Julia Scott

Posts Tagged ‘farmers’

Unaffordable land stunts new generation of small farmers

Monday, January 24th, 2011

PESCADERO — In 2005, would-be farmers Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson spotted an old barn along Highway 1 that would make a good produce stand, along with 13 acres of prime coastal property, available for $1.25 million. They jumped at the chance to buy it.

“We were incredibly lucky,” Vail said. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s actually pretty good.”

Indeed, Vail and Lawson, who operate Pie Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, were lucky to find land to farm.

(John Green/Bay Area News Group)
(John Green/Bay Area News Group)

They are part of a new and growing generation of farmers who aspire to deliver locally grown organic food to their communities but can’t usually afford the land to do so.

Access to land is the main impediment to beginning farmers and ranchers today, said Reggie Knox, Central Coast coordinator for California FarmLink, a nonprofit that works to preserve family farming and conserve farmland in California.

“Small farmers like to be close to urban areas,” said Knox, who has a long waiting list of people who are looking for affordable farmland. “Land values are going up around all the urban areas, so it’s harder to get into land.”

Owning coastal farmland, or fertile farmland almost anywhere in California, is a pipe dream today for nearly everyone but well-established corporate farmers and dot-com millionaires, experts say.Across the U.S., development pressure claims an acre of farmland or ranch land every minute, although that pace may have slowed since the economic crisis, according to the American Farmland Trust. If trends continue, California is expected to lose 1.2 million more acres of farmland by 2040.

But even though the amount of California farmland in production has been falling for decades, and the average California farmer is now 58 years old, the latest agricultural census reveals another trend: The number of small farms — 49 acres or less — in the state has grown by more than 4,000 since 2002.

Many of these operations are founded by people in their 20s and 30s for whom earning a profit may be secondary to their real goal of producing wholesome, seasonal food and teaching others about farming.

“We see young people coming from urban areas with a desire to make a connection from the farm to the fork,” said professor Scott Vernon of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. “They’re not intending to be big farmers or make a living out of it. In many ways it’s gardening — but they don’t even know how to garden.”

Vernon said student enrollment in Cal Poly’s farming program has spiked in recent years, as have admissions to similar community college programs across the state. An organic farming apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz receives more than 200 applications every six months but admits only a fraction of those who apply.

Most farm program graduates won’t be as fortunate as the founders of Pie Ranch, who turned to the Peninsula Open Space Trust to help them buy the first 13-acre parcel and the old barn. The farm produces many ingredients found in a pie, such as eggs to strawberries. It connects high school kids to the land and sells produce in the old barn.

The Peninsula Open Space Trust applied a conservation easement to the land to prevent development. Pending a capital campaign, Pie Ranch will soon own the land outright.

The other 14-acre slice of Pie Ranch came from a friend who helped Vail and Lawson cofound the farm. Then she let them buy her out with the help of some other loans for $500,000.

“This is part of a larger vision of a sustainable agriculture corridor from San Francisco down through Santa Cruz,” Vail said. “We need to have more farmers, and they need to be able to access land and make a living and pull it off. We can’t be the only ones doing that.”

Even leasing land in California can be prohibitively expensive.

TLC Ranch, located in Aromas east of Watsonville, went out of business in November after six years of selling free-range farm-raised eggs and pork to California’s Central Coast community. In a final letter to customers, co-founders Rebecca Thistlethwaite and Jim Dunlop said the astronomical price to lease their ranch land — 48 acres at a cost of $800 an acre per year — was a major factor in their decision to pack it in.

Thistlethwaite and Dunlop founded TLC Ranch, which stands for Tastes Like Chicken, six years ago. Their products were a huge success, but it wasn’t enough. If the couple made a mistake, it was the fact that they both came from modest backgrounds and didn’t have any land wealth, Thistlethwaite said.

“Pretty much every farmer at the farmers market has some sort of resources that were not available to us,” Thistlethwaite said. “Some of them did buy farmland 30 years ago, back in the day when you could buy land on a middle-income-type salary. No one’s able to do it today unless their parents bought them the farm.”

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