Sunday, December 25, 2011
The average age of a farmer in California is creeping toward 60, and the California Department of Food and Agriculture is trying to attract newcomers to work the land.
The need is especially acute, given that experts are forecasting that the world will have to double its food supply to keep up with a booming population – growing from 7 billion people to 9 billion by 2050. California is a significant player in feeding the globe, providing 12 percent of the nation’s agriculture exports.
Farming also is a $37.5 billion business in California, employing 800,000 people. With the average age of the primary farm operator now 58 – nearly 20 percent are 70 or older – it’s crucial that the state’s farms and ranches get fresh blood, said Karen Ross, California’s agriculture secretary.
“We are leaders,” she said. “Being one of only five Mediterranean climates in the world, we produce the food – fruits, vegetables and nuts – that have the greatest health benefits.”
But how do you convince people that back-breaking work, risky conditions and low profit yields are a good career move?
Bucking the norm
Oddly enough, Ross said, there’s a whole crop of greenhorns willing to take the reins. But they’re decidedly different from the face of the traditional farmer or rancher. And their methods – everything from urban rooftop gardening to the latest in conservation and sustainability practices – buck the old norm.
“We’re seeing an interest from young people who don’t come from farming families,” Ross said, adding that last year a record-breaking 70,000 students enrolled in their high school Future Farmers of America program.
Craig McNamara, an organic walnut and olive grower and president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, knows the difficulties of farming and is concerned.
“Our nation needs 100,000 new farmers in a short amount of time,” he said.
The 61-year-old doesn’t know if his own three children will take over his farm, Sierra Orchards in Winters (Yolo County), when he retires. So he and his wife founded the Center for Land-Based Learning. The nonprofit is an incubator in which young people study the rudiments of agriculture and the importance of watershed conservation. McNamara hopes the program inspires others to start their own farms or take over existing ones.
Poppy Davis, the USDA’s national program leader for small farms and beginning farmers and ranchers, said California might hold more advantages for the new farmer than any other state. It’s not just the temperate climate. Unlike other states, where future generations are expected to take over the land and outsiders aren’t always welcome, the agriculture community here has more tolerance for change and few preconceived notions, she said. Almost anything goes.
“The next generation doesn’t have to be lineal descendants,” she said. “While it might be good public policy to say this land needs to stay in farming or ranching, who are we to say, ‘This land needs to stay in the same family.’ ”
While California is looking for fresh young faces to till the ground and drive the cattle, Davis said youth is in the eye of the beholder.
“There are lots of people starting whole different lives in their 50s,” she said. “And for a lot of the new farmers in California, this is a second career. Some of these people can be very successful. While they may not know much about farming, they are seasoned in life and make really good business people.”
There are other changes, too. It used to be that farming and ranching required large swaths of land and expensive equipment. Not anymore.
“A young man came to me four years ago and said he wanted to farm,” McNamara said. “He was a graduate from UC Santa Cruz. To this day, he’s farming without owning land or a tractor.” McNamara leases the young farmer some of his Winters land. As for the tractor, McNamara pitches in with his.
Inspired by Costa Rica
Marisa Alcorta, 34, of Davis has wanted to farm for the past 10 years. She did her undergraduate studies at Cornell and spent three months in Costa Rica examining the farming methods of a small mountain village.
“I came back completely inspired,” she said.
Getting the capital to start a farm was overwhelming, but when she met three women with a similar goal, they joined forces. The owner of Bridgeway Farms in Winters leased them 16 open acres and 4 acres of peach, nectarine and apricot trees at a very low price, Alcorta said. The women plan to pitch in about $5,000 each to start a community-supported agriculture business. They will sell 20 to 30 public shares in Cloverleaf Farm at Bridgeway in the form of weekly or monthly produce boxes.
“It’s the first farming opportunity that I’ve come across that feels doable,” she said.
There are even smaller operations taking root across the state, including public vegetable gardens in city vacant lots, rooftop gardens and urban farms, said Ross, the agriculture secretary.
“Eighteen to 20 percent of California is food insecure,” she said. “So farmers of the future won’t necessarily be just in the (rural areas). We need big and large to sustain the world’s need for food.”
E-mail Stacy Finz at firstname.lastname@example.org.