How to Run a Farm Business ~ Q&A with Farm Academy Program Director, Jennifer Taylor

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Jennifer Taylor and CFA students spend an afternoon harvesting carrots and beets

This week we spoke with Jennifer Taylor, Director of the California Farm Academy (CFA) about the 2014 CFA program! Started in 2012 by the Center for Land-Based Learning, the CFA was developed to encompass the practical knowledge that gives beginning farmers a strong foundation to start their own operations. Now in its third year, the CFA continues to offer a life-changing experience for those who are serious about becoming farmers.

The 2014 program begins on February 11th, so if you’re interested in experiential learning, gaining the practical skills it takes to run a farm business, and want to get your hands dirty in the new year, apply today!


FarmsReach: The California Farm Academy began in 2012 with 20 students. What was the impetus for starting this type of program and how is it different from other farmer training programs in California?

Jennifer Taylor: In this era of increased interest in where our food comes from and how it’s produced, but a decrease in the number of farmers due to age, the CFA was created to provide a training ground for new farmers to get up to speed quickly, and effectively.

This program is unique in that it combines classroom education and hands-on learning, over the course of seven months, to teach students not only how to grow crops, but also how to market them and run a farm business. Taking place in the evenings and on weekends, the program is designed to work for students who are already working on farms or at other jobs during the day, and yet are ready to transition to the next level of their farming career and possibly turn it into a full-time occupation.

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FR: The curriculum is based on experiential learning about production, business planning and marketing of specialty crops, poultry and livestock. What types of hands-on learning  can students expect and why do you teach in this way?

JT: Experiential learning is a central component of participating in the CFA, as it allows students to gain the skills and experiences that farmers employ every day. Not only do you learn farming by doing – from seeding in the greenhouse, to scouting for pests in the field, and harvesting the fruit of your hard work – but you also see and hear what has and hasn’t worked for other farmers.

CFA incorporates 14-20 farm visits throughout the program. This gives students an opportunity to get behind the scenes with farmer-guided tours on everything from machinery and equipment, to wash and packing stations, to insights about marketing strategies. In addition, we connect students with 40-50 different guest speakers and growers, who will be a resource network for them as new farmers. This post-graduation network is essential to answer questions about a specific variety or nutrient, to help them develop a loan application, or even evaluate the water needs of a property they intend to buy or lease.

FR: Does someone need previous farming experience to join the program? What are some of your previous students’ backgrounds?

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CFA students learn about business planning

JT: We recommend and encourage everyone who thinks they want to farm to get some experience on a farm before quitting their current job, becoming a farm apprentice, or taking the CFA training program.

Farming is hard work, with lots of frustrations and challenges that may take the shine off someone’s idyllic vision of living in the country and growing beautiful fruits and vegetables. Even an enthusiastic gardener may find that scaling up to the farm level turns what was a fun hobby into a cascade of headaches about irrigation, pest management and having to sell what you’ve grown.

That said, we’ve had an extraordinarily diverse population of prospective farmers take the program, with backgrounds ranging from computing, to law, to culinary careers, to school teachers. As long as you know what you are getting into, and know that farming is for you, we’ll work with you to get you there.

FR: Towards the end of the program, there is a farm incubator component. What is this and why is this important?

JT: The CFA really has two components: the training component, which is seven months of education and hands-on experience, plus the farm incubator which runs year-round and is open to eligible graduates. With our farm incubator program, we’re able to lease plots of land, typically starting with ¼ or ½ an acre, to CFA graduates at less than market rates.

Included in the lease price is water, greenhouse and cooler space, and access to tools and equipment. For someone just starting, it’s a low-risk way to get their farm operation up and running while they also figure out their marketing strategies, acquire their producer’s and business licenses, and practice their production skills. Our staff is also on-site to answer questions, trouble-shoot issues, and provide ongoing support.

FR: What are some of the obstacles graduates face in starting their own farms?

JT: Land and capital have been identified nationally as challenges to beginning farmers, although farm incubator programs such as CFA, and others across the country, are addressing both these obstacles.

However, what most of our farmers find is that growing crops ends up being the ‘easy’ (if time-consuming and labor intensive) part, and selling them is the hard part.  From trying to get into one of the many farmers’ markets in the region, to getting your website up and running, business cards made, and talking to complete strangers about why your produce is the best and they should pay you for it, the demands of the business and sales aspects can be a surprise to many.

Our advice is to first identify what you love and are good at, concentrate on those parts of the business, and ask for, marry, or hire the help you need! Also to keep in mind to start with a manageable number of crops and sales outlets, and to grow gradually from there!

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CFA students learn how to drive tractors

FR: How does the CFA assist graduates in starting a farm? 

JT: By the time you have completed over 200 contact hours with us, a farm business plan and an independent study project, we (and you) have a pretty good idea what it is you want and need to do to advance your farming career.

We work with you as needed to help make that happen. From job referrals, to finding land, to introducing graduates to farmers, consultants and buyers, we extend our assistance to alumni, and encourage them to network with one another, as much as possible.

We have graduates who have purchased or leased farms and are raising vegetables, hay, chickens, beef, and flowers, to name a few. Other CFA grads are farming in urban or peri-urban spaces, and providing food to stores, restaurants or to the underserved.

FR: The upcoming program begins on February 11, 2014. Where can prospective students find the application? What do you look for in an applicant?

JT: Prospective students can apply on our website! We prefer applicants to have had at least one season of farm experience. That said, we’ll take less if there are solid reasons and knowledge of farming, biology and/or markets that fit with our program — anything that leads us to believe we can help them become a successful farmer who contributes to the food system.

We’re not the right program for gardeners, homesteaders, or those who merely wish to be self-sufficient or live off the grid.

FR: How much does the program cost and are there any scholarships available?

JT: The program costs $2850 for 2014 and, yes, we offer tuition assistance for those who demonstrate financial need.

FR: Anything else you’d like to share?

JT: I could ‘talk’ for hours, but thanks for the opportunity to share a bit about CFA with you, FarmsReach!


Thank you Jennifer for sharing this great information with our community!

You can now apply for the 2014 CA Farm Academy! If you have questions about the program or the application process, contact Jennifer: jennifer@landbasedlearning.org.

To find more resources on beginning farmers and ranchers, starting a farm, farmland access and more, see our Beginning Farmer & Rancher Toolkit

If you have questions or words of wisdom about farmer training programs, or being a beginning farmer or rancher, visit our Conversations Page and post a question or comment!

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch with Eva: evaa@farmsreach.com.

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