Featured Farmer Spotlight: Jim Leap of Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS)

Every week, we’ll spotlight a FarmsReach Featured Farmer. Our Featured Farmers are brimming with great ideas and knowledge to share with the farming community. Feeling a spark of curiosity? There’s no question too simple or tough. Ask a question or add a Conversation and we’ll be sure it’s answered within a day or two. 

Jim LeapThis week, we’re featuring Jim Leap, a long-time passionate farmer and educator. With a variety of experiences in agriculture from researcher and activist, to educator, and then farmer, Jim lives and breathes farming.

FarmsReach: How many years have you been farming?

Jim Leap: 39 years

FR: How many generations of farmers are in your family?

JL: Farming in my family skipped two generations. I had a great grandfather who was an apricot farmer and his dad was one of the first wheat farmers in California.

FR: Which question(s) are you most asked by other farmers?

JL: Because I was involved in Symphylan research for many years at the UCSC farm, I suppose one of the questions most frequently asked of me by other farmers is how to deal with symphylans. I most often refer them to a publication I co-authored that is available through ATTRA (The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service). For anyone not familiar with symphylans, they are a small white centipede-like animal that run around in the soil and feed on newly emerged crop seedling and transplant roots, most typically in the spring. They are particularly problematic in organic systems and in high numbers can be absolutely devastating to newly emerging crops.

FR: How did you get into farming?  What do you love most about it?

JL: After some rather impassioned political involvement with various causes including the United Farmer Workers Union (UFW) grape boycott in the early 70’s, I decided that a more straight-forward and satisfying approach to political activism would be to put positive energy into tangible alternatives. At the time, I was most concerned about the industrialization of our agricultural system, so involvement in a non-exploitative “local” and environmentally sound food system started making lots of sense. After working on farms for several years, I started my own small farm in Fresno in 1979 and focused primarily on direct marketing and specialty markets. In 1989 I graduated from CSUF with a degree in Ag Science, and in 1990 I took the Farm Manager position at what was then the Agroecology Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) campus. After 21 years of running a teaching and research farm on a UC campus, my wife and I decided it was time to get out of the city and we purchased 4 acres near San Juan Bautista. Though still involved with mentoring beginning farmers through the UCSC farm, I am also working as a technician at USDA/ARS in Salinas where I assist with the design and implementation of organic field research trials.

Though it is difficult to say what I love most about farming, I can say that I really enjoy interacting with the people involved in agriculture, and I really appreciate the connectedness to the land and sense of purpose that is associated with food production.

FR: What was the most important piece of advice you received when you were getting started?  Or, what single piece of advice would you give a new beginning farmer?

JL: At one point very early in my farming career, someone told me to double my anticipated costs and cut in half my anticipated income. At the time, I really thought that was ridiculous, but after a few years, I realized that the advice was pretty accurate. I have actually given that same advice to many young farmers, and they always come back to me a few years later to let me know that that was pretty good advice.

FR: What are you most excited about that’s happening on your farm?

JL: On my own small farm I am probably most excited about developing harvesting, threshing, and seed cleaning techniques for small grains that are appropriate for small scale producers. Most of the grains we are growing will be used for chicken feed, and that is really a fun process. I really enjoy working out methods of mechanization that enhance efficiencies in small farm systems.

FR: What do you feel is the next big thing (or most exciting thing) in agriculture?

JL: I really think that the next big challenge facing agriculture will be to minimize reliance on hydrocarbons as an energy source. This will entail all sorts of innovation in how we manage fertility, how we do tillage, and how we approach distribution. These challenges are all very exciting.  I keep hoping that there will be some big breakthrough in our overall understanding of the soil microbial communities and their impacts on disease suppression and soil/plant health – maybe that will be the next “big thing”.

FR: Which aspect, skill or part of farming do you feel is your “specialty” or favorite?


JL: One of the things that really attracted me to farming is the fact that farming involves so many different skills. I really like all aspects equally, and I have been very fortunate to have been involved, for so many years, in teaching and research related to organic agriculture. I suppose my specialty is having a good understanding of a broad range of skills appropriate for small scale organic agriculture and having the ability to teach others those skills.

FR: Which piece of equipment can you not live without, or what would your dream new equipment be?

JL: If I had the financial resources I would buy an Allis Chalmers “all crop” combine harvester. There is something really attractive to me about small grain production. The problem is, it is pretty hard to pencil out – especially if I apply the “cut anticipated income in half / double anticipated expenses” rule.

FR: What do you like to do in your free time?

JL: If I had much free time, I would probably spend it farming. I have had a lot of fun recently setting up our little “homestead” farm and attempting to produce all of our own food. I suppose, aside from farming, I enjoy playing “old-timey” music with friends. I also have a small woodlot and saw mill in the Sierra [region], and find lots of satisfaction in felling and milling pine for our various projects here on the home place. My favorite travel spot is going to our Sierra woodlot.

FR: Anything else you would like to share?

JL: I have always defined “farming” as the act of producing food crops and selling them as a means of supporting one’s business and family. I have tremendous respect for farmers. I “farmed” for 10 years out in the Central Valley. Since my career shift in 1990 to farm management, teaching and research, I am reluctant to refer to myself as a “farmer” since I currently rely on other sources of income not directly related to the sale of produce for my livelihood. Just wanted to clarify that since I am being referred to as a “Featured Farmer“. It might be more accurate to refer to me as a “featured farm educator”!

Explore the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), a research, education, and public service program at (UCSC).

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