Monthly Archives: March 2018

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Transitions: Shermain Hardesty, former Director of UC Small Farm Program

San Diego small farms 050

Shermain Hardesty at a pitahaya farm in San Diego.

This past year we’ve seen several respected leaders in the California sustainable farming and agriculture movement retire after many years of tireless hard work.

To honor them (and as an excuse to catch up!), we set up casual conversations with a few of them to hear their reflections on the past few decades and pontifications of the future of sustainable farming in California.

Shermain-Hardesty-headshotWRead on for highlights and the full transcript of our chat with Shermain Hardesty, Director of the UC Small Farm Program. Last July, she retired after serving California farmers for more than 30 years, including 13 years as a Cooperative Extension Specialist.

Early in her career as an economist, she worked for the CA Rice Growers Cooperative (very different than small farms!) and consulted 10+ years for produce commissions and farms that specialized in specific types of produce.

She started tuning into small farmers around 1995, and in 2002 she became the Director of the UC Center for Cooperatives. In 2007, she became Director of the UC Small Farm Program.


Some highlights from our conversation (full transcript at the bottom):

FarmsReach: Having served farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years, how would you say the needs of the farming community have changed or stayed the same over the years?

Shermain: I’d have to say that markets are much more competitive overall than they used to be, since there’s so much more international involvement.  There are so many diverse sources for each product now. On the farm, crop mixes have definitely changed in California. Things like our water resources have gotten more and more erratic, and Mother Nature’s weather patterns are more uncertain.

In production, regulations have gotten much more onerous and expensive for [smaller] farmers over the past 30 years.  The per-unit cost of compliance for smaller-scale farmers is a lot higher.

The rules are well-intentioned for food safety, but I’m not convinced they are risk-based. There’s very little recognition that the way that smaller scale farmers operate and sell their product create less exposure for outbreaks. In other words, when people buy salad mix at the farmers market, they probably will eat it in the next couple of days; whereas when people buy containers of salad mix at the grocery story with their “use by” date up to 17 days later, and when the containers have been held at who-knows-what temperature at the grocery store, there are these other risks that need to be recognized.  This is the ongoing fight.

It’s well-known how difficult it can be for beginning farmers to break even and sustain their farm business. What are some of the key metrics – beyond profitability – that you think all new farmers should track most closely?

Farmers have to recognize the number of hours they’re spending on different types of tasks.  They also need to understand how their marketing costs (both costs and time) are different for different market channels.  For example, when they’re involved with selling at farmers markets, they need to recognize hours spent preparing their crops, driving, being at the market all day, etc.  They’re also usually not paying themselves a salary.

What I’ve been concerned about lately is that a lot of our smaller scale farmers are highly diversified, and it’s very difficult for them to determine what their costs are for each crop, especially with few support staff. It’s been very difficult to do any real farm management analysis with smaller scale farmers.

I’ve actually heard from some well-established farmers that it’s not really how efficient you are with your production practices; it’s how well you market them. How well can you tell the story? And, how well can you develop relationships with your customers.  And, therefore charge as much as you can.

How essential do you think it is for small farms to diversify their offerings, whether with value-added processing, agritourism, or other revenue streams? Continue Reading →