Category Archives: Hot Topics

Transitions: Ed Thompson, former CA State Director of American Farmland Trust

AFT

AFT’s popular No Farms No Food campaign

The second in our series of well-known leaders in the California agriculture scene who recently retired is Edward Thompson, Jr., former CA State Director of American Farmland Trust (AFT), the nation’s leading agricultural land conservation organization. He served as CA Director since 2003.

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Edward Thompson, Jr.

In 1980, Ed actually helped start AFT – as its first General Counsel, and since then, he has served the organization in various capacities, including National Policy Director and Senior Vice President.

During his tenure at AFT, he was a strategic participant in nearly every aspect of farmland preservation, from negotiating real estate transactions and local land use planning to designing state conservation easement programs and drafting federal agricultural legislation. He has also held legal positions with other diverse entities, such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Association of Counties.

 

Read on for our info-packed conversation, including:

  • The Climate Change-Farmland-Smart Growth connection
  • CA’s new Agricultural Vision
  • New regulations & policy
  • Cap-and-trade funds for the future
  • Promising farmland mitigation
  • Pros & cons of easements
  • Time-sensitive threats
  • Land grabs
  • The role of smaller farms in conservation
  • Angel investors & new innovations
  • Farmland access for new farmers
  • Where our future food will be grown, and more…

Meaty content on this very important topic… Enjoy!


SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR INTERVIEW (full transcript at the bottom):

FarmsReach: Having been with AFT since its inception, including its Farmland Information Center, the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Farming on the Edge report, and the concept of agricultural conservation easements, what are your overarching reflections about AFT’s growth and progress since the early 80s?

Ed Thompson: I think it is fair to say that AFT launched a movement that has engaged thousands of state and local organizations, raised billions of dollars and saved millions of acres of farmland from development.

While we can be proud of this, the nation continues to lose far more farmland than is being protected. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, particularly in promoting effective land use regulations to complement the voluntary incentive-driven conservation approaches we pioneered.

You have been a big proponent of the links between climate change, smart development and farmland. For those who aren’t familiar, can you summarize in a nutshell the most important points that all people should be aware of?

The most important point is that, acre for acre, urban development generates 50 to 70 times as much greenhouse gas emissions as agriculture. A recent university study of agricultural practices concluded that saving farmland is by far the most important thing California agriculture can do for the climate. And, the key to doing this is to develop more efficiently, meaning: consume less land for each new resident, job and dollar of economic activity. AFT has calculated that cutting farmland conversion in half by 2030 and by 75 percent by 2050, saving 700,000 acres, would have the same result as taking two million cars off the road every year.

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The 2013 Farmland Conservation Conference hosted by AFT and the Napa Farm Bureau was buzzing with energy and promise.  What were some of the key strategic and/or programmatic outcomes from the conference that continue today?

For one, the [Jerry] Brown Administration created the Sustainable Agricultural Land Conservation Program, the first program in the nation to use cap-and-trade climate revenue to fund farmland conservation easements. The program has raised around $40 million in the first couple years, twice what the state of California had invested in farmland conservation over the previous two decades. This, in turn, has helped revitalize the agricultural land trusts around the state.

There have also been a number of important local actions, including the renewal of urban growth boundary initiatives in Sonoma and Ventura Counties. Finally, Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) are beginning to take a more active role in farmland protection, as was contemplated when they were first established. Their trade association has teamed with AFT to on a soon-to-be-published white paper how LAFCOs can play an even more effective role.

Agricultural conservation easements are clearly an effective way to protect farmland.  Where do you see future funding for easements coming from?  And, what is your response to folks like The Nature Conservancy looking deeper into alternatives to easements for the future? Continue Reading →

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

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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 →

Revisiting Your Agritourism Strategy for Increased Income

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Hoes Down Fest – Guinda, CA

Are you one of the thousands of California farmers and ranchers who invite the public to your land to shop at your farm stand, pick their own fruit, taste wine, stay the night, learn a skill, enjoy a festival, or tour your operation?

It’s no secret that many family farms supplement their income by getting jobs off the farm or setting up agritourism programs.  In fact, of the commercial farms that had positive farm income, only 77% of their total household income came from farm operations (USDA Economic Research Service).

As farmers and ranchers learn more about the diverse types of agritourism programs that fit their specific location, operation, assets or preferences, the U.S. continues to see an ongoing increase in the number and types of agritourism offerings for the general public. And, most importantly, we see an increase in the number and types of farms that are expanding their customer base and improving their bottom line.

Agritourism Lunchtime Webinars & Online Conversations

Starting May 19th, the UC Small Farm Program is hosting five, free practical webinars – designed especially for those with some type of agritourism program already set up.  (Those who don’t yet have an agritourism program are still welcome! We suggest reviewing the FarmsReach Agritourism Toolkit resources first.)

Every two weeks, we’ll start with a live webinar sharing lessons about an important theme for successful agritourism programs (which will be immediately archived for convenient access).  Between webinars, we’ll continue the conversation online in FarmsReach with the webinar presenters and other experts answering questions and moderating discussion so that anyone involved in California agritourism can easily share ideas, ask questions of others, and get help.

To follow the conversation online, join the new Agritourism Group in FarmsReach.  Soon, all the presenters will be “on call” in the Group, ready to answer your questions before and after the webinars take place.

SCHEDULE – all webinars will be 11am-12pm PT:

Join us!  Webinar registration is required, but there is no charge for the webinars. After you register, you will be emailed the link to join the webinar.

If you are not able to join the webinars, you can email us your questions at any time to have the presenters answer them in the online Conversations.  And, be sure to join the new CA Agritourism group to get notified when the archived webinars are posted!

Background & More Resources

The UC Small Farm Program has been working for more than fifteen years with UC Cooperative Extension advisors and others to develop resources and connections for California agritourism operators. Their popular Agritourism Intensive workshop series have been offered in eleven different counties.  The UC agritourism website hosts useful factsheets and research.  Their online agritourism directory and calendar helps visitors find farms and ranches to visit. And, their monthly California Agritourism newsletter helps share news and resources for the agritourism community.

FarmsReach is hosting the new CA Agritourism group, and also offers an Agritourism Toolkit and online Conversations forum for information-sharing among the agricultural community.

Together, we hope to nurture the statewide agritourism conversation, and welcome your insights and questions!


All Things Agritourism: CA Workshops, Toolkit Resources and Q&A with HipCamp Farm Camping

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Today we’re covering everything about agritourism! ~ a new government-supported agritourism program in California, comprehensive practical resources to start and manage an agritourism operation, and an interview with the Land Manager of HipCamp, a booking platform that connects paying campers with unique places to camp (think AirBnB for camping).


Agritourism Intensive Workshops

This Fall the UC Small Farm Program received a USDA grant to support the California agritourism community through a series of educational workshops, webinars and resources. This new program is all thanks to the collaboration of UC Cooperative Extension, local community organizations, tourism professionals, and experienced agritourism operators.

Over the next few months, three different regions of California will each host a three-part series of Agritourism Intensive workshops:

Plumas County Agritourism Intensive

  • Dates: Tuesdays, Dec 1, 2015, Jan 12 & Feb 23, 2016
  • Times: 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. each session (lunch provided)
  • Location: Mineral Building, Plumas County Fairgrounds, Quincy, CA 95971
  • Cost: $50 for 3-session course (only $20 for additional participants from same family or business)

Shasta County Agritourism Intensive

  • Dates: Wednesdays, January 6, February 10 and March 16, 2016
  • Times: 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. each session (lunch provided)
  • Location: The McConnell Foundation Lema Ranch, 800 Shasta View Drive, Redding, CA 96003
  • Cost: $50 for 3-session course (only $25 for additional participants from same family or business)
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    Continue Reading →

Vision of ‘Soil Nutrient Management in Drought’ Series & Forage Crop Segment Kick-off!

Participants in the Nutrient Management Series: Please take UC SAREP’s two-minute survey to let us know what was helpful or not; and what information *you* would like to see in the future to help better manage soil nutrients and the reduced water supply.

Alfalfa hay at Prather Ranch, near Mt. Shasta.  - UC ANR

It has been five months since FarmsReach, UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program (UC SAREP), and Sustainable Conservation together launched our Nutrient Management Solutions series.  These online, moderated forums and complementary Toolkit offer farmers of all experience levels practical information to manage soil nutrients in times of drought.

Now more than ever, farmers and ranchers seek solutions to maintain productivity despite the shortage of water, and today we’re sharing more of the background and vision for this timely, collaborative project.

We sat down with our partners at UC SAREP, Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy, to capture their story of how this project came about, and what they envision for the series in the future.

Today also marks the kick-off of the third topic in the series: Forage Crops.  The first two segments of the series covered orchards and trees, and wine grapes and vines.

To follow the conversation in the series or to participate, join the Nutrient Management Solutions group in FarmsReach.  (It’s free and takes minutes!)


FarmsReach (FR): First things first, why should farmers of all skill levels and all crop types be concerned about soil nutrient management, and especially now?

UC SAREP Aubrey White and Ryan Murphy: Soil nutrient management is so important to grow healthy crops, and every farmer always has an opportunity to improve how he or she uses and manages the soil.

Some practices are intended to build up the long-term fertility of the soil, while others (like nitrogen use) are meant to meet immediate needs, like building healthy foliage on crops. When done incorrectly, some practices may actually be harmful to the environment and human health.

For farmers today, water is probably their top concern.  And since soil nutrient management is closely linked with soil moisture and irrigation, farmers must adapt their nutrient management strategy as the water source, quality and quantity change in these drought years.  Thinking about the two issues together can help a farmer manage their farm more holistically and be better prepared for the likely upcoming years of drought.

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

Aubrey White, Communications Coordinator, UC SAREP

FR: We often hear that newer farmers have a steep learning curve in managing their soil.  Do you have a sense of how skilled the typical newer farmer versus experienced farmer is regarding soil nutrient management? 

UC SAREP: Well, knowledge can be all over the map, and farmers work very differently.  Some are agronomists and depend on frequent soil sampling and data-driven information.  Others monitor and understand soil fertility based on sight, touch, and smell. Both types of farmers can be just as successful, but both need a set of practices they can use and trust to guarantee healthy crops.  Because farming doesn’t require any sort of formal training (no degree required), many farmers may start at ground zero.  I think a lot of the learning curve is in understanding your own soil and how to see the signs of healthy or unhealthy changes.  But yes, that can be a steep learning curve!

We know that farmers seek out informational resources, and there are a lot of resources available out there to get started.  But, when you’re in the field in mid-May and your crops are looking damaged and you have to troubleshoot, the vast amount of resources available can be overwhelming to sift through.   When you have an immediate problem, talking to someone with knowledge and experience can be invaluable.  It’s great to see farmers ask soil questions in FarmsReach and get answers from others in the community!

FR: Can you share a bit about how the UC SAREP Solution Center for Nutrient Management project came about?

UC SAREP: The Solution Center for Nutrient Management began as a project in 2013.  We want agricultural research to be easily digestible, available at the right time to growers, and relevant to the diversity of growers throughout the state. We also want to build a statewide network of people who are knowledgeable about nutrient management—growers, researchers, crop consultants, and others.  We think the power of information-sharing is in these networks, so we hope to create a variety of ways to open up communication on the topic, and use our collective minds to address big challenges growers face.

Initially, the Solution Center focused on the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and agriculture research of UC Davis’ Martin Burger and Will Horwath.  Going forward, though, the Solution Center will focus on nutrient management in general.  Currently, we have a small (but growing) database of research on our website, searchable by categories growers are interested in, with research summaries and links to related publications. We’re organizing field days, building toolkits on our website, and, of course, partnering with FarmsReach and Sustainable Conservation to host this series of online discussions on a variety of topics, and curating the Soil Nutrient Management Toolkit in FarmsReach. We hope to see this project grow over the years into a reliable source of information for growers, and a helpful tool for researchers who want to get the word out about their research. Continue Reading →

The California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) Hosting 4th Climate & Ag Summit!

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Participants visit with Bruce Rominger at the 2014 conference

Our partner, the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN) is organizing its fourth California Climate & Agriculture Summit in Davis, CA on March 24 & 25, 2015! CalCAN is a coalition of the state’s leading sustainable agriculture organizations and farmer allies that come together out of concern for the impacts of climate change on California agriculture and to find sustainable agriculture solutions.

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Summit workshop 2014

At this year’s Summit, you will hear about the latest science, policy and practice related to climate change and sustainable agriculture in California. This is a great opportunity to get together and share knowledge and experiences with a diverse group of participants, including farmers and ranchers, researchers, policymakers, advocates and agriculture professionals.

The Summit begins on March 24th with farm tours in Yolo County starting at Rominger Brothers Farm with a focus on water conservation. Next at Yolo Cattle Co., you will learn about grazing management and native grass restoration. And lastly at Hedgerow Farms, you will see a variety of hedgerow and riparian plantings, and learn about their role in climate resilience. Lunch at Yolo Cattle Company is included in the price of the farm tour.

IMG_0935On March 25th there is a full day of plenary, workshops and poster presentations. The day begins with a keynote address by Craig McNamara, owner of Sierra Orchards and Chair of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture, followed by a panel of farmers sharing their experiences in coping with the drought. More speakers, poster presentations and workshop sessions will fill the morning.

After a healthy and delicious catered lunch, the Summit will continue into the afternoon with more workshop sessions and poster presentations. To conclude this unique event, attendees are invited to a wine and cheese reception to cross-pollinate and mingle with all of the attendees. For more info on the day’s events, check out the full program.

This is a wonderful conference and an incredibly important issue. If you’re thinking of attending, earlybird registration goes until Feb. 7th, so get your tickets now!


For more information or questions about the Summit, contact: summit@calclimateag.org.

Interested in learning more about the impact of climate change and land development on agriculture? Check out our Farmland & Estate Planning Toolkit for more resources.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about climate change and agriculture, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

New Marketing & Sales Toolkit Resources!

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We’re excited to announce that we recently added a whole new slew of resources to our Marketing & Sales Toolkit! As always, these resources were recommended, and many of them written, by our amazing community of farmers, ranchers and subject-matter experts. A big thank you to all of our contributors!

For a taste of what’s new, check out several of the resources highlighted below. To see the entire list, visit our Toolkits page. If you have a great resource to share, please send them our way.


Choosing Sales Channels

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Marketing Tip Sheet
Tips, advantages and considerations in choosing a marketing channel, including farmers markets, institutions, restaurants and wholesale.
Source: NCAT/ATTRA

Pricing Your Product

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Basic tips to improve your pricing strategy, competitively price your products, and track sales.
Source: FarmsReach

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Member Spotlight: Elle Huftil-Balzer of Soil Born Farms

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In this week’s Member Spotlight, we’re heading up to Sacramento/Davis to talk with Elle Huftil-Balzer, Farm Manager at Soil Born Farms and Farmer/Owner of Sidecar Farm in Winters.

Elle began working at Soil Born as an apprentice in 2010 and then worked at the Sacramento Natural Foods Coop and at Feeding Crane Farms. In 2012, Elle graduated from the Center for Land-based Learning’s (CLBL) CA Farm Academy and went on to establish her own ½ acre vegetable and flower farm, Sidecar Farm, which is an incubator plot located at CLBL.

In addition to her work at Sidecar, Elle is also now the Farm Manager at Soil Born Farms where she’s in charge of planting and harvesting, coordinating the pack, quality control, and distribution of produce, and managing restaurant accounts. She also works as Field Manager for Green Corps youth, teaching, directing and mentoring during their farm interactions. She does a lot!

Read on as we talk with Elle about her many years farming, what advice she’d give someone just starting out, and which piece of equipment she can’t live without!


FarmsReach: How many years have you been farming?
Elle Huftil-Balzer: This is my fourth season farming, though maybe it could be technically my 5th. I worked my own 1/2 acre, selling to a 10 person CSA and restaurants part-time last year while also working full time with Soil Born, so that counts as 2 seasons right?

Elle working in the field

Elle working in the field

FR: How did you get into farming? What do you love most about it?
EH: I got in to farming when my partner and I decided to move to Davis. He was excepted to UC Davis for their PhD program and I wanted to be outside and working with my hands. I found the apprenticeship at Soil Born, applied, and was excepted. That was the beginning of the end for me. I love what I do. What I love most about it is being physically tired at the end of the day and knowing that I worked hard for something tangible and good. Farming just seems like the right thing for my soul.

FR: Which question(s) are you most asked by other farmers – either new or experienced? What is your response?
EH: The question that most folks ask is: What is wrong with my tomatoes? It is usually home gardeners, and I try and trouble shoot with them, but there are so many factors that could be a part of whatever their issues are. I usually don’t come up with a solution, just suggestions on how to possibly make the situation better.

FR: What was the most important piece of advice you received when you were getting started? And/or, what single piece of advice would you give a new beginning farmer?
EH: I don’t know that I solicited anyone for advice because I just sort of jumped into it all. However, if I had to give advice, it might be: Farming is hard work, not just physically hard, it is also mentally trying. It isn’t as romantic as you might think it is. When the sun is coming up and everything is golden and quiet, and you start your harvest, there’s some romance in that. Bit overall, you have to be organized, creative, smart, and strong willed. You will probably fail at some point, so just keep going and learn from your mistakes. Though I don’t know that I am in the position to be giving advise, I myself am not nearly experienced enough to be doling out sage words.

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Elle and the rest of the crew at Soil Born Farms

FR: What is the strangest (or funniest!) thing you’ve learned since starting your operation?
EH: Hm, I think it is funny to find fruit and veggies that look like people.

FR: Which piece of equipment can you not live without, or what would your dream new piece of equipment be?
EH: Something I could not live without is my hands. I know and understand the place for a tractor and its tools, but I love using my hands for things. Sometimes driving a tractor separates you from the land. Pulling some weeds by hand reminds you of what you’re made of and gives you time to ponder life.

FR: What do you like to do in your free time? Hobbies outside of farming?
EH: In my free time, I like to run and play ultimate frisbee. I’ve been playing competitive Ultimate now for 12 years, it is getting more difficult as the farming has worn my body down a little, but I still love the community and competition of the game.


Thank you, Elle for sharing about your farming life with the community! If you have questions for Elle, get in touch.

If you have questions or words of wisdom about your farm or ranch, visit FarmsReach Conversations and post a question or comment!

Do you know another farmer that would be interesting to profile? Get in touch. We love to hear from you! 

More Crops Per Drop: No-Till Farming Combats Drought

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This week’s feature comes from Civil Eats and discusses no-till farming. For those who don’t already know, no-till is the practice of planting crops directly into the soil without overturning the earth beforehand. It’s biggest benefits are increased soil organic matter and water storage capacity. As California and other parts of the US continue to deal with drought pressure, this form of soil management could be an important tool during adaptation.

Read on to learn more from Northern California’s Singing Frogs Farm and a number of experts on how this type of soil management can greatly benefit your soil’s productivity. Nothing happens overnight, so if you’re able, the sooner you test these practices, the better!


Written by Olivia Maki on August 26th, 2014.

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser of Northern California’s Singing Frogs Farm grows fruit and vegetables completely without machinery, a system Paul refers to as “non-mechanized, no-till.” He said goodbye to his tractor and tiller seven years ago after he felt he was unnecessarily harming wildlife, saw too many machines break down, and watched his soil quality decrease. Now, his eight-acre farm has a robust community supported agriculture (CSA) program, and his soil is full of life.

“I wanted greater productivity and healthier soils with less reliance on machinery,” Kaiser says.

Continue Reading →

A Successful Nutrient Management Series & New Toolkit Resources!

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We want to extend a big Thank You and Great Job to the folks at UC SAREP and Sustainable Conservation for the successful start of our ongoing Nutrient Management Series. In case you missed the conversation, join the Nutrient Management Solutions Group to see all the great Q&A.

For those who are new to this level of detail around nutrient management, or for those who simply want to read more about these concepts and ideas during times of drought, we’ve created a Toolkit with hand-picked resources for both the beginner and more advanced farmer. Read more below for a preview.


 A few resources for those new to the concepts within soil nutrient management:

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Building Soils for Better Crops
A thorough, easy-to-read guide for ecological soil management, including nutrient management, nutrient cycles, cover crops, and other soil-improving practices.
Source: SARE

Continue Reading →