Wanted: New Farmers!

We’re in a worldwide food crisis. According to the World Policy Institute, it’s because of increased population, water shortages, soil degradation, and climate change.

Locally, we will feel it sooner or later in the forms of price increases, shortages, poorer quality and fewer choices, especially in fresh fruits and vegetables.

On the health front, we face rising obesity and diabetes rates that have doubled in the last 15 years in America; 72% of Californians do not eat the recommended daily five servings of fruits and vegetables. We eat cheaper processed packaged stuff. To counteract this, we need to make local fresh vegetables affordable and available.

How can we provide more local fresh food for healthy diets?

Along with educating all consumers, we need to recruit more farmers and increase marketing and distribution channels.

In Shasta County only 1.4% of farms sales were directly to consumers, mostly in farmers’ markets. This means that each year we eat 98.6% (over $470 million) of imported food from outside our region. Therefore, recruiting, training and getting new farmers onto land is critical.

Why are new/beginning farmers needed?

Farmers are aging, and 50% will retire within the next 10 years. Farmers over age 55 control more than 50% of all US farmland. As farmers age, the number of farms and the number of new farmers have declined. In addition, US agriculture is entering a period of enormous land transition.

The USDA estimates that about 70% of farmland will change hands within the next 20 years. The percentage of Shasta County farms operated by families or individuals is now about 93%. As fewer and fewer kids grow up on farms, fewer new farmers will inherit or be able to purchase land from family members. This will most likely lead to consolidation of farmland into large corporate enterprises making it even harder for new beginning farmers.

For example in 2007, in Shasta County 495 farms were one to nine acres. This was 34% of 1473 total farms. Yet, only 19 grow vegetables on 97 acres. It appears that there are ample farms that need to be preserved and revitalized to grow more fresh food. Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center estimates that, if each family spent $5 per week at farmers’ markets, $89 million would stay in this area. He reports that the success of start-up small farms is improved by the existence of incubator training programs, farm support groups, formation of clusters of farmers working cooperatively, and the development of market and delivery systems.

New farmers lack access to land, capital, and established markets, and also face more financial struggles than established farmers. In addition, most new and aspiring farmers lack basic farm knowledge like driving a tractor, planning and planting crops, servicing equipment, marketing, etc.

Why establish incubator farms?

An Incubator Training Farm is a project where emerging farmers are trained and then practice their growing, marketing and business skills in order to start small-scale farms. . This method of learning through experience is the most effective way to learn new skills. Farm incubators support the development of new farmers and farms as well as encouraging the growth of strong sustainable local food systems. Check out the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) for a complete description of this fascinating new approach to starting a farm.

In sum, one practical approach is to establish a local incubator farm-training project. It’s a unique and new approach for dealing with the challenges and obstacles facing new and aspiring farmers. Growing Local of Shasta County has initiated a process to establish an incubator training farm program by calling together motivated individuals and agencies to help develop one for our region, and it would like to involve more interested people.

Let me know what you think.

Wayne Kessler, wayne2@shasta.com

Wayne Kessler is the former owner of Shambani Organics, former Peace Corps volunteer, and founding member of Growing Local.

Wayne Kessler

Following his grandfather's advice, "Grow food. People always need food," has led Wayne to a lifetime of cultivating and processing food. He spends much of his time encouraging people to become more food independent by growing their own.

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