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.

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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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6 Responses

  1. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Part of the farming problem in California, as well as a lot of other high population areas, is the constant paving over of farmlands into housing tracts and shopping malls. Driving down any of the main roads in Redding area, Deschutes, Churn Creek, Balls Ferry, even I5 shows the converting of farmland into development.
    What is even worse is the central valley where huge housing tracts took over former farmland and now stand as empty lots due to the recession and people moving back to the cities. According to a LA Times article those abandoned housing tracts cannot be just converted back to farmland because public money was spent on improvements.
    There is a movement to small organic farms but as one farmer told me in Wyoming it takes three years of operation to be certified organic. I don’t know if California has the same rule.
    A lot of the problem in urban areas is that schools, high school and community colleges, have cut back hands on classes such as argriculture, wood shop, metal shop, due to budget cuts.
    Shasta County has the available farmland and could lead a resurgence of farming but not if the land is paved over.
    In the midwest everybody is a farmer. They worked in the cities for employer health care and wages but lived on farms where they would work the farm after their day job. It takes a special kind of person to be a small independent farmer.

  2. Avatar KarenC says:

    What about the role government and big busineesses (like Monsanto) have played in this. I’ve heard horror stories about peoples farms being grabbed away from them just because they want to use their own seeds. Water grabs, and other such injustices going on…rules and regulations that make it harder for young people to make it as a farmer.
    Between April and the week before Christmas, Redding is blessed with several grower’s Markets, the biggest being on Saturday’s on the back parking lot at City Hall. There is Tuesday market on Churn Creek Rd, and a market on Sundays at Turtle Bay. Plus others in several smaller communities surrounding us. I buy everything I can buy from them. With the tomatoes I buy and grow, I make my own tomato products, such as a tomato sauce that also goes into pasta sauces, pizza, soups, and casseroles. All year long I have fresh frozen applesauce in my freezer from the Fall apples. When I buy at the grocery stores, I look for locally sourced foods, such as eggs, and meats. Plus we grow what we can on our property. We must support local farmers.

    People say to me, “local growers are more expensive than Winco” and I must reply with, “what is your health worth? Locally grown food comes from soil that is taken care of and treated well. Commercially grown foods are grown in nutrient depleted soils that are over worked and poisoned with all sorts of pesticides, and non organic soil treatments. There are still family run farms who make efforts to grow nutritious foods but why not support our locals. They work hard for us.

  3. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    I though the big agriculture business that swept in and took over thousands of small farms would have solved this problem. With more money, larger farms and bigger equipment you could make this business profitable. Have you seen the HUGE dairy farms down near Bakersfield? Surely that’s a great business model? Lots of cows. Few workers.
    Fast food is a billion dollar industry that changed the way people thing and eat, and introduced too many questionable and cheap fillers to all meat products. (And you don’t have to claim it’s meat, you can say it’s “meaty” when you’re serving soy and beef byproducts)
    What you needed was business majors, heavy equipment operators to make that system work.
    In my perfect world, a family could run a small farm. All high schools in this area have agriculture programs but the money has dwindled and been “co-mingled” with other funding sources.
    I buy my vegetables and fruits locally. If I wanted good beef I would go to one of our local butchers or Winco where they have professional butchers on staff.
    Great article Wayne. There is hope!

  4. Avatar Ron says:

    sounds good. now how do we get started and who to contact?

  5. Avatar KarenC says:

    Ron, what are the grants for? Possibly for growing crops with genetically modified seeds? Or perhaps towards young people who want to study agriculture?