new farmers at their California Farm Academy. Food Tank discussed the importance of new farmer training with Executive Director Mary Kimball and Program Director Jennifer Taylor.

Food Tank (FT): What was the inspiration for the California Farm Academy?

Mary Kimball (MK): Center for Land-Based Learning has been running programs for youth in sustainable agriculture, specifically for high school students, since 1993. We started working with a beginning farmer eight years ago. His name is Toby Hastings, of Free Spirit Farm. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and had really no farming experience but wanted to farm. His very good friend worked for us here and asked us if we could lease to him three-quarters of an acre to start his farm, which we did. As you can imagine, there was a lot of learning in the process, on his side and on our side. WE learned what it takes for a beginning farmer with no real experience, but with the passion, dedication, and work ethic, to make it happen. We provided him with a support system for five years, and he was then much more suited to farm on his own. Our experience with Toby was really one of the major inspirations to create a beginning farmer training program. Around the same time, there was a national effort underway, and I went to the very first national conference for beginning farmers. It was held in Washington, DC by the Drake Law School in 2010. I came back with the motivation and tools to think about how to put such a program together. At the same time, the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program had also launched, so it seemed like there was potential funding for the idea.

FT: What makes the program unique among beginning farmer training programs?

Jennifer Taylor (JT): We did a couple of unique things when formulating the program, since we were able to start from the beginning. We designed the idea around currently working adults of all ages, including veterans - folks who wanted to farm, had enough background to know what they were getting into, and had made the decision to farm for production. We wanted to enable them to have a really intensive, but part-time, program that would allow them to transition from their current careers and activities into farming in a way that worked for them. The program is carefully laid out to take new farmers through the entire production process for the main growing season here in California.

We also have a format where we engage them, hands-on, in the field for about a third of the class. We cultivate critical thinking skills, let them solve problems in the field, and allow them to make mistakes in the field. They are allowed to try things and fail, as well as succeed. Then we have a series of lectures by experts on topics they need to understand, from soil science and pest management to food safety and direct marketing. We cover finances and business planning heavily, so they’re figuring things out from their own number-crunching as they look at their business plans. The other third of the class is farm visits where they meet farmers on their farm and get a behind-the-scenes experience with experienced production farmers.

Some of the farmers we visit are open about their records and will share costs of production and/or their actual income figures. We work with our students a lot, both one-on-one and as a class, to help them be thoughtful and proactive about getting into farming. We’re here to walk them through the process and hopefully they will succeed and stay in farming once they get started.

The third component is that we lease land to our graduates through farm incubators around the county. Some programs are stand-alone where you don’t get the training first. Our program features both training and land leasing, but if a farmer has prior training or experience, he or she can apply to our incubator to lease land from us. We have both rural and urban land opportunities for farmers to lease for one to three years, allowing them to start their business before they find their own land. The incubator program gives our students the opportunity to start their own farm in a very safe environment. There are some who do the incubator program who say “this is not for me,” but we would prefer they realize at that point with half an acre, rather than a year or more later, perhaps with greater acreage and investment, when the failures could be catastrophic to their lives and their families’ lives. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to make sure to have the incubator, so that students get the chance to really understand the realities of farming.

FT: Why is it important to invest in the next generation of farmers?

MK: There are dramatic statistics about the need for 100,000 new farmers in the next ten years, or about farmer age - although I think the statistic about the average age of the farmer is slightly misleading. The better statistic is this one: for every farmer and rancher under the age of twenty-five, there are five over the age of seventy-five. That really gives a much better perspective on the crisis we’re undergoing. There’s also new and rising public interest, which we appreciate greatly, in how we produce our food, in having more connection to the farmer, and in investing in rural communities, which is where many of our farmers are. That also means there are growing markets for new farmers that are different than even ten, twenty, fifty years ago. We have to be adapting as a society to those changes. Those are the big reasons we think it’s important.  

JT: Just to add to that, it’s part of the farmland preservation movement, making sure development is appropriate in urban areas, that farmland along the urban edge or other areas that have pressure is preserved and farmed by someone, preferably people living on the land or who are right there in the neighborhood. We also make sure farmers going through our program are ecologically conscious, that they know their personal resources are natural resources on which we all depend. So we’re raising a generation of farmers who understand that they need to conserve our working lands while they’re producing food for us. I think that’s something that the current generation of community-minded farmers understands. A lot of the folks coming to our farming program are already active in their communities, and care about things like food access and serving folks who maybe don't have enough produce. This is part of their mindset already, and then we educate them how to farm while preserving our natural resources. As long as they’re made aware of it, I think that it’s something they really want to do.

FT: What can Food Tank readers do in their own communities to support the next generation of farmers?

MK: It’s varied. For example, there are a lot of folks around here who own land who come to us. They don’t farm themselves or want to farm themselves, but they might have anything from an acre to hundreds of acres that are either idle or leased to a larger farmer. Part of the issue is understanding that there are beginning farmers in your community that really need access to land. That acre you might have, whether it's in a urban, suburban or rural setting, could make a difference between someone really being able to follow their dream or not. That’s my first suggestion - if people own land that is currently not being farmed and they want to have it farmed, to think about connecting to local beginning farmer training programs in their communities and seeing if there are opportunities there to engage.

There are many land trusts around the country that are doing a great job of connecting to their beginning farmer community, but some are not. Land trusts can play a big role here as well, thinking about these ways to provide very unique kinds of land access that they hadn’t thought about before. That’s one thing we’re doing in our incubator program - leasing land not traditionally thought of as farmable land. We partnered with the city of West Sacramento to create an urban farm program. They have many vacant lots they weren’t doing anything with, while at the same time, incredible challenges with food deserts and food access in their community. They wanted to know if our beginning farmers would be interested in leasing some of that land. We can all think a lot more creatively about where in our communities we can help provide land access to beginning farmers.

JT: From a personal, consumer standpoint, it's always great to tell people to get to know farmers in their communities. Buy from them, go to a farmers’ market, join a CSA, whatever it is. If you see someone who is farming, ask if you can visit the farm or ask if there’s a way your kids can get involved in farming activities. Find out where that farmer learned what they know- maybe there's a beginning farmer training program in their area.

The other piece is to nourish a love for fresh produce in our children, and make sure that growing food, growing plants, and harvesting our own food is part of our culture. Not only would a focus on fresh food encourage kids to go into farming, but they’ll also become good eaters, and once they’re good eaters, they’ll support a healthy farming system.