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.

Overview:

  • Changing needs of farmers/ranchers the past 30 years
  • Beginning farmers’ success: metrics, resources, diversification, collaborative models
  • Small farmers & food justice efforts, or not?
  • Role of small farmers in the future food system
  • Small farms & AgTech
  • Changes in UC Cooperative Extension over the years

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 →

Labor Series: Pt 10 ~ New FarmsReach Labor & Worker Safety Toolkit!

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We’re excited to focus the final installment in our Labor & Worker Safety Series on the FarmsReach Labor & Worker Safety Toolkit. It provides checklists, info sheets, spreadsheets, and detailed practical references to help you better manage your employees.

All of our Toolkit resources were recommended by our Featured Farmerspartners and the community, and are categorized by topic:

We hope these resources provide practical ideas and tools to start thinking differently about managing your team!

Below is just a sampling from the new Labor & Worker Safety Toolkit.

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Farmland Access in the 21st Century ~ Recap from Agrarian Trust Symposium in Berkeley, CA

Screen Shot 2014-04-28 at 8.32.00 PMThree months after Congress passed a new Farm Bill authorizing nearly one trillion dollars over the next decade to support US agriculture, a symposium convened in Berkeley to grapple with the same challenges that the Farm Bill aims to confront: the rising age of the American farmer, loss of farmland, food security, public health, and more. The overwhelming conclusion of this past weekend’s gathering: the new reforms proposed by Capitol Hill hardly scratch the surface.

For one weekend only, agricultural activists and thinkers such as Joel Salatin, Wes Jackson and many more farmers, advocates and industry veterans in the audience came together for Our Land: Farmland Access in the 21st Century, coordinated by the new Agrarian Trust.

Rather than propose new subsidies, food stamps or crop insurance for commodity farmers, the Symposium dug deep, deconstructing the anthropological origins of agriculture, the historical pressures of capitalism on our food system, and proposing that new policy atop existing structures can do little to abate the global trends that threaten our food, economy and environment.

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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.”

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Labor Series: Pt 3 ~ Are there Legitimate Farm Apprenticeship Programs?

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Apprentices harvest Swiss chard. Photo credit: Marta Abel

Many family farms with interns, also known as apprentices, have incurred heavy fines in the last few years for non-compliance with employment and workers’ compensation laws. Whether you call it an “internship”, “apprenticeship”, or “volunteer”, they are all considered the same under the federal labor law, and therefore fit in the legal definition of an employer-employee relationship. (There are a few rare, specific exemptions, but not applicable to most situations.)

While it is not recommended, many farmers choose to “fly under the radar” by hiring part-time or full-time help with customized payment plans. Examples of these payment plans could be paying a fixed price for a period of time, paying in-kind partially or fully, or establishing interns/apprentices as 1099 contractors (no, this is not legal!). Many have gotten away with these scenarios, but be warned that there are risks associated with loose arrangements.

So what are the parameters of a legal apprenticeship program? Read on as we share some legal ways, outlined in the CA Guide to Labor Laws for Small Farmers, published by ATTRA/NCAT and CA FarmLink, to hire part-time or full-time help.

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Microloan Options for Small Farms ~ Recap from the CA Small Farm Conference

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Last week the 27th California Small Farm Conference took place in Rohnert Park, about an hour north of San Francisco. You never know exactly what to expect at this annual event, since it moves across California each year and offers ever-changing workshops designed with the help of each region’s local agriculture organizations.

This year the Workshops were organized into some hot topics (Emerging Issues, Production, Farm Management, Marketing, and Farmers Markets), and were chock full of some really valuable, practical content. It was a welcome problem not being able to decide which ones to attend!

We co-hosted one session on Crowd-Sourcing & Community Sharing, where FarmsReach, The Farmers Guild, CropMobster and Farm Hack Davis joined forces for an interesting discussion on the power of collaboration within the food and farming community.

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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.

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FarmsReach Partner Roundup!

FarmsReach is wholly based on partnerships and collaboration with organizations, businesses, institutions and individuals who also work to help farmers and ranchers become more successful and environmentally sustainable. We are very excited to have such an amazing group of allies!

To show our support and let everyone know about all the exceptional work being done, we think it’s important to highlight many of the useful and time-sensitive programs, events, workshops, research and campaigns our partners have underway for the first part of 2014.

Enjoy our first quarterly Parter Roundup!

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Celebrating the Farmers Guild ~ Guild-Raising 2014!

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This Saturday, February 15th, Sebastopol, CA will host the first annual Guild-Raising. For one day, the newest wave of farmers and ranchers here in Northern California, will descend upon the Sebastopol Grange hall to interact, share resources and celebrate a fast-growing movement we call the Farmers Guild. The Guild is a network now stretching from Mendocino to Marin, Sacramento to Sonoma, Yolo County and beyond!

For this particular gathering of the Guild, these typically local farmer-to-farmer alliances will open their doors to the entire food and farming community: chefs, grocers, agricultural advocates, land-owners and more. The Guild-Raising festivities (and the Guild movement itself) reflects a new paradigm in food and farming: as food awareness grows and communication technologies sharpen, we’re watching as the walls between producer and consumer crumble, the conduits between a farmer’s crop and the consumer’s plate multiply, all while the ability to obtain information, find resources and connect with fellow farmers becomes easier than ever. All this movement explains the proliferation of the Guilds and such is the reason for throwing a party!

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Featured Farmer Spotlight: Caleb Barron of Fogline Farm

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The bounty of the harvest at Fogline Farm

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!

This week we’re featuring Caleb Barron, co-owner of Fogline Farm, in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Caleb and his business partner, Johnny Wilson, produce a variety of fruits and vegetables, pastured pork and poultry, and have a growing CSA program.  They are some of our younger Featured Farmers, who were nominated by the community for their tenacity in facing the steep learning curve that is farming!

The mission of their business is to design agricultural systems to take full advantage of their landscape’s natural beauty and abundance. They strive to be stewards of the land in the most ecologically responsible ways, and to having their land free of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and GMOs. All of their animals are raised on pasture and fed organic feed, and their crops are rotated in order to take advantage of the fertility and pest management the animals provide.

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