As American farmers age, the nationwide push to fill their shoes grows. Locally, the 33rd annual EcoFarm conference hopes to plant the seeds for the next crop of cultivators.
In the late ’70s, notwithstanding the passionate back-to-the-land movement, organic farming was a long way from being accepted in traditional agriculture communities or in the university sphere.
“At that time, not only was the rest of the world not informed on the subject, but in many cases, for instance, at the UC system, there was even sort of an opposition to this idea,” says Ken Dickerson, executive director of the Ecological Farming Association (EFA), the Soquel-based nonprofit behind EcoFarm, an annual sustainable farming conference.
“In fact, if you were interested in researching this within the university system—really across the whole country—you would perhaps be putting your career at risk. Or you would be marginalizing yourself.”
The lack of resources meant that new organic farmers were “operating in a vacuum,” says Dickerson.
It was because of this that, in 1981, a group of young California farmers boldly stepped forward and assembled around 45 people in a firehouse in Winters, Calif. for the first annual EcoFarm conference.
“They got together with some elders and themselves to exchange information and to find out how to take the ideas they had and make them a reality,” says Dickerson. The conference’s nonprofit arm was formed soon after and had a few monikers before settling on EFA 15 years ago.
The gathering was one of the first of its kind, and today is the longest-running and largest sustainable farming conference in the Western region. The 33rd annual EcoFarm conference, “EcoFarm: Feed The World You Want To Live In,” will take place Jan. 23 – 26 at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. More than 1,500 people (not just farmers, but everyone from foodies and chefs to researchers and activists) are expected to attend.
The rise of organics, including related events and nonprofits, and the ubiquity of the Internet means more readily available information for today’s farmers. But the big question facing the community now is ‘who are tomorrow’s farmers?’
That’s a problem everyone from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Dickerson, at the EFA, is working on.
The average age of American farmers is 57, according to the USDA. More than half are 55 or older and a quarter are 65 and up. By 2030, around 70 percent of American farms will have changed hands.
Faced with an aging farmer population and all that it implies, the government began assistance for new farmers in the early ’90s, but got more serious about it in the 2008 Farm Bill, when Congress funded the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP). Through the program, they have ramped up marketing, financial and educational assistance programs, loan opportunities, grants, and more.
“It’s the same thing with teachers or nurses—you start doing the math and you realize the farmers are all going to retire! They’re going to die! What we are going to do!?” Dickerson says with playful panic. “But the reality is, one way or another, all of these farmers are aging out.”
In December, EFA, along with the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), and the Community Alliance for Family Farmers (CAFF), received a $665,000 BFRDP grant to nurture and help new farmers in the Central Coast region through a project they have titled “Building a Foundation for New Farmers: Training, Resources, and Networks.”
The participating organizations will use the federal award to fund various training programs and resources for new and low-income farmers over the three-year grant period (the events will be aggregated into a calendar for farmers). The grant also bolsters the Farmer Education Network, a coalition formed earlier in 2012 in anticipation of the grant.
For EFA, the grant means ramping up beginner resources at the EcoFarm conference, increasing fellowships and scholarships to the annual event, and instating a year round beginning farmer mentor for the region.
While the EcoFarm conference has always included workshops and events for beginning farmers, the grant allows for a comprehensive beginning farmer track at the 2013 installment. With 20 percent of the conference’s 60-plus workshops tailored for beginners, new farmers and ranchers can attend sessions like Organic Marketing 101 or Wise Words From Well-Seasoned Farmers, and rub elbows with peers at a beginning farmer and rancher mixer.
The USDA definition of a “beginning farmer” is someone with 10 or fewer years experience operating a farm on his or her own. Dickerson says there is a spectrum of beginners within that category, from “beginning beginners” (“Accountants who come to EcoFarm and say, ‘I don’t want to be an accountant anymore, I’m going to farm.’”), to intermediate beginners who are a few years into running a farm and veteran conventional growers who are transitioning to, or curious about, growing organically.
“We’ve tried to tailor and understand the levels of information so we can reach people where they’re at,” Dickerson says.
This is the second BFRDP grant EFA has received in the last year. The first, a one-year grant in the sum of $77,000, helped EFA with the 2012 conference, fund fellowships, and start EcoFarm University. The latter is an EFA project that trains and supports “eco-farmers,” new and not, by creating “pathways to formalize educational and professional development in ecological food and farming,” says Dickerson.
“The emphasis of these grants is bringing in more farmers,” Dickerson says. “But we pursue bringing in more farmers who are educated and motivated and capable of farming ecologically and organically.”
Based on the interest and enthusiasm he’s seen at EcoFarm and beyond, Dickerson doesn’t think our country will fall off the “farmer cliff.” He’s confident there will be enough new farmers—many organic—to take the reins.
In early 2012, there were 450,000 beginning farms, about 21 percent of the nation’s family farms, according to the USDA. The most recent USDA data available on the number of organic farms shows that 28 percent of California’s certified organic operations have been in production for less than 10 years.
Maureen Wilmot, like Dickerson, believes beginning farmers are more likely to go into organic farming. Wilmot, who is the executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF), a locally based nonprofit working on organic policy advocacy, has been involved with EcoFarm in the past and looks forward to attending this year. She says the “one-stop” EcoFarm provides farmers is a necessary tool for fostering this new population.
“Where are the farmers of the future? And where are the organic farmers of the future going to come from? They will come from people coming into farming or from existing farmers who will transition to organic,” she says. “Both of those populations need information about sustainable and organic farming.”
For Dickerson, EcoFarm is also an opportunity to bridge the farming generations and pass the organic torch.
“We are about all farmers,” he says, “but beginning farmers are the energy and the legacy. They inherit the legacy. What do the farmers who have established all of this want to leave as a legacy?”
THE MAKINGS OF A MENTOR
In 1974, fresh out of high school and faced with the possibility of being drafted into the U.S. military, Jim Leap started farming.
“I was drawn to farming figuring that I better learn some survival skills if I was going to have to go to Canada or someplace, and in light of everything else that was going on politically at that time, it made food production, and especially the self-sustaining aspect of it, interesting to me,” Leap says. “It was all encompassing—it met all of my needs in terms of environmental activism and political activism.”
The next few years brought Leap a string of farming jobs in the Fresno area, from growing 10 acres of sweet red onions with his fellow commune residents to working for a Japanese grower. Meanwhile, he tended a quarter-acre of farmers’ market-destined vegetables. His career as a farm operator truly began when he leased five acres of his own in 1979.
Although he wasn’t certified (few were at the time, and CCOF was still relatively new), he was farming organically, which meant information and support was hard to come by. Even the small farm advisor available through the UC Cooperative Extension wasn’t helpful. “The individual in that position wasn’t too tuned into organic,” Leap says.
Fellow growers weren’t much help, either. Most were tight-lipped about their practices, and some would go as far as to give bad advice. “It was a very competitive market,” Leap recalls.
But, luckily for Leap, there were a few experienced farmers who would become trusted mentors. The most influential was an African-American small-organic farmer with the memorable name of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, who had moved to California from the South in the ’60s, took Leap under his wing, loaned him implements, and provided him with guidance. The two stayed in touch until Franklin died from sickle cell anemia in the ’90s.
“The main barrier to the organic thing [then] was that there just wasn’t any information,” Leap says, recounting the utter bewilderment of seed company employees when he went in to inquire about cover crops. Without assistance from Franklin, the task of organic farming would have been even more challenging.
Leap has since gone on to pay Franklin’s favor forward, serving as mentor to countless apprentices and aspiring farmers at the UC Santa Cruz farm, which he managed from 1990 to 2010.
Now, thanks to the BFRDP grant, Leap has stepped into the role of beginning farmer mentor for the Central Coast region. The mentorship kick offs at the upcoming EcoFarm conference, where he will provide open office hours to beginning farmers. Tillage, cover crops, irrigation, tractor selection, and weed management are just some of the topics on which he can offer expert advice to these green (in more ways than one) growers.
Leap’s mentor position will continue for the duration of the three-year grant period, manifesting in two ways: half of his hours will be donated to local ag-education projects and nonprofits, which can put him to work however best helps their clients. The rest of his hours will go toward helping any and all local small farmers who need him. Details were still in the works when Leap spoke to GT, but he gave the example of going to a farm to help troubleshoot a problem with farm equipment. He would post this information online beforehand, as a way to invite other farmers to join in the learning opportunity.
“I want to have as much impact as possible,” Leap says.
While he reveres the work of some farming education projects, he believes many efforts to advise small or new farmers have “fallen short.” He is hopeful that the new local program, made possible by the BFRDP grant, will break that spell.
“Right now we have potential to extend information to beginning growers,” Leap says. “No one has ever really had decent funding for extension of information, and that’s where this grant comes in.”
Ultimately, perhaps more than a mentor or advisor, he says farmers are best suited to help other farmers. He points to the nascent and informal Santa Cruz Farmer Forum—an online message board where farmers ask questions, provide answers, and share ideas. “Really experienced farmers are delighted to help out and give really in-depth responses to inquiries,” Leap says of the forum. “But then they can and do learn a lot from the young farmers, too.”
Last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack discussed the uncertain federal Farm Bill on the NPR program “Talk of the Nation.” (The 2008 Farm Bill expired in October, and, in lieu of passing a new, necessary five-year bill, Congress kicked the can down the road with a paltry extension.)
A first-generation organic farmer from Florida called in to ask, rather desperate-sounding, whether his agricultural venture was “a losing battle.”
Vilsack, who said in 2012 that we need 100,000 new farmers in coming years, answered, “absolutely not.”
“I think [the caller] is the face of a new type of agriculture … the new entrepreneurial, innovative markets that are opening up in local and regional food systems,” the Secretary said.
Certainly, despite Congress’ Farm Bill procrastinations and the limping economy, the organic sector is doing more than fine: U.S. organic sales skyrocketed from $1 billion in 1990 to $31.4 billion in 2011, according to the Organic Trade Association. In the same vein, the number of farmers’ markets has soared (jumping 67 percent since 2008, according to the USDA), as have community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), food hubs, and other “innovative markets,” to use Vilsack’s phrase.
The EcoFarm conference is evidence of this phenomenon itself—the event experienced continual growth throughout the recession.
“That’s one of the things that we think is a testament to the fact that our conference is relevant and represents opportunity for people, including economic opportunity,” says Dickerson.
EFA Program Coordinator Liz Birnbaum points to growing demand for humanely and sustainably raised meat as an example of how, in addition to a general need for more farmers, popular market trends create a need for more people with specialized skill sets. Resources like EcoFarm’s Jan. 22, pre-conference Butchery Skills Seminar are a good place to start, she says.
“The more we have things like the butchery workshop, where that information is out there, people can develop the skills and knowledge and that will start changing the system and make those options for people to actually buy,” Birnbaum says.
Between the economic boom in organics and the rise in consumer demand, it seems to be a favorable time to become an organic farmer or rancher.
But, as the “Talk of the Nation” caller expressed, these auspicious big-picture trends don’t necessarily make a new farmer’s first few years any easier.
Local farmer Kelly Bradford can attest to that. Bradford started Old House Farm in Scotts Valley two years ago. The small, certified organic farm specializes in heirloom and pollinated tomatoes, but grows a variety of other veggies, too, which can be found at the Scotts Valley, Felton and Los Gatos farmers’ markets and through the farm’s CSA program. In these winter months, Old House boasts seasonal crops like beets, kale and spinach.
“Getting started took some time,” Bradford says. “I spent a good year planning. … And it instantly took seven days a week, all day long, just to get to the point where we could plant something.”
Bradford wasn’t brand new to agriculture—she had 10 years of experience as a winemaker under her belt—but she was new to the area. She didn’t have a mentor, or contacts nearby. But, this being Santa Cruz, she says it was easy enough to track down organic farming resources—such as EcoFarm, which she attended as a fellow last year. The recently received grant provides for eight EcoFarm fellowships per year, awarding Central Coast beginning farmers with complimentary registration, lodging and meals for the four-day conference. Additionally, Dickerson says more than 150 farmers will attend EcoFarm 2013 thanks to a long-running scholarship program strengthened by the new grant.
“Until I went to that conference, I really knew almost nobody,” she says. “I met with a lot of people, got some great ideas on how to network with other farmers, and learned a lot.”
This year, she plans to use her time at EcoFarm to find people who are interested in a small-scale farmer collective—an idea she’s cooking up with a few other local small-farmers. Although it’s still in the brainstorming stage, Bradford says the collective would bring small farms together in a collaborative CSA, perhaps with a physical location, and with a community and education component.
“[It would] allow small farms like me to stay alive, and bring in the community,” Bradford says. “It could grow into something much bigger.”
Aside from the sheer amount and intensity of the physical labor involved in farming, Bradford says the hardest and least understood part about beginning a farm is how hard it is to support oneself. Affording healthcare is a common concern among farmers, particularly beginners.
“When it comes to organic farms, I don’t think most people realize how difficult it is to actually have a decent standard of living for yourself,” she says.
Leap, who only half jokingly says he still considers himself a beginning farmer (“I still learn new things all the time,” he says), believes farming is a challenging career because of the number of dexterities it requires.
“Farming is maybe a little broader [than most businesses] because it involves so many different skill sets,” he says. “I can’t think of any other career that involves so many—you have to be a chemist, biologist, entomologist, pathologist and soil scientist. You have to understand water, weather, land and mechanics. You have to be good at marketing, really organized, and really able to track things effectively and manage people. And it’s risky and capital intensive.”
Eric Winder, the Central Coast Regional Coordinator for California FarmLink, points to the USDA’s definition of a beginning farmer—having 10 years or fewer of experience—as evidence of the career’s hefty demands.
“It’s a lengthy learning curve,” he says. “It’s indicative of the amount of knowledge someone who is farming needs to have.”
But while the tendency may be to look at how farming is unique in comparison to other start-ups, Winder urges prospective and beginning farmers to instead look at how farming is similar.
“It’s helpful to make the connection that it’s not just farming, it’s a small business,” he says.
FarmLink is a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that helps farmers—who tend to understand more about soil and crop rotation than balance sheets and budgeting—access capital, lease land, and think about business plans. In Winder’s experience, these subjects are some of the toughest for farmers (new or seasoned) to grasp.
“Farming tends to draw people who want to be outside, who enjoy working with plants or animals and don’t necessarily want to spend one day a week running numbers on a computer, even though that’s a necessity,” says Winder. “That would, ideally, be where we become a resource for farmers, helping them enhance those skills.”
Winder will host the Business Planning Boot Camp for New Farmers at EcoFarm, and FarmLink staff will also hold office hours at the conference for beginning farmers seeking one-on-one consulting on farm financing, loans, leases and more.
However, as important as it is to learn to crunch numbers, Winder says EcoFarm is as much about the “high energy” as it is about absorbing technical information.
“One of the things farmers get out of there is that they feel like they aren’t alone in the farming world,” he says.
This remains at the conference’s heart, 33 years after 45 isolated farmers gathered to swap information and discovered a sense of place, solidarity and validation in their risky, marginal idea.
“It’s a place where people get informed, but they also get renewed,” agrees Dickerson. “It’s a place where people find community.”
For a beginner, like Old House Farm’s Bradford, that can be a critical first step.
The 33rd Annual EcoFarm conference takes place Wednesday, Jan. 23 through Saturday, Jan. 26 at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. To register, view the schedule of events, or to learn more, visit ecofarm2013.org. For more information about the Ecological Farming Association, visit eco-farm.org.