Category Archives: Member Spotlight

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

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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 →

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! 

Member Spotlight: Mark Tollefson of Fairview Gardens

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This week in our Member Spotlight, we are heading south to Goleta, CA to meet Mark Tollefson, the Executive Director of Fairview Gardens. Fairview Gardens is a non-profit educational farm 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

Mark originates from Alberta, Canada and comes from many generations of farmers. He is a chef, owned his own restaurant, and has been a survival skills instructor. He is the past Executive Director of another non-profit – Wilderness Youth Project, and has traveled worldwide, including helping open an international high school in New Zealand, and building a sustainable agriculture organization in Belize.

Since the late 1800′s the land in and around Fairview Gardens has been used for agricultural purposes and rests on some of the richest topsoil in California. In 1997, the farm manager, Michael Ableman purchased the farm with a group of local activists, formed a non-profit and placed it in the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Today, the farm runs a robust CSA program, farm stand, hosts classes for adults and children, camps, and tours.

Read on as Mark talks about his views on wilderness, urban communities, and how places like farms can be the pillar of a community.


FarmsReach: Wow, that is a broad background! What inspired you to begin working for Fairview Gardens?

Mark Tollefson: Being a non-profit education farm, Fairview Gardens offered me the perfect foil to be able to blend my talents and passions into one place.

While I was working with youth and adults in wilderness settings, I realized that I could help them effect powerful transformation in a very short time. Then we would get back to our camp or vehicle and they would open a bag of Doritos potato chips.

I realized that not only do we have a huge disconnection between people and nature, we have an even bigger disconnection between people and food.

If we were lost in the wilderness, the first things we would do is find shelter, water, and then fire. These three things would need to be accomplished in the first 3 – 5 days. After that, 80% of our time would be spent gathering food.

Continue Reading →

Member Spotlight: Kelly Osman of Oz Family Farm

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Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County

This week we are featuring Kelly Osman of Oz Family Farm located in the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, California. Kelly is a fourth generation California rancher who, with the help of her husband and kids, started the farm in 2003 after being inspired by their kid’s 4-H program.

While rabbits may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a ranching operation, Kelly knows the value behind a good product and finding unexpected ways to find profit in everything (think manure!).

Read on to learn about how Kelly started the operation, her family’s ranching roots on the California coast, and the lucrative benefits of having “bunny gold”.

FarmsReach: How many years have you been raising rabbits?

Kelly Osman: Nearly 10 years. We began rabbits when our kids started 4-H in kindergarten. It has always been a family business. The kids started us out, I fell in love with the rabbits and we all grew together: our family, the kids themselves, and our business.

Continue Reading →

Member Spotlight: Bryce Loewen of Blossom Bluff Orchards

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Sun-dried fruit at Blossom Bluff Orchards

This week we’re featuring Bryce Loewen, of Blossom Bluff Orchards, in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Since 1931, his family has been producing a wide variety of high quality fruit. Today, they grow over 150 varieties of CCOF-certified tree fruit on just under 80 acres.

In addition to selling fresh fruit, an innovative part of their business plan is to dry fruit and sell it year-round. During the summer months, the leftover peaches, plums, nectarines, and apricots are cut by hand, pitted, and then laid out on wooden raisin trays to dry naturally in the sun. During the cooler fall and winter months, they slice their persimmons and mandarins into thin disks and dry them in an industrial grade dehydrator. So tasty!

Read on as Bryce tells us about how he got into farming, what important pieces of advice he’s learned over the years, and where you can find his delicious fruit!

Continue Reading →

Organic Life Film: Becoming a Farmer & Maintaining Your Sanity, Too!

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Written by guest blogger, Austin Blair, who is featured in the film The Organic Life.

As an individual farmer, you will face challenges in each farming situation, yet some elements of human nature (and perhaps more aptly, farmer nature) are inescapable. In my limited experience apprenticing on a non-profit teaching farm (Soil Born), running a small farm (now run by another farmer as Lunita Farm Design), and working for another farmer (Paul’s Produce), I have learned that balancing full days on the farm and a personal life is a constant dance.

My outlook was further informed by a supportive, non-farming partner, who certainly has an outside perspective on the issue. She has forced me to confront the conundrum of how to maintain a relationship and still be an effective farmer. (Spoiler alert: we’re married, so it can work!)

This has been my experience farming, and these are the things that have worked for us.

Continue Reading →

The Farmers Guild Expands to the Sierra Region!

Tim Van Wagner & Leo Chapman

Tim Van Wagner & Leo Chapman

Next Thursday evening, Nevada County will carry on a long legacy of agricultural community-building with the launch of a brand new Farmers Guild!

Over a century ago, Grange Halls emerged all over California to serve the growing farming community. Three of these halls still stand in Nevada County today. The county has changed a lot since the Gold Rush, but the miners of the past and the new tech workers who call the Sierra foothills home today have one thing in common: they all must eat.  And, in order to eat, you still need farmers.

Robbie & Deena, Sweet Roots Farm

Robbie & Deena, Sweet Roots Farm

Welcome Living Lands Agrarian Network (LLAN). Founded by Leo Chapman in Nevada City a few years ago, this organization formed to provide mentorship for a new generation of farmers. Their distinctive model is a combination of cooperative sustainable agriculture education, resource sharing, community partnerships and celebration around the food they grow.

From this movement arose a popular series of Soup Nights, aimed at bringing together their whole community (consumers and producers) in the name of local food, both grown and shared.

Continue Reading →

The Central Coast Kicks Off New Farmers Guild!

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Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz

We’re excited to announce that on Tuesday April 29th, at 6pm, the Central Coast of California is launching their first monthly Farmers Guild gathering! Hosted by the Live Oak Grange hall in Santa Cruz, please join us for the evening to meet area farmers, enjoy great food and take part in the development of a new resource-sharing hub for the Central Coast agricultural community.

Delicious potluck at the North Coast Guild in Sebastopol

Delicious potluck at the North Coast Guild in Sebastopol

After watching other Farmers Guilds spring up around the northern part of the state, a group of farmers south of the Bay began to wonder whether they could do the same for their own community – the agricultural neighborhood that includes the diverse farmland of Watsonville, Gilroy, Salinas and beyond.

“I feel that there is so much to be gained by putting producers in contact with their community,” says Dave Kowalek, a large animal veterinarian new to the Central Coast who is looking to tap into his new food and farming community. “The sharing of ideas, support and equipment can be so vital to many sustainable-scale agricultural endeavors.”

Continue Reading →

An Innovative CSA Model ~ Riverhill Farm’s “Friend of the Farm Card”

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Beautiful Riverhill Farm, Nevada City, CA

Today we are featuring an innovative CSA model, created by Riverhill Farm just outside of Nevada City, CA. Customers pre-purchase “Friends of the Farm Cards” in $150, $300 or $450 increments, which can be used to purchase produce from Riverhill’s farm stand or farmers market throughout the year.  Like conventional CSA subscriptions, Riverhill Farm enjoys some prepayment for their crops.  Unlike conventional CSA subscriptions, their customers enjoy the freedom to select what and when to buy their produce, and the farm can focus on fewer, yet still diverse varieties.

Read on as Alan Haight, co-owner of Riverhill Farm, describes their farm’s evolution from traditional CSA to their new Friends of the Farm Card, customer response and effects on their farm operation.

Continue Reading →