Iowa Public Television


New Farmers Chart Their Own Course

posted on February 13, 2009

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Thanks largely to the boom in renewable fuels, rural America – and particularly the Midwest – enjoyed somewhat of a "renaissance" over the past few years.

But in 2008, the farm sector was hammered by highly volatile economic forces. Commodity prices soared to record levels last summer only to fall off a cliff in the fall.

Though forecasters are cautiously optimistic about 2009, shifting government policy, declining profit margins, and increased development all threaten the next generation's ability to begin farming.

This week's Census of Agriculture confirmed that U.S farms include a disproportionate share of older operators. And nowhere is the trend more obvious than in California where farmers age 65 and over outnumber those under the age of 25 by more than 50 to one.

But several programs are helping to facilitate intergenerational farm transitions. David Miller reports on efforts to link "those who aspire" with "those about to retire."

A life in agriculture is often a thankless job filled with hard work and long hours but many young people are drawn to the idea of charting their own course. It's the same for new farmers in the Midwest as it is for farmers on the coast. Despite the limited number of opportunities, the goal of making their own business decisions is the same.

Rebecca King is planning to market the meat and cheese from her flock of sheep directly to northern California chefs.

Rebecca King, Monkey Flower Ranch: "I knew for the past ten or fifteen years that I wanted to farm and it's just been kind of a gradual narrowing of focus and feeding different experiences into this."

Daniel Zamora will sell strawberries directly to commercial wholesalers in the Salinas Valley.

Daniel Zamora, Heritage Farms: "So I've been with this idea since I was in high school. so that's been about maybe 10 years but mostly since my parents been working in, in the fields I mean this just kind of a goal, a dream goal."

And George Macros found a way to mix teaching school and growing fruits and vegetables for local sale an hour north of San Francisco.

George Macros, Earthworker Farm: "I started teaching and I was lowest in seniority so I got the classroom that nobody else wanted which had a huge greenhouse in it and basically started trying to green it up".

In California, where land prices are high and available acres few and far between, one agency is helping new farmers like these achieve their dreams. It began nine years ago, when California FarmLink was opened and the staff began working on the dual goals of reducing urban sprawl and keeping agriculture alive in California.

Steve Schwartz, California FarmLink: " general we meet a lot of land owners that their dream you know their goal is to keep the land in production. They might be a third generation farmer they feel like they'd be rolling over in their grave if they were the one to see it paved over."

Schwartz says the agricultural real estate market is so tight they get seven applications for every parcel of land listed with FarmLink.

The organization offers one-on-one consulting as well as workshops on subjects like business planning and estate succession. New farmers also can apply for low interest loans as large as $50,000 through the California Coastal Rural Development Coalition. And FarmLink has a matching savings plan through its Individual Development Account program. If a farmer deposits $100 each month in a special account, Farmlink will match the funds 3-to-1. After two years of saving, $9600 is made available for infrastructure improvements.

When Rebecca King was growing up in the suburbs of San Jose, California, the idea of marketing sheep meat and sheep milk cheeses was the farthest thing from her mind. Now in her second year, she is planning to sell the finished products from her flock of 140 animals directly to area gourmet chefs.

Rebecca King, Monkey Flower Ranch: "... it's kind of a growing market as far as having a niche' that I can make a living at. Doing, you now, organic produce in this area isn't a niche' anymore. It's a very competitive business so, um, sheep cheese is something that's really common in Europe. There's a lot of potential for it."

After a year of renting land, King's parents acquired this property in July of 2008 through an estate sale listed with California FarmLink. The family that originally owned the land was no longer interested in working the 40 acres of ground near Watsonville, California but they wanted the farmstead to remain in agriculture. For now, King will rent the land from her parents.

Rebecca King, Monkey Flower Ranch: "I know it will be in our family and you know one day I can buy it from them and it's not going to be something that I have to walk away from. So that's, that's huge."

Since high school, Daniel Zamora wanted to have his own farm. He always hoped to employ his parents and take advantage of their experience working in California strawberry fields.

Daniel Zamora, Heritage Farms: "So I always told myself that I will put myself through, through school and eventually, when I was ready, I will start a business where I could include them as part of the business."

Zamora, an engineer by education, started attending classes and leasing a half acre at the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Salinas, California. After hearing about California FarmLink, he knew he had found the path to increased production. Though he was rejected for a loan through California Coastal, he was able to secure a loan through USDA to pay rent on 26 acres. Because agricultural property in the area can cost up to $50,000 per acre Zamora will likely continue pay rent at $2,000 per acre for the near future.

Daniel Zamora, Heritage Farms: "It's exciting because we have, I have, been waiting a long time for this moment... I know we can do this successfully because I have total support from my family and they have the experience"

The passion George Macros has for agriculture was ignited while teaching in Brooklyn, New York. Seeking a more laid back lifestyle he took a teaching job in California and began looking for places to grow vegetables.

George Macros, Earthworker Farm: "Well, I guess that it kind of goes with my love of nature and also being, being outside and just I guess I've always loved plants and being outside."

California FarmLink partnered him with the Chambers family. A little more than a year ago, Macros planted his first crop on one-and-a half acres of the Chambers' five acre Sebastapple Farm.

Ann Chambers, Sebastapple Farm: "It feels heavenly actually. ...our object is, is to look for people so that we didn't work ourselves into the ground. We were both way overworked as we started slowing down. So, we had to do something smaller and we loved this place but realized it was too big for us."

Chambers, a Master Gardener and former truck farm owner, offers suggestions to her tenant but lets Macros make his own decisions.

Macros began selling his produce through a Community Supported Agriculture business or CSA. Eventually, it became difficult to serve his customers and he put the CSA on hold. Today Macros emails his clients and they purchase the harvest in nearby Sebastapol, California. With no plans to quit his day job, he will continue teaching and farming.

George Macros, Earthworker Farm: "I fantasize about having many acres and lots of workers ... and you know riding in the tractor and making phone calls all day but right now you know I'm enjoying the smaller scale growing operation."

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


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